New Contemporary Art Museum director impressed by St. Louis' cultural offerings
It’s one thing to work in a new city, another to live there. New Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) director Lisa Melandri is looking forward to doing both here in St. Louis.
In several visits to the Gateway City, Melandri said she was impressed by St. Louis’ many cultural institutions, its commitment to contemporary art and its overall friendliness. Now, Melandri and her husband Jordan Gaunce, who works in the printing industry, are looking forward to settling in here by August.
Melandri was hired after a five-month search to replace former director Paul Ha, who led CAM for nine years. She spent the past decade at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and, before that, worked at the Galleries at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia.
With a background in medieval and Renaissance art as well as contemporary works, Melandri brings a historical perspective to CAM. In a conversation with the Beacon, Melandri talked about what she hopes to accomplish as she leads the CAM into its second decade. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Beacon: What drew you to this position?
Lisa Melandri: One of the things that’s wonderful is that this is a non-collecting contemporary institution, which really allows for chance to be a touchstone or a lightening rod for what’s going on in the contemporary art world.
You can be nimble; you can have different relationship with art as education because you’re not thinking about posterity, you’re not thinking about acquisitions. As we know, contemporary art means so many things, and there are so many different ways to define what that can be, in medium and in concept.
Having the freedom to think about an exhibition as opposed to building a collection really allows you to open your eyes to those things and presents the largest number of possibilities of what contemporary art can be, and I adore that model.
Had you ever been to St. Louis before?
Melandri: No, I was a completely new visitor to the city. I took some time to look at institutions like the St. Louis Art Museum and the Kemper and also to get a feel for the other points of culture, the History Museum, the Zoo and the public sculpture garden downtown.
The cultural landscape of the city is very rich, and I was impressed by that. I also think it’s a beautiful city, architecturally. It’s really lovely, and we’re excited to come live in such a welcoming, wonderful place -- it will be a great place to make a home.
What else did you notice about St. Louis and its culture?
Melandri: I was so incredibly impressed by the civic commitment to culture, the fact that so many of the museums are free, how prominently culture plays in the urban fabric of the city, in terms of the institutions, from downtown to the park and CAM and Grand arts district right in the center.
I can tell you it feels impressive to have a smaller city that has so many different kinds of arts spaces. I’ve lived in the Boston area and spent some time in Philadelphia and I feel as though St. Louis has, upon my initial visits, a great energy around art.
You’ve said you plan to make the CAM “ever more relevant and important in the global world of contemporary art.” Can you elaborate?
Melandri: The challenge and opportunity for an institution like CAM is to find a perfect balance between being an internationally recognized institution and site for discovery and really making sure you look at your local audience.
I need to get there and really feel what St. Louis is looking for and what St. Louis wants and work with the staff and the board to make sure we are indeed the most relevant and providing the best service for our local audience as well as keeping an eye on how we’re perceived as an institution in the world at large. It’s like, “This is a great place; how can we make it even better?”
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the the future of the CAM?
Melandri: This is such a wonderful moment in the history of the institution because we’re coming up on the 10th anniversary, so that’s a really a benchmark to look at all the museum has accomplished and where it wants to go in the future.
The timing couldn’t be better. It’s going to be an extraordinary moment for the city to really celebrate this institution and be proud of all it’s accomplished and look forward to the next decade.