A Cornerstone of Culture

Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis celebrates 20 years of art and growth in the Grand Center Arts District.


Story By Valerie Schremp Hahn
Visuals By Jennifer Silverberg, Once Films

By day, just inside the floor-to-ceiling windows on the North Spring Avenue side of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM), a series of Paul Chan’s inflatable fabric sculptures called “Breathers” dance, billow, and bop for anyone who will stop, look, and smile.

By night, on the Washington Avenue side, a large-scale video piece by Chan plays on a 60-foot screen on the museum building facade. Words appear across the screen, a series of random questions and computer-generated answers about the billowing pieces.

Sure, it’s natural for people to simply walk by a building, says museum executive director Lisa Melandri.

“We all do that,” she says. “But something like that, like actually not just signage, you hope is intriguing, and makes people think: ‘there’s something going on in there.’”

There’s been something going on at this corner of the Grand Center Arts District for more than 20 years, since the CAM building opened here in September 2003. CAM has celebrated its anniversary milestone since the fall and continued the celebration with a gala on April 20.

Lisa Melandri, Executive Director, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

In the museum’s two decades here, they’ve shown 600 artists, hosted more than 260 exhibitions, and welcomed more than 550,000 visitors. 

CAM has become an anchor of the arts district, an integral part of the St. Louis cultural landscape, and a nationally respected contemporary art museum.

“We like to think of ourselves as a little bit more experimental, a site for discovery, a place where you walk in and you see work by an artist and you say, ‘Oh, my goodness, you know, I didn’t know about this,’” Melandri says.

The museum is free and does not have a permanent collection, enabling curators to seek out and add fresh exhibits from all around the country. They have two exhibition seasons a year, and each season includes one or a few exhibitions in its main galleries. 

CAM often catches artists at a cusp in their careers: Amy Sherald presented her first solo exhibition at CAM in 2018, the same year she rocketed to fame for painting the official portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama. After interdisciplinary artist Jaccolby Satterwhite presented a show at CAM in 2023, he opened an installation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Great Hall in New York. Derek Fordjour’s first major solo exhibition was at CAM in 2020; later that year, The New York Times wrote about his “journey to art stardom.” 

Melandri recalled a board member once told her: “You know, I rarely know the names of the artists that you’re showing while you’re showing them, but boy, then they become familiar.’”  

Scenes from artist Paul Chan's "Breathers," which debuted at CAM on March 8, 2024.

Settling into a Permanent Home

CAM’s story didn’t start with the opening of the building. The organization behind the museum got its start in 1980 on Laclede’s Landing. It operated under names like First Street Forum and the Forum for Contemporary Art, and gradually moved west until settling in Grand Center in 1992.

Susan Sherman, co-founder of the Saint Louis Fashion Fund, was the chair of the CAM board in the early 2000s when they decided they wanted to build a permanent home. She found contemporary art interesting and stimulating, she says, often about societal or cultural issues.

“When we did shows, you met with artists, just like people met Picasso or Matisse (back in) the day. And then if something was unusual, you could ask a question,” Sherman says.  

You also never knew what you were going to get, she says. She laughs as she recalls the time, at a previous museum space in Grand Center, a UPS delivery man tripped near an exhibit that included thousands of marbles nestled inside an America-shaped frame on the floor. 

Marbles scattered everywhere. 

“I mean, this is contemporary art,” she says. “I like really being surprised, and I think that element of surprise was something they had there, and that made it so special.”

Architect Brad Cloepfil’s critically acclaimed, poured concrete design for CAM remains a timeless addition to the profile of the Grand Center Arts District.

When museum leaders looked for an architect for a building, they needed a malleable space. 

“Who knew what kind of art was going to be there in 10 years or 20 years?” Sherman says. “So walls had to move. Things had to be very fluid.” 

Architect Brad Cloepfil’s critically acclaimed, poured concrete design with moveable interior walls has enabled the museum to show exhibitions in a versatile space. One large wall, which the museum has dubbed the “project wall,” allows artists to create a large-scale work, sometimes painting directly on the wall, specifically for the exhibit.

The building integrates itself into the neighborhood by hugging the gentle curve of the street on the North Spring side. 

CAM sits next door to the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, and the museums have a great working relationship, Melandri says. From the beginning, the institutions were meant to complement one another. 

The Pulitzer building had opened just two years before CAM, anchoring a spot within view of mainstays Powell Hall, home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Fabulous Fox Theatre and The Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries

“They had long-standing reputations and people. This kind of created the corner, because there wasn’t anything here,” Melandri says. “It was reimagining the edges of what (the) Grand Center Arts District could be.” 

CAM has called the Grand Center Arts District home for 20 years.

It’s a neighborhood gateway, one joined by its neighbor to the northwest, Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory High School, which also opened in 2003.

The museum prides itself on its art partnerships with local schools, including Cardinal Ritter, as well as St. Louis Public Schools. Programs like New Art in the Neighborhood, Teen Museum Studies, LEAP Middle School Initiative, Play Dates, and Family Days aim to bring art and foster talent and interest in all ages. 

The gift shop sells “Contemporary Kid” T-shirts and “Contemporary Baby” onesies, and encourages families to relax and explore in a play space. 

