Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sculpture as the Symbolic Heart of a City

St. Louis Arch, February 6, 2010. All pictures courtesy the author unless otherwise noted.

Sculpture is the symbolic heart of St. Louis. Not architecture, as we've come to expect with urban "starchitecture" of the past decade.

At the edge of St. Louis is the Gateway Arch, a truly exquisite structure that soars above your head like an arrow to heaven.

Unfortunately, too many city buildings crowd the Arch to its west. Very sad that city leaders allowed architectural ambition to sully this gorgeous sculpture.

Just to the east of the Arch, down below, back on land, is a rather dismal parking lot ($4 rather than $10 in the covered city lot). I've never parked within lapping distance of a major river before.

Images of the great flood of 1993 kept coming to me--what if the river rose just a few feet? My ride would be on a sight-seeing tour downstream before I knew it!

The Museum of Westward Expansion, inside the Arch's "shoes", was chaotic Saturday. The huge line was not for the educational films on the building of the arch nor for the film on Lewis & Clark's voyage to the West coast.

No, everyone was in line to take a five-passenger elevator to the top of the Arch, where you can peer out at the surrounding landscape from itty-bitty windows. (I am just claustrophobic enough to leave that trip to others--and I've gotta prise my car from the maws of the river!)

I don't quarrel with the commercialization of this historic site, though I may question some of the narratives explored through the concentric half-circles of display materials in the Museum.

Image of Carl Milles fountain outside Union Station, St. Louis. © Sharron Archibald

To fulfill the promise of the Arch as a symbolic heart of St. Louis, a group of business people are working with the National Park Service to re-imagine this space. The primary goal is to move tourists more effectively between the casinos and the Arch. This new waterfront will then truly be linked to the Gateway "spine" of sculpture that includes the new City Garden (full of sculpture), the Richard Serra "Twain" piece (sculpture), hop over the courthouse and cascade through the fountains, crowned with the sculptures "The Wedding of the Waters" by Carl Milles, outside of Union Station, above.

Henry Weber, The Captain's Return, 2006

Once the reconfiguration of the waterfront is completed, surely more people will see this sculpture in honor of the return of Lewis & Clark to St. Louis. [Note: the dog is not a Labrador, as I first thought, but Clark's Newfoundland who made the trip with the Corps of Discovery.]

The nation is on the cusp of a major ideological shift--in our understanding of our financial capacity and through our now-unbreakable bond with markets elsewhere--and the symbolic Arch complex has the chance to re-interpret our nation-building past in light of our nation-building future. Let the myths of western conquest and expansion be reconfigured; St. Louis can play an interesting role in this reinterpretation.

Our urban landscape, in great need of reparation and stitching back together, can represent the next phase of our American identity via sculpture.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Too Big to Fail?

Museum of Modern Art, New York, interior

I have been thinking recently about the increasing peril faced by non-profits in this economic downturn. My concern has come from two directions. The most obvious wind of fear comes from the drying-up of donor funds lost in the recent financial collapse. No need to explain further.

The other area of concern has been the proliferation of non-profits over the past decade and the sense that we have outgrown the capacity for the community to support all of us.

This morning I read James Undercofler's post about non-profit structure itself being responsible for the stifling of nimble, responsive artistic production. This analysis certainly describes the past 40 years of non-profit arts organizations who, having started up as artist-run collectives in the 1970s, say, hit their mid-teens and assume that it's time to "grow up." So the organization expands its board, professionalizes its staff to meet financial and reporting requirements, and shortly lose their original edge. Have some organizations become "Too Big to Fail"?

I have written before about the damage caused when you graft a for-profit business system onto a non-profit--it can distort the original vision of the non-profit.

This image is from a panel discussion I attended last week at the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis. The topic--''The City as Studio"--points to how artists increasingly see a need to engage with a more dynamic, organic, open-ended structure such as "city" in order to make their work, by-passing non-profits for their often cumbersome processes and lack of resources.

By becoming "Too Big to Fail", do we disappoint the primary consumers of our work--artists and audiences?

Non-profits need to resist the for-profit "bigger-is-better" model, the failed 80s business model of endlessly expanding markets in order to preserve their core function. We of course need big encyclopedia museums--but what does "encyclopedic" mean in this global economy? Ultimately, this financial crisis is both forcing us, and allowing us, to be more precise and experimental with what non-profits do in order to inspire artists and their audiences.