Parallel Worlds: Brian Sholis on the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

Article excerpt

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 Tschape), 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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …