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The Spirit of St. Louis: Backtalk at My Museum-Finances Lecture UPDATED

I had a good-sized, lively audience Friday evening for my St. Louis lecture at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) on the precarious state of museum finances. But I was working against tough competion: Bill and Chelsea Clinton (not Hillary) were in town, speaking at Washington University at the exact same time as my talk.

Perhaps that’s why not too many students showed up at CAM, even though Elizabeth Childs, the chairman of Wash U’s art history department, told me after my lecture that her students all read and savor CultureGrrl. (“Let’s see, who should I go see tonight? Bill Clinton on campus? Lee Rosenbaum at CAM? Tough choice, but…”)

At least those who missed me in person got a chance to hear a capsule version: I previewed my topic during a 15-minute live interview Friday morning on St. Louis Public Radio‘s (KWMU‘s) “Cityscape” program, hosted by Steve Potter:

Steve Potter, host of St. Louis Public Radio's (KWMU's) "CityScape"

My Interviewer: Steve Potter, host of St. Louis Public Radio’s (KWMU’s) “CityScape”

You can hear me too, by clicking the blue “Listen” arrow at this link on KWMU’s website.

UPDATE: You can now also read the uncensored transcript (with far too many “yeahs”) of my conversation with reporter Stefane Russell of St. Louis Magazine. She evidently has read everything I’ve written.

Stefane introduced the Q&A with this summary of my oeuvre:

Rosenbaum does cultural journalism like no one else; she loves and understands the art part, but also does some seriously rigorous reporting about art and economics, which of course made her the perfect lecturer for this year’s [Greater St. Louis Humanities] festival [whose topic was “Money, Money: Need, Greed and Generosity”].

While not Clinton-esque in numbers, my audience was a lively, interesting bunch that included university professors, arts patrons and museum professionals from CAM, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and the Saint Louis Art Museum. The talk was sponsored by the Laumeier Sculpture Park (billed as the second-largest such facility, after Storm King), which I had a chance to peruse for the first time on Friday afternoon with its director, Marilu Knode.

I also managed to visit the expanding Saint Louis Art Museum (as you’ll see in an upcoming CultureGrrl Video); the witty, provocative, Jeremy Deller show (to Apr. 28), which took over the entire Brad Cloepfil-designed exhibition space at CAM; and the world-class Braque show (to Apr. 21) at Washington University’s Kemper Art Museum (co-organized with the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, where it opens June 8).

For me, the most fun of the day came after my hour-long prepared remarks at CAM. Before soliciting questions from audience members, I shot off a query of my own:

How has St. Louis managed to sustain and support such a wide variety of art museums, when so many museums in other communities are financially struggling [as you will hear me discuss in my above-linked radio gig]?

The answers were astute and illuminating. One of the fast-facts about their hometown that proud audience members cited is that St. Louis is an old, august city. Next year, it celebrates the 250th anniversary of its founding as a French settlement.

The discussion that I instigated with my inquiry was so lively that I decided to try to use this strategy for future talks (one of which I was tentatively engaged for after Friday’s talk). Asking audience members a cogent question gives them a chance to release some pent-up energy and provides a great respite for speakers in need of a break and a few sips of hot tea before plunging into the post-talk Q&A.


If I look like I’m enjoying my St. Louis audience, it’s because I am!

Here are those spirited audience comments (in the order in which they were uttered):

—We have an awesome economy, strong in many different sectors of business, so it’s a very broad range of people who are stakeholders in the city.

—I want to say, too, that it’s the depth of the history of the city. People have been here a very long time. There’s a real pride in institutions, a real pride of place.

—It was a major city long ago—over a hundred years ago.

—I’ve lived in DC, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. This was the first city I moved to where it was clear that becoming part of the city meant becoming a part of cultural institutions. Also, the location of many of the cultural institutions in the middle of the city is quite wonderful.

–You have cultural history being preserved in a wide range of institutions and everyone is contributing to that.

—I think in New York you support MoMA, or the Guggenheim, and that’s it. [That’s not always true for megabucks patrons, who sometimes spread the wealth.] But here, we have many people who support the St. Louis Art Museum, CAM, Laumeier. They share their commitment everywhere. I think a sense of collegiality really exists here. We all work together.

—I think it’s difficult to clone this in other cities, because it’s an unusual place.

—It’s a very charitable city. Another element, and a reason for its success, is that it’s also conservative. And I think that’s helped when it comes to doing things like budgeting for expansion. The other thing is we have a young people’s movement in the city that is so interested and so committed, whether to the arts or to something else. We have a fabulous group of young people in this city.

—She [the previous speaker] said that this is a very conservative city, but it’s really a mixed city. You have a large segment of very conservative [people]. But you have also a very active progressive group here. And when you get the fiscal conservative component and some of the very progressive components, that really helps. Secondly, the cost is so inexpensive to live here. While we lose a lot of our young people who grow up here, who go to New York, Chicago or elsewhere, there are a lot of people who come here because of the cost and the wonderful buildings here. When this organization [CAM] opened all the art studios of all the artists in this town at the end of July, you saw an incredible groundswell of support.

—Collecting began here in the middle of the 19th century. The cost of living here is 41% cheaper than living in Greenwich, CT, and the size is just right. Living in New York, I could never get to everything, so it was hard to commit to anything. Here, there are about 10 places you can go. So it’s within the realm of diversity and activity, but you can invest your energy, over time, and make it a community. I think that’s part of what makes it so exceptional: The scale is right.

—We just don’t know what a great city we have. It’s a very understated city. It’s below the radar. And yet, because it was established so long ago as a major city, it has all the infrastructure. And the architecture around here—I’m always just amazed at the building stock we have. It’s a great place to live. I hated it when I moved here 35 years ago. Now, I wouldn’t live anywhere else!

COMING SOON: A sneak peek at the soon-to-open expansion of the Saint Louis Art Museum.

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