Arts & Culture » Arts

A Child Shall Lead Them

A lesson in how to wake up St. Louis to its trove of public art


Ask St. Louisans to name a work of public art in the region, and they'll probably give you the Gateway Arch. If they spend any time in Forest Park, they may come up with the bronze statue of King Louis IX outside the art museum. And if they know something about contemporary art (or if they work downtown), they're likely to be acquainted with Richard Serra's Twain.

But that's about it. In the home of the largest work of public sculpture in the nation, Eero Saarinen's Arch, public art in general tends to pass underneath the popular radar. When people do notice a work of public art in their neighborhood, it's often because it's controversial -- they don't want their tax dollars used for "frivolous" things like art, or they just don't like the look of it, regardless of how it got there.

There's plenty of good public art in St. Louis besides the Arch. The challenge is how to get the public at large to become engaged with it -- in other words, to change the cultural climate and general attitude toward public art in the region.

Jane Birdsall-Lander and Barbara Decker have figured out how to do it: Start with kids.

Birdsall-Lander and Decker are the primary creative forces responsible for the Public Art Curriculum Kit, a project that makes its official public debut today with a small reception at the Regional Arts Commission headquarters in the University City Loop. Backed by the support of a wide-reaching Public Arts Consortium and informed by the work of around a dozen teachers from the region, the kit provides thoughtful strategies for teaching the meaning and value of public art.

"It's a way of teaching into the entire community," explains Decker, a writer and arts educator who works for the Missouri History Museum. "If you want to help people entrenched in their own ideas to understand what public art means and how it creates a communal sense of place, you've got to go to the children. They take that lesson home, and parents hear it from the kids."

Decker knows plenty about the power of art in education. She spent years working on curriculum projects at the Saint Louis Art Museum for exhibitions such as 1999's Masks: Faces of Culture. Two years ago, Meredith McKinley of the public art consulting firm Via Partnership approached Decker and asked if she'd be interested in working on a curriculum project involving public art.

The notion was the brainchild of local artist and art educator Jane Birdsall-Lander, who'd served as a member of the Clayton Art Commission since 1999.

"The commission originally wanted me to do fundraising for public art," Birdsall- Lander recounts. "But I was more interested in educating people about public art." Aware that a curriculum kit would require financial support from multiple sources, Birdsall- Lander contacted the Regional Arts Commission, whose Community Arts Training Program she had previously undergone. RAC executive director Jill McGuire suggested forming a consortium, and in 2001 the Public Art Consortium was born.

At the outset, the group included the Clayton Art Commission; Metro's Arts in Transit Program; the City of St. Louis; Chesterfield Arts; Grand Center, Inc.; the Laclede's Landing Foundation; and the University City Arts and Letters Commission. The consortium's inaugural effort was a modest informational brochure about public art, which was made available at tourist offices and sites around town and sent out to public-art programs around the nation.

On the strength of the brochure's success, Birdsall-Lander appealed to more local arts institutions; eventually Laumeier Sculpture Park, Saint Louis University, and Southwestern Illinois College joined up. Each consortium member donated $1,000 toward the curriculum project, plus a variety of services and labor. The Regional Arts Commission, the Missouri Arts Council, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis also kicked in. When it came time to produce the kit, the graphic designer and photographer worked for a fraction of their normal rate. "They've all been amazing," a grateful Birdsall-Lander says. "The project cost $19,000, but that's a third of what it would have cost if we didn't have the donations."

Via Partnership co-founder Emily Blumenfeld calls the Public Art Curriculum Kit a national model. "Other communities have done curriculum and videos around their public art, but nothing this comprehensive," says Blumenfeld. "[This kit] can demonstrate how public art is not just an aesthetic enhancement to a community, but it can also be an educational tool."

Birdsall-Lander and Decker are quick to add that the curriculum kit is not "just" about art. The kit contains a small poster, a set of slides, and a comprehensive curriculum book focusing on twenty public art works located throughout the region. A brief history of each work accompanies a small image and ideas for follow-up projects in the disciplines of social studies, language arts, science/math/technology, performing arts and visual art.

"I'm wedded to the idea of art as a catalyst for interdisciplinary learning," Decker says. "And young people who are not otherwise excited by learning usually become engaged by the visual arts." While the curriculum is aimed at middle-school teachers, it can easily be adapted for younger or older students.

Indeed, adults -- whether they're fans or skeptics of public art -- might benefit most from these exercises, because they encourage engagement and simply don't permit thoughtless dismissal of the art. For instance, where the curriculum packet features George Julian Zolnay's 1909 Gates of Opportunity in University City, students learn that the feline figures atop the gates are probably a lion and a tiger -- not two lions as is commonly believed. They're asked to research the fiberglass conservation process used to preserve the carved animals, to look into the mythological significance of lions and tigers and to consider the gates in relation to E.G. Lewis' concept for University City as an "ideal community."

The study of Victoria Fuller's 1999 work Shoe of Shoes, which stands in front of the old Brown Shoe Co. on Maryland Avenue in Clayton, has students examining St. Louis' history as a shoe manufacturing center, extrapolating the height of a person who'd be a fit for the enormous aluminum footwear, and considering images and symbols historically associated with women.

The curriculum guide also tackles some of the most "difficult" public art in the region and provides inroads to understanding it. In contemplating Serra's infamous Twain, students are asked to think about the sculpture's shape, scale and materials, and to consider how it relates to the urban landscape. This text is among the most intelligent discussions of Twain in print anywhere, and probably ought to be assigned reading for anyone curious about the work.

Birdsall-Lander and Decker describe their selection of public art works as "democratic." Famous and lesser-known artists alike are represented, conventional monuments as well as contemporary approaches. Earthworks, bronze figures and fountains all find their way into the curriculum, as do temporary works (Lane Hall and Lisa Moline's Luminario, for instance, was designed for the Clayton Art Fair in 2002 and removed shortly thereafter) and light sculptures (Olafur Eliasson's untitled series of colored fluorescent lights, which glow in the tunnel just west of the Central West End MetroLink station).

Access to the Public Art Curriculum Kit is equally democratic. Each member of the Public Art Consortium received ten kits to distribute to schools and organizations within its constituency. Additional kits are available to teachers at the main branches of city and county libraries, the Bookmobile and in resource centers at institutions such as Laumeier Sculpture Park, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and St. Louis ArtWorks. Perhaps best of all, an online version, which includes the curriculum guide, images, maps and lists of additional public artworks, can be downloaded via the Internet, as of today, at (For information, call the Clayton Art Commission at 314-727-8100.) Regardless of how one uses the material, the kit stands as one of the most comprehensive resources pertaining to St. Louis public art.

It's ironic that the release of the Public Art Curriculum Kit comes so close on the heels of the cuts to the Missouri Arts Council and to Metro's Arts in Transit program. It's a sure sign that a change of culture and attitude toward public art is desperately needed in St. Louis. That change may be a couple of generations in coming, but the Public Art Curriculum project is clearly up to the task.

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