Originally created 10/13/03

Contemporary art museum opens new home in St. Louis



ST. LOUIS -- Even without taking a step inside, the new Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis provides onlookers with a glimpse of one artist's creative work.

You can peer through the $8 million concrete and steel mesh building, designed by architect Brad Cloepfil, and see the rust-toned steel spiral sculpture created by Richard Serra in a courtyard on the other side. But it's what's inside that also has museum director Paul Ha excited. The building has three versatile, spacious galleries with plenty of display space on the walls and floor.

"Because the building is so flexible, we can do whatever we want basically," Ha said. "Our goal is to help artists finish out their vision. Because of our space, whatever their idea is, we can help them finish it out and help have a place to show it."

The 27,000 square-foot museum is about four times as big as its old home, split between the first and third floors of a renovated automotive shop. The 6,700 square feet of gallery space is almost as much room as the auto shop had in its entirety.

For the museum's opening on Sept. 20, the galleries were filled with the photographs, paintings, videos and sculptures of the first exhibit - "A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad."

The museum - known simply as the Contemporary - already has seven exhibitions planned for next year. Ha said he expects well-known artists around the globe to be intrigued by the new museum.

"Artists are always interested in seeing what their stuff looks like in different places," Ha said. "It's interesting. When they're creating it in their studios, it looks nothing like what it looks like in their gallery, or what it looks like in a collector's home, or what it looks like in a museum.

"When you get a new venue like this one, I think they get very excited about it."

The new building is quite a change from the small storefront where the Contemporary started. Called the First Street Forum, the museum opened in 1980 on Laclede's Landing, a district along the Mississippi River. Eight years later, it moved into a space four times larger and became simply the Forum. In the early 1990s, the museum moved to the old auto shop and became known as the Forum for Contemporary Art.

It now resides in an architectural work in the city's Grand Center cultural district, just blocks away from Powell Symphony Hall and the Fox Theatre. The museum will hold a bookstore and gift shop, conference rooms and classrooms. A Wolfgang Puck cafe called Tempt is scheduled to open this fall.

The Contemporary's next-door neighbor is the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, designed by architect Tadao Ando. The Serra sculpture, visible from the Contemporary, was commissioned for the Pulitzer Foundation and is located in that museum's courtyard.

Cloepfil said designing next to Ando's building brought some additional pressure. The Contemporary was the first project outside the Pacific Northwest for Cloepfil, who is based in Portland, Ore. "There's a daunting sort of aura that you know the two will be compared, but when you get to work, it's really about making a contemporary arts space," he said.

Cloepfil, who is also working on the $75 million expansion of the Seattle Art Museum and a $20 million redesign of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, said it was exciting to design a building with no idea what would be displayed inside at any given time.

"The goal is to make a new space that whatever happens in it is a really powerful, evocative thing," Cloepfil said. "The space can be beautiful, the space can be interesting, but when the art is in it, the art is really what matters."

On the Net:

Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis: http://www.contemporarystl.org/