PRINT May 2008

US News

the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

CURATORS AT CONTEMPORARY ART institutions must not only engage with the question of how best to distill today’s broad realm of artistic activity but also ensure that their solution pleases a bifurcated audience: the general public and the art experts; the local community and the biennial-hoppers. Founded in 1980 to bring art to the city’s downtown, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis has navigated this situation adroitly, particularly since its reopening in a new, larger building in 2003. Director Paul Ha has overseen a mix of solo surveys (William Pope.L, Alexander Ross, Janaina Tschäpe), group exhibitions (African artists working outside Africa, women artists engaged with identity), and project shows with younger practitioners; located in a city more than half of whose population is black, the museum has featured numerous African and African-American artists. Four years ago, the Contemporary—which has no permanent collection—launched the Great Rivers Biennial, which gives awards and exhibition opportunities to local artists; the institution also sponsors community initiatives such as citywide open-studio events and a visiting critic and curator series.

Now, a year after Anthony Huberman left the Palais de Tokyo in Paris to join the Contemporary as chief curator, the institution is inaugurating a completely overhauled program. What marks this endeavor as unique is its attempt to address the two-audience dilemma explicitly, by placing exhibitions and programs in collagelike juxtapositions rather than subsuming them within a seamless projection of the museum’s identity. Huberman, who was also a curator at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and at SculptureCenter, both in New York, has divided the exhibition plan into two streams that operate at different speeds. A gallery just inside the museum’s entrance, newly christened the Front Room, will present “independent voices from around the world” in a rapid-fire and improvised series of exhibitions, performances, screenings, and events; it has already featured seven shows in three months. “The Front Room should be flexible, responsive,” explains Huberman. “I want to be able to see something in Chelsea and present it in Saint Louis the very next month.” Earlier this year, while the Great Rivers Biennial featured three local artists chosen by a jury of curators from around the country, an array of other regional endeavors were given carte blanche in the Front Room: White Flag Projects, an alternative space in the city’s Grove neighborhood, allowed visitors to be photographed while being slapped; Snowflake/Citystock, an arts venue and design shop, installed a fitness center for artists; Maps Contemporary Art Space, located in nearby Belleville, Illinois, presented four-day-long previews of its upcoming solo exhibitions; and Apop Records, a local independent record shop, created a merchandise booth featuring “oddities from the fringes of underground culture.”

This month, Huberman’s plan for the main galleries launches with an exhibition of work by John Armleder and Olivier Mosset, eminent Swiss artists who are less known in the United States (where Mosset now lives). The duo will present a jointly conceived exhibition blending old and new artworks; at the outset of the show, the Front Room will feature artists affiliated with Cinema Zero, a collective that takes its logo from Mosset’s signature motif, the circle. Huberman intends artist pairings to form a basic structure for the bigger exhibitions, although the ways in which the participants relate to one another will vary: For example, there might be two unrelated solo shows, as in the autumn 2008 presentations of single-channel videos by Aïda Ruilova (curated by Ha) and artworks by Lutz Bacher (curated by Huberman), or a two-artist exhibition with a curatorial conceit.

The key, according to Huberman, is adjacency: “Not a equals b, but a alongside b,” he says. “I want the institution to be characterized by its lightness of touch, by its ability to encourage associative links among what’s on view, and then by its willingness to stand aside and let attention shine upon the artists.” He emphasizes that repeat visits to the exhibitions in the main galleries will nearly always offer new experiences, by virtue of their changing relationship with what’s in the Front Room.

Rules are, of course, made to be broken, and in a little more than a year Huberman plans to present a larger group exhibition. But by that time, he hopes that the structuring conceit of artist-focused “pairs and parallels” will have become a kind of calling card for the museum, one that distinguishes it in the minds of art-world denizens and fits neatly into the visual-art landscape of Saint Louis: The city boasts an encyclopedic institution, the Saint Louis Art Museum; a privately funded blue-chip museum, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts; a university gallery, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University; and numerous smaller artist-run spaces of the kind featured in the inaugural Front Room presentations. Taking its place among them, the Contemporary is positioning itself as a kunsthalle that is relevant to both local and larger audiences.

Brian Sholis is editor of