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Talking With Lisa Melandri, New Director of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

Art everywhere, for everybody

Photography By Kevin A. Roberts

When Paul Ha left the Contemporary for MIT’s List Visual Arts Center last year, it was strange to imagine his successor; after nine years, he seemed almost synonymous with the museum. When Lisa Melandri arrived to take up the post in mid-August, it seemed logical—maybe because she’s so different. Ha was reserved, inscrutable, totally downtown New York cool; Melandri is extroverted, effusive, soaked in California sunshine. (She served as deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the Santa Monica Museum of Art for 10 years.) She half-jokes that she’d love to see art in every corner of the building—including the elevators and the bathrooms—and she wants St. Louis to consider CAM as a third place, one where they feel comfortable lingering.

To that end, one of the first things she did was extend the hours to 9 p.m. on Thursday and Friday. And in September, the art spilled into the lobby, with Jonathan Horowitz’s installation “Your Land, My Land,” examining the 2012 presidential race and including debate-watching parties. We sat down with Melandri not long after her arrival in St. Louis (which she loves). Here are her reflections on how she hopes to further Ha’s legacy—and start building her own.

I wanted to start with St. Louis—there are people who relocate for career reasons, or they follow a spouse, but don’t really gel with the city. But you seem to feel really comfortable here.

I feel as though I have been living here for much longer than I have. I feel like already part of the fabric of the cultural life of the city, which is due in large part to the staff of this museum. They have really been trucking me around, and really taking me under their wing. They’ve been truly inclusive. But I also think this is the kind of city where people are very welcoming. I feel that very much professionally, and I feel that with the people who live next door to me, and the people who love the coffee shop down the street. I have been very grateful but also wildly impressed by how warm and helpful this population is. It’s been really great.

Has it been difficult, transitioning from a huge, and hugely cultural city like Los Angeles?

The ease of getting from place to place, and I mean that in terms of the traffic patterns, and geography, is incredible and very, very attractive. Also I think—this is something Nancy Kranzberg has said to me every time we’ve met, and she’s right—the per-capita opportunities to experience the arts I think is greater here than in any other city in the United States. So, my choices are many. And I don’t think it feels spread out or separated in any way. It’s like, bam—you can hit so much, so fast. And it’s all available to you. We were real culture consumers in Los Angeles. We did everything from art viewing to opera to the symphony to plays. But to be able to do that in a city like Los Angeles, it takes a ton of foreground planning, way ahead of time, and then it also means that you need to build in an hour and 15 minutes to get there and an hour and 15 minutes to get back. So it changes the entire landscape of how and when you do things. I feel like here, these opportunities are not only available, but they are physically accessible.

There are [also] a lot of really interesting [arts] leaders. I was also talking with Marilu Knode from Laumeier, who is just celebrating her third year here. I just had lunch with Rick Dildine, and he’s celebrating his third year here, two weeks from now. So it’s not that they are brand-new, but you do have this sense of a young generation of arts leaders in the city, which I think is a really nice foil and ballast to the organizations that have been led for a long time by wonderful parts of the community.

And then you also have Kristina van Dyke at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, who’s also new, and a young arts leader, right next door. How do you see the synergy between CAM and the Pulitzer? 

The really special thing about being next to the Pulitzer, and we can explode it and think about it in terms of Grand Center, you get that sense of being able to have intimate bite-sized experiences with culture. You can stack them, and it’s never so much that it can feel intimidating or overwhelming. By the same token, I can create an all-day arts experience by then going to The Pulitzer, or going to the Sheldon, or maybe going to hear music, or going to the Craft Alliance. I think there is something very, very special about being in this neighborhood, where you have that vibrancy. You have a day and a night activity, which is very exciting, because you can have this consumerism of culture around the clock, which is great. It means you have different audiences, it means you have different points of access, depending on what your work and your domestic situation is, and when you can get out. And also, it means you can get different slices of the cultural pie, in regard to the Pulitzer, that means culture with a capital C. It means a lot of different things, also just in terms of the visual arts, that you can get two different looks, or two different periods, or sensibilities. I’m calling this one sensibility, but actually you’re getting four different views that are ever changing. I really like having those kinds of visual and other kinds of culture foils around us, because I just think it means that when you are ready to get your culture on, you can really do it in one fell swoop. And it offers not just a sense of intimacy, but also a sense of convenience.

So, I know you’re makings some changes at CAM. Want to talk about those?

