Art free for all in St. Louis

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The National Endowment for the Arts has a wonderful tagline that you’ll occasionally hear on PBS or NPR broadcasts: A great nation deserves great art. What a beautifully succinct argument for supporting the arts.

I can’t remember a time when art wasn’t a part of my life. To hear my mother tell it, I pretty much drew from birth on. When I was about ten or so, I got my first camera and—while I continued to draw from time to time [and did some painting, some printmaking, some ceramics, some sculpture]—found the medium that would supplant all others for me.

But art is more than something I occasionally dabble in. It is part of who I am, part of how I view life and the world. I taught college art for a while. I far too infrequently shoot and exhibit what I call my serious photography, very different from what I shoot for this blog. I judge cities and decide whether or not to visit them based on the art there. Indeed, I could not imagine living someplace without regular access to great art. If I had to name one event that set this part of me in motion, it was my first visit to the St. Louis Art Museum.

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In the fifth grade, I was transferred into the gifted program in school. Besides ratcheting up the level of work we did in the classroom, they took us places—to plays and the symphony, for example, and most important to ten-year-old me, to the art museum.

Suddenly, a whole world outside my working class neighborhood opened up to me. And best of all to perpetually broke young me, it was free. It’s engraved right there on the architrave above the main entrance: DEDICATED TO ART AND FREE TO ALL. I took full advantage of this open invitation, sometimes taking the bus there with my friend Ray, but more often going alone. I even dragged my mom and brother there one summer. My mom humored me, my brother not so much. But I had already claimed it as my own, so I didn’t care.

At first I was drawn to the painstaking realism of the artists of the Renaissance up through the mid-nineteenth century, in awe of their ability to produce such lifelike images with paint and canvas. But eventually, over manymanymany visits, I came to embrace—in turn—Impressionism, modern art and, finally, contemporary art. Now my interests flow in the opposite direction, with contemporary art being far and away the most exciting to me, and the old masters having to work pretty hard to catch my eye.

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We were in St. Louis last weekend and went to the museum. It’s still free [except for major special exhibitions, and even those are free on Fridays]. And it still has the same magical effect on me.

The St. Louis Art Museum [long modestly known as the City Art Museum] was one of the few permanent structures built for the 1904 World’s Fair. Built atop Art Hill in Forest Park [a glorious city park larger than Central Park], it was designed by architect Cass Gilbert. He later went on to design the Woolworth Building in New York and the United States Supreme Court.

St. Louis has a not totally undeserved reputation for being a conservative city—not politically so much as in its rather practical world view and general unwillingness to spend even a nickel frivolously. When pressed for the need for electric street lights in Forest Park, an old German mayor famously responded, “We got the moon, ain’t it?” But in 1907, the city’s practical citizens passed a very forward-thinking tax to support the art museum and seven years later, expanded it to build a zoo. As a result, this mid-sized city has one of the best zoos in the world and a gem of an art museum with an excellent collection, both free.

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The National Endowment for the Arts is right: A great nation deserves great art. So does a great city.

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