Vince Schoemehl is a politician who understands that you can't make people swallow bullshit and say it tastes like honey. His predecessor as president of Grand Center Inc., Ann Ruwitch, rhapsodized about the district's sparkling sidewalks and neon lighting, a song akin to Nero's. Schoemehl -- who, as mayor, created Grand Center Inc. to revitalize the moribund theater district -- sees the area without the aid of generous PR. Grand Center contains a lot of blight and glimmers of hope; a history of frustration and a future of possibilities.
Schoemehl signed on for at least three years with his shoulder to the wheel of progress. He's already gained the acceptance of two contrary personalities -- and major players in the Grand Center scheme -- Emily Pulitzer and the Rev. Lawrence Biondi. The St. Louis University capo di capi has invested in the renovation of the Continental Building and in a plan for housing on the western edge of the district. Pulitzer opens her arts foundation this month, giving Grand Center another new destination for visitors to the neighborhood.
Additional optimism comes to the district with Cardinal Ritter High School moving in, the Forum for Contemporary Arts building an elegant new space and an African-American museum in the works. Grand Center will be vastly changed in a few years, all under Schoemehl's watch. Whatever his ambitions, Schoemehl gains political capital if it all happens. "Politician" is a label distasteful to the naïve, but for those who recognize that politics make the buildings rise (and fall), the shopkeepers happy and the artists busy, a politician at the helm of Grand Center is an asset.
Savvy as Schoemehl is about the political terrain of St. Louis, his sitdown with the RFT goes askew at the outset. A secretary pokes her head in the office to tell him Jerry Berger is on the phone. Does Schoemehl want to talk to him? He gives an exasperated monosyllabic response -- "No" -- and returns to the interview, his face red. Berger has been a picador to the bullish former mayor [D.J. Wilson, "Jerry's Stringer," RFT, June 27], telling tales of byzantine power struggles and political gamesmanship among Schoemehl and a host of players for weeks. Schoemehl's disarmed for a moment, Berger being the rude fart in the polite conversation, but he recovers.
"It's been an interesting few weeks," he says with pointed irony. "It's extremely intense. There is a lot to do. I think there are a lot of expectations, which is natural. I think there has been a lot of pent-up frustration over the past several years. I've been working hard -- I mean, really hard -- to try to listen to as many people as I can. I can't fix everything, but I at least can listen."
Schoemehl admits he's not well versed in arts organizations and their needs, but he's learning. During his first few weeks on the job, he met with members of the Mid-Sized Arts Cooperative, a loose confederation of more than 20 arts organizations ranging from the Forum for Contemporary Art to the Bach Society to That Uppity Theatre Company to Atrek Contemporary Dance. He defines his liaison with such organizations as instrumental to the transformation of the district.
"Grand Center cannot fix the [St. Louis] Symphony's problems, and it's really not here for the purposes of serving the interests of the Fox or the Sheldon. I think our major mission should be to help develop the emerging arts groups in this community. If it means an arts incubator, if it means finding the appropriate space, if it means helping them put together business plans -- whatever is required to take someone's idea and someone's enthusiasm and commitment to the arts and help them grow that into a realization -- that's really what we should be working on, and that's where our center of gravity ought to be, and within 36 months I'd like that to be true."
If midsize arts organizations need help on the business end of things, Schoemehl wants them to call Grand Center Inc.: "And can I do everything that they want done right now? Certainly not. Look at my desk -- it looks like a bomb went off in it."
Schoemehl, the visionary pragmatist, envisions an arts district as lively as any in Chicago -- or the University City Loop, for that matter -- but he combines grand schemes with small steps. "Part of Grand Center's mission will probably be fulfilled -- a large part of it -- simply by connecting people in the community," he says. "There's Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts. There are other groups that are out there that are more than willing to help, but somebody's got to help draw up a business plan [for small arts organizations]. There may be people in the Service Corps of Retired Executives who would be more than willing to sit down and help an arts group draft a real business plan and put together a feasibility study, and things of that nature."
His emphasis on direct involvement in the travails of arts groups is a notable contrast from the disinterest of his predecessors. The distinction is most obvious when Schoemehl addresses the never-ending performing-arts issue of St. Louis: space. The Medinah Temple, for example, was "given" to a small group of performing-arts organizations, including the Metro Theatre Company and Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre, for $1. Then Grand Center Inc. left the groups on their own to come up with a feasibility study, architectural plans, funding -- all things no small arts group is capable of handling. Schoemehl dismisses this approach: "Giving them a dollar option and a slap on the back, that's really not support.
"I don't think the Medinah's going to work," he says straightforwardly, "because I think these arts groups have needs that are so special that they really need to be addressed." Grand Center Inc. has hired a consultant, Edgar "Ned" Lustig, to talk to various performing-arts groups to begin to conceptualize a multipurpose facility in the district. "Some of these groups need space that will seat 50 people, some of them need space to seat 250 people and on another night they need space that will seat 75. I see three or four different black boxes, really, basically in the same building, but they could have a common box office, a common lobby area, a common food service and share some rehearsal spaces and storage.
"You can't just say you're going to cram this all into the Medinah. By the time you get around to doing that, you might as well just build a building and do it right. That is my inclination. This is not going to be inexpensive. This is not something we're going to be able to put a couple of fundraisers together and finance. I'd love to see some use for the Medinah, but my mission is more to fulfill the needs of the arts groups than to find a way to repurpose the building."
Joe Edwards plans to build a theater in the Loop, too, and might lure the Regional Arts Commission out of Grand Center if the space and the numbers fit, but Schoemehl doesn't feel he's in competition with the Delmar entrepreneur. The arts are not static. Needs change and reconfigure -- and for now there are more needs than there are facilities (and audiences) to accommodate them.
So far, Schoemehl gets high marks from those in the St. Louis art scene who stomached years of Grand Center ineptitude. Lisa Suggs of the Mid-Size Arts Cooperative says, "He understands how everything works. His learning curve is very short. He knows how to put the pieces together. He's a very smart guy, and that's a real gift to Grand Center, it's a gift to the St. Louis community, it's a gift to arts organizations. We're really pleased."
Betsy Wright Millard of the Forum for Contemporary Art concurs. "He understands the role the arts can play in the economic development of Grand Center," she says. "He's not just throwing us a bone. He's very straightforward. He believes in this as an arts district, but he also believes that we've got to get commercial development. He's problem-solving, and the problems are big enough that they take some time to solve. We need to be patient, but also there's real activity with him."
Despite the brickbats thrown at him by Berger, those hungry for leadership in Grand Center are optimistic about Schoemehl. He wants to be the go-to guy, willing to risk failure and take the credit. These are the qualities of an ambitious politician, a man with seasons to come.