We changed our hours. One of the things that we were particularly hoping for, particularly on the Thursday/Friday schedule, by extending the hours until 9 p.m., was to make these kinds of opportunities more accessible. So for instance, let’s say you work during the normal hours that a museum is open. Maybe you even work in arts and culture, but you can’t make it out to see anything else, because you are working within the same time frame. Or you want to go to the Contemporary, but you’re committed to going to the theater—you can stop by on the way there. You can also start to think of this as a destination, as an after-work destination. Part of that is not only about convenience. I really believe in this kind of dual engagement that’s educational on the one side, and about enjoyment on the other. So being open during the evenings, being able to come and sit, use your computer and have a glass of wine, just really be able to think about this place as a resting stop, as well as a viewing stop, I think it’s really important. I like this idea of museum as living room. So extending the hours is a nod to that. I want people to want to hang out here. I want to make them comfortable enough that they feel like they can come and just hang out. The challenge and the education and all of those things with contemporary art are essential to the program, I want that, but I also want you to be able to say, ‘OK, I’m going to find myself a comfortable chair, think about I just saw, talk about what I just saw with the person I came with, and also be able to use this environment as one that invites me to stay in it. I mean, look at this gorgeous building! And all of these spaces—the courtyard is beautiful, the café area is gorgeous, the lobby is exciting now, with the current installation that physically invites you to have a seat on the carpet. Who knew? This is not a space where we’re going to say to you, oh no, excuse me sir, excuse me ma’am, please keep moving. The point of an installation like that is to really have it be used. I want people to feel comfortable planting themselves.

One of the very first things, it’s so funny, this seems so exciting and revolutionary to us, and think, Hmmm, OK. But—our front desk. You walk into the building, and there’s this imposing structure right as you walk in the door. One of the things we want to do, not just with this exhibition but in general, we want the lobby to be, first of all welcoming, and second of all, active. So we are going to change where the front desk is, how it looks. Change the way we give directional signage, so you don’t have that sense of like uhhh, what do I do now? Where do I go? Where’s the art? I also want to incorporate art into that first welcoming experience. I don’t know exactly what that looks like yet, but that’s very important to me.

In the café, it can be as simple as furniture. Comfortable seating that asks you to spend time in it. I was thinking carefully about those sorts of things. There’s nothing worse than going to a great bar with a hard barstool! You know what I mean? So there will be tables, places for you to eat and drink and use your laptop. There will also be places where, if you get the exhibition catalog, you can actually read it on-site, so you can go back and forth with the work, and have a real interaction with those works of art…and that you feel comfortable doing that.

What about out in the courtyard? That seems like a challenging space to work with, just because it’s outdoors.

With regard to the courtyard, I don’t know what that’s going to look like. But for me, one of the most essential things is really looking at green solutions—I mean that in a lot of different ways. I mean that as in green plants; but I also mean it in terms of different artists taking over the courtyard at various points and re-conceiving what that will look like. And outdoor installations that are sustainable, given that this is a place that has a lot of different seasons, and different temperatures. But again, a place that is activated in terms of art, and real work that is being done out there that is part of the artistic program at the Contemporary. Meanwhile it’s also a place that begs you to come into the space and spend a while.

The other thing we want to reconfigure—this Exhibition Lab that we have upstairs, you talk about a great place for people to just spend time. Comfortable seating, light, the curators talks, so if you want a little more immediate information about the shows you can get that, but it’s a comfortable space to have ancillary materials. There’s a great library; there’s a kids’ play space; there are exhibitions associated with our educational program. I’d say we need to make sure that is reconceived, and the way that we message it to our audience is reconceived, so they use it. I think the issues are all about making this place really used. It’s like, use us! We’re here. So kind of writ large, that is the whole idea of thinking about what the audience experience means. It’s through programs, it’s through re-conceiving of space, and it’s generally through this idea that we have an extraordinary thing to offer in terms of the building, and what’s inside it. So it’s how to make that known and appealing, for as wide an audience as we can get. I want to use signage to say that we’re open, but not just “CAM is open.” Something more like, “Come see art!” Just that even if you don’t know us, the messaging is really clear. That you get away from the title of things, and more into letting people know about the good things that await them.

And in many cases, the hurdle is not even specific to an institution—people sometimes just get intimidated by art, period, no matter where it is.

