A Postcard from St. Louis

Here's a familiar scene: A sprawling Midwestern city of nearly 2 million people, located on a large river. It's not Cincinnati. I'm describing St. Louis, my new home since August 2000. A career mov

Here's a familiar scene: A sprawling Midwestern city of nearly 2 million people, located on a large river. It's not Cincinnati. I'm describing St. Louis, my new home since August 2000.

A career move took my wife Sarah and me here. I soon discovered that while Midwestern cities might sound similar on paper, each one has a unique flavor to be enjoyed. Still, when it comes to contemporary art, many of the things I miss about Cincinnati followed me here.

There are striking similarities between my two hometowns. St. Louis and Cincinnati each have new contemporary arts museums under construction. Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center is reaching toward international prominence with a Zaha Hadid-designed building. In St. Louis, the Forum for Contemporary Art (now the Contemporary Art Museum) will share a plaza with the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in a modern but somewhat more modest building by architect Brad Cloepfil.

I know Cincinnati continues to promote its downtown arts district, and the same challenges exist in St. Louis. The Grand Center is home to galleries and theatres. Parking is problematic. Many would-be patrons perceive its surrounding neighborhood of Midtown as dangerous. Basically, getting car-culture arts patrons in the Midwest to walk to another venue not in their current sightline is a challenge in most cities.

In St. Louis, I continue to be concerned about the state of contemporary art. The support from large institutions, schools and government that's necessary to build a unique arts culture is often lacking.

During my first year in St. Louis, I was impressed with a stunning contemporary exhibition at the St Louis Art Museum called Wonderland. Rochelle Steiner, its curator, now works in London. After talking with St. Louis Art Museum representatives about Steiner's position, I'm not holding my breath. Attracting and retaining talent is an issue in all but the top few arts cities. Like Cincinnati, artists and arts administrators also view St. Louis as provincial and a stepping-stone to something better.

What hasn't changed since my move to St. Louis is my love for artist-run galleries. There's a purity within them unlike anything else in the art world. These are the places where artists can deal in ideas unfettered by sales and bureaucratic distractions. You can dream it and make it happen with support from like-minded colleagues.

Cincinnati has an outstanding history of support for these grassroots spaces. There are many museums that would be jealous of the hundreds of artists and patrons who flock to the openings at Semantics Gallery. I continue to miss Matt Distle's now-closed Camp Washington space, DiLeia.

Here in St. Louis, efforts are underway to create more artist-run spaces. Recently, a young St. Louis artist opened a new experimental gallery space and sought advice from David Dillon, founder of Cincinnati's Semantics.

After living close to two years in St. Louis, my verdict on which city — Cincinnati or St. Louis — has the better arts scene continues to tip back and forth. The main thing that continually favors Cincinnati is the Individual Artists Grant Program from the Department of Neighborhood Services. The Missouri Arts Council has many valuable programs and funding streams, but they just don't have any funding available directly to artists.

When I lived in Cincinnati, I received an Individual Artist Grant. So I can tell you firsthand that the grants are something to treasure. It's an exceptional program that continuously strengthens and enriches the art scene in Cincinnati. It's also a program that can make artists in the big three arts cities in America green with envy.

Two years have passed in St. Louis, and I continue to make new friends and discover great ethnic restaurants. While Cincinnati's arts community weighs on my mind, I plan to make St. Louis my home.

If you come to visit, I'll show you a few of my favorite spots. We'll visit the Laumeier Sculpture Park. Later, I'll take you to my favorite Bosnian restaurant. After the meal, you'll be convinced that not all Midwest river cities are alike.

KIM HUMPHRIES is a former Cincinnati artist who currently lives in St. Louis.

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