Now, adjacent to the play space is “The Art of Caring,” an exhibit by Sumner and Vashon high school students focusing on social justice and healing. The exhibition debuted on the same evening as Paul Chan’s “Breathers” in March, with participating students attending the opening reception alongside the internationally acclaimed artist.

“Every single one of our programs for youth is led by an artist,” Melandri says. “It’s really important for students to not only have direct access to artists, but to actually understand that it’s a career. It’s not a side gig. There’s a real, core importance to it.” 

Pictured from left to right: Dean Daderko, Ferring Foundation Chief Curator, and Misa Jeffereis, Associate Curator, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Meeting Artists at a Crux

Dean Daderko, the museum’s Ferring Foundation Chief Curator, came to the museum in summer 2023 from the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Daderko, who uses they/them pronouns, was drawn by the fact that CAM does not have a permanent collection and that it is free to the public. 

The experimental nature of the institution tends to catch artists earlier in their careers, or who want a new set of eyes on their work, Daderko says. Real estate prices and commercial pressures in places like Los Angeles and New York make the Midwest appealing, they said. 

Daderko makes one or two studio visits a week to local artists to see the kinds of things the artists are making, thinking, and talking about. 

Since 2003, the museum and the Gateway Foundation have presented the Great Rivers Biennial, which provides financial support to rising local artists to show their work in an exhibition. Within their first few weeks on the job, Daderko got to tag along on studio visits for this year’s 10 semi-finalists. 

“It was a really great introduction to the broad variety of artists who are living and working here,” they said.   

Daderko found that St. Louis is a robust, welcoming artistic community.

“What becomes really interesting is thinking about this place really is at a crux, right?” Daderko says of St. Louis. “It’s like this place that’s in between East and West. It’s in between North and South. It’s really kind of the center of the compass, in a way. You can look at it, of course, as a place where people are going to pass through on their way from one place to the other. But I think if people really stopped to think about it not as a stop, but as a destination, that becomes really interesting to me to think about.”

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: "The Art of Caring," part of CAM's ArtReach program, featuring art by students from Vashon and Sumner high schools, on display in the museum's education galleries. Michelle Dezember, Director of Learning and Engagement, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, poses in the museum's main hall.

Welcoming Grand Center Guests

Peg Weathers became the president and CEO of Grand Center Inc. in October. In the early 2000s, she served as the organization’s executive vice president. At that time, the group had to focus on development and filling vacant buildings. 

The Grand Center Arts District is now home to more than 60 arts and cultural organizations. 

Many work together as neighbors who communicate and meet regularly. The Kranzberg gallery and performance spaces, Angad Arts Hotel, the High Low performance space and gallery, and Strauss Park are among the district attractions that have opened since CAM. 

“I’m really grateful that I get to come back now that time has passed since the development, because nobody’s talking about development,” Weathers says. “That isn’t the issue anymore. Now the issue is, how do we attract more people to the district?”

To that end, Grand Center Inc. is embarking on a $7 million lighting project the organization hopes will entice people to stay longer during an evening and attract more businesses to the area. Weathers points to the Music at the Intersection, a music festival that got its start in 2021, and First Fridays, an event where the district’s galleries and museums remain open and free until 9 p.m. 

Scenes from artist Paul Chan's "Breathers," which debuted at CAM on March 8, 2024.

Both Weathers and Melandri also look forward to another Grand Center addition: the Brickline Greenway. The running, biking, and walking path is planned to cover more than 10 miles across St. Louis, connecting four public parks (Fairground Park, Forest Park, Tower Grove Park, and the Gateway Arch National Park) and neighborhoods and destinations along the way, including along Spring Avenue, adjacent to CAM.

The greenway is part of a larger network of paths, and construction on the segment is set to begin in 2025. The project is a major public-private partnership spearheaded by Great Rivers Greenway.

“We’re really excited about that,” Melandri says, envisioning a new audience of visitors. “Everyone, please, just wander in. We’ll take a crowd. We’re ready.” 

As CAM continues to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Melandri also reflects on her time in St. Louis. She joined the museum in 2012, and describes the area’s arts and culture landscape as “extraordinary” in terms of its quality and accessibility. 

“It has been really wonderful to come from somewhere else and get to know a city, and get to understand how a contemporary art museum can be responsive to our neighborhood, to the people that live in the region,” she says. “I think St. Louisans are pretty extraordinary in how they consume culture how interested, curious, and wanting to be a part of that cultural landscape (they are).”

On the recent First Fridays event in April, several Grand Center venues remained open late to welcome anyone looking to wander in.

Guests at the Pulitzer sipped cocktails and walked through soil-encrusted screen structures by artist Delcy Morelos’ before listening to a poetry reading. At The Sheldon, they strolled by the works of several artists, including Brian DePauli’s photorealistic paintings of beaches and barbecue pits, before venturing upstairs for a cabaret show. 

At CAM, visitors gathered in chairs before Paul Chan’s mural on the project wall to watch a live podcast recording of Speak Up St. Louis. Melandri was the guest, and settled in to talk about CAM’s 20th anniversary.

Just inside the windows, Chan’s billowing “Breathers” danced. Outside, on the building facade, the random questions and answers flashed across the giant screen. 

“There’s a lot of things about what we do that are serious and salient,” Melandri shared. “But there’s also real joy here. And that is the thing that I think is so thrilling. On Friday night, you look around and you’re like: this is cool.”

Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis is located in the Grand Center Arts District.

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