It’s really interesting, and I don’t know what this is—there is more either reticence or discomfort around the visual arts than around any other art form. If you think about music…people might say, the symphony isn’t my thing, but there are types of music that become truly embedded in culture. Dance, some avant-garde and modern dance can be difficult, but the idea of dance is something that everyone can understand. We have a problem with the visual arts; maybe it’s as simple as it not being integrated into our lives when we are young. But there is more of a sense of I can’t go there because I don’t know anything about that. This idea that you have to know something about it….one of the things I keep saying, this is one of my endless pushes, what I would want is for people to want to be able to look at things that they are unfamiliar with, that they don’t know about. That’s the great joy of visual culture. This is my career, and this is my life, and I love the moment of looking at something that I have no familiarity with, or that I know nothing about. That’s the moment of discovery. That is the light bulb moment. The other part of it that I think is really, really important that we never, ever stress to our kids, and should, is that also part of that process is that failure is fine. I can look at that thing I’ve never seen, and be completely unimpressed with it, and decide it’s not going to be an important part of my life. And that’s a really invaluable experience, too. It should never make me not go back and try it again. And I think that’s the case particularly with contemporary art. I don’t love, personally, all of the art, some of which I think is very important and essential to see. It’s all about an experiential way of dealing with contemporary art, rather than an intellectual way. And I feel that the intellectualized way, and scholarship, and rigor, is important on our side. That’s what you bring to programming—the critical eye that can distill what’s happening in the world, and make a point of why it’s essential to come in and see it. But as a viewer, I just wish we would teach our kids and allow ourselves to just have experiences with contemporary art. And know that not everything is going to float your boat. That’s fine! It’s like listening to the radio and hearing a new song, you don’t like it, so what? So wait for the next song, or you go see the next art show. I think that’s a really important shift that we all have to make when we think about what visual art is, and what it can give us.

Can you talk about changes CAM might make, as far as its approach to what it exhibits?

I can talk sort of vision for programs. Obviously, that is something that grows form our curatorial staff, who are wonderful. Contemporary art can be a lot of different things. And I think it is the job of an institution like this to really investigate and explore what all of those different things are. And so as we look forward, it has been a hallmark of the programming in the past, and it will continue, is to make sure the audiences in St. Louis can see the full range of what contemporary art can do. So what does that mean? That means we will go, in a season, from conceptual photography to Expressionist painting. That we will make sure we include monographic works, group shows, collaborative projects. That we give you film and video and then we give you drawings. That the work of the artists is everything, and those artists are in all different points in their careers. Maybe someone is showing for the first time in an American museum—which has been a real hallmark of the programming here, there are so many firsts in the history of this institution—and we wish very much to keep that. It’s what keeps the St. Louis community seeing the true avant-garde of our times. And in that regard, it really is a site for discovery. But you might also see an artist who’s late in their career, or whose work hasn’t been given a proper assessment. All of those things have really made the reputation of this institution, and that will continue. But we will make sure that on any given year you get a smattering of all of it, so that you can really feel you understand the glories and vicissitudes of what contemporary art can be.

So what’s next? Anything you can mention?

We have a Jeremy Deller show that’s opening in January. That’s part of a national tour, and we are very lucky and excited to have it coming to St. Louis. With a program like that, one of the things to do is to really look at, letting people see the work of this superstar of an artist, and understand it here locally, but then to do programming that really links it to what we do here in this city, kind of knit it into the thinking and the fabric of St. Louis. We are really interested in bringing the global to the local, but also bringing the local into the museum for assessment by the rest of the culture of the city.

Anything else you’d like people to know?

We want to really look at this building and our opportunities to show here, and expand it. If I had my way, there would not be a crevice of this place, including the elevators and the bathrooms, that didn’t have art in it. And that were not parts of changing exhibition programs. So, I think one of the things we are really going to look at in the next year is how can we get art everywhere. I think this Horowitz exhibition was a really wonderful step in that direction, thinking about what it means for the visitor to not be able to take a step without knocking into a piece of art. [Laughs.]

I’m not kidding about the elevator. There have been really great film and video and installation works based on elevators all around the world! If you think about Marco Brambilla’s Civilization at The Standard Hotel in New York, that takes you from Heaven to Hell. You have 20 floors, so it’s different than ours, but rethinking these passageways—the hallway as you’re going down to the coat room, all of these spaces that are here that are ancillary spaces, and what can you do to change that experience? The other hallmark of this program, which shouldn’t change and is really core, is there is no collection here. This is a brand-new word for every exhibition series, right? Talk about a model that asks you to come back. It should be a repeat destination, because you are going to see something totally new. Let’s expand that to, again, all of the interstitial spaces in the building, so that you know going to the restroom becomes an art adventure. And why shouldn’t it be? All parts of the building should be dynamic, and the building should be exploited to its utmost—it’s a fabulous, incredible building.

The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis is located at 3750 Washington. It’s open 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Wed, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Thu and Fri, and 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat and Sun. For more information, call 314-535-4660 or go to camstl.org.
 

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