Grand SLAM

Michael Wilson at the launch of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s new wing

The Saint Louis Art Museum with the Cass Gilbert–designed Main Building and the new David Chipperfield–designed East Building in the foreground. (Photo: Jacob Sharp)

AH, THE REGIONAL JUNKET. The prospect—free room and board for a couple of nights in a novel location, a spot of local sightseeing (art-world and otherwise), an exhibition or opening or event devoid of the usual suspects—is always so appealing. And yet… This time, the canceled flight should have tipped me off that, well, you just can’t win. A tidy plan to leave New York just before Friday teatime and arrive in Saint Louis for early evening cocktails at Laumeier Sculpture Park was scuppered by wild weather that necessitated a later departure and a frantic transfer in Dallas. Landing closer to midnight, I found my driver, headed for the hotel, checked in, and checked out.

I awoke in Utopia—the third-floor “Thomas More’s Utopia Room,” to be exact. The kitschy-cosy Cheshire’s thematic shtick was that quarters were named for famous British scribes. “Each room has a book from one of his or her works,” trumpeted the brochure, “and a complete collection of all the books are available in Captain Burnaby’s Traveler’s Den, located on the first floor next to the living room.” Dodgy grammar and ill-advised nomenclature notwithstanding, the mock-Tudor facility had apparently been designated officially historic, a reward for having survived unnumbered stag parties and family getaways since as far back as the mid-1950s.

Having met up with the long-suffering PR crew responsible for holding the hands of those assembled—mostly architecture critics, it turned out, since the ostensible focus of the trip was the unveiling of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s new David Chipperfield–designed East Building, and mostly also armed with tales of travel woes—I boarded a bus to the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in the hopefully named Grand Center. The tranquil Tadao Ando building was currently home to a pristine exhibition of multicolored wall works from the ’80s by Donald Judd, to which we were introduced in detail by its severe German curator, former Chinati Foundation director—and Judd’s partner for the last five years of his life—Marianne Stockebrand. A trustee who had shown up unannounced with family in tow got more of an education in the differences between the metric and imperial systems than he could have anticipated.

Traversing a sun-bleached courtyard dominated by a Richard Serra swirl, we met our second welcoming committee of the morning, at the abutting Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. The vibe here was more approachable, the art less set-in-aspic. Amiable curator Kelly Shindler, who immediately outed me as having been reluctant to contribute to a former project of hers, the Art21 blog (two words: no money), walked us through shows by Lari Pittman (practically a retrospective), Kerry James Marshall, and, most intriguingly, Finnish filmmaker Mika Taanila. Postvisit, there was a feeling among my colleagues that the place lacked a convincing raison d’être—perhaps because many of them had already toured “SLAM” (so emphatic!) and failed to see the need for another, smaller, museum—but I enjoyed the shows and the chat.

Left: Kelly Shindler, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis assistant curator. Right: Architect Sir David Chipperfield, Saint Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin, and Barbara Taylor, president of the board of commissioners. (Photos: Whitney Curtis)

From here on out, the expedition veered off the contemporary-art-and-architecture track in some frankly oddball directions. An outdoor lunch in blistering heat in the Islamic Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden (because why not, I suppose), hosted by no-nonsense communications guru Peggy Lents, was followed by a tour of the premises and their admittedly imposing Climatron (there’s a Sleeper joke in there somewhere). The first geodesic dome to be used as a conservatory, the timelessly futuristic structure also provided the model for the domes on the spaceship Valley Forge in ’70s sci-fi flick Silent Running.

After a pit stop at the hotel, the slow and mystifying buildup to the museum party continued with a tour of the World Chess Hall of Fame. No irony here—this is exactly what it sounds like: a museum dedicated to that game with the little horses and castles that most people either obsess about from the age of five or ignore outright forever. To be fair, there is an artistic component to the place; alongside rows of plaques commemorating the chess world’s great and good were an exhibition of (surprisingly lovely) antique sets and a show of new work by fiddly technosculptor Bill Smith (not my taste, but not terrible). Supposedly, the art had something to do with the game, though what exactly was unclear.

The confusion deepened into outright hostility when we were treated to a curious flash-card presentation that degenerated into a stand-up row about the rationale for the division of competitive chess into men’s and women’s leagues (a less-than-lucid attempt at justification revolved, predictably but unsatisfactorily, around algorithms). As a later powwow confirmed, my colleagues and I were all, by this point, wondering why we were here. The institution, for all its reported popularity, had a subtle air of desperation that made me pity and slightly fear its staff; perhaps they too were wondering how they’d ended up doing what they were doing.

A pleasant dinner at a restaurant down the block was rushed through in order to make the museum (remember that?) before the lights went out at ten. We made it by nineish, only to find the place close to empty, the stars having mostly, it seemed, moved on. Pounding our drinks in the Grand Central–esque lobby, we went our separate ways—I got a great personal tour of the understated new galleries from curator Tricia Paik but saw no one else; others of our party at least clocked High Museum of Art director Michael Shapiro, Museum of Modern Art curator Ann Temkin, Brooklyn Museum curator Elizabeth “Buffy” Easton, and New York dealer Craig F. Starr. Chipperfield, reportedly a grumpy sort given to moaning about American construction workers’ lack of craftsmanship, was nowhere to be seen. But hey, we saw Isaac Mizrahi at the airport the next morning. He was wearing sparkly blue nail polish.