James and Brea McAnally aren't used to hearing no, and they don't really follow the rules. But it isn't because they're pushy. The young couple, the founders and driving force behind the Luminary Center for the Arts, just doesn't know what the rules are. But they sure do know how to be polite.
"People ask us a lot, 'How did you secure this band?' or, 'How did you get these speakers?' or, 'How did you get this artist?'" says Brea, 24. "And we were like, 'We just asked.' I don't think we've really been told no. We've been really fortunate."
"We have no business doing what we do," James, 28, deadpans.
What the McAnallys do for St. Louis' cultural community is wide-ranging and constantly changing. The pair used to think of the Luminary as an artists'-resource organization that provided the physical and practical tools artists require in order to create, thrive and reside in St. Louis. But that descriptor leaves out the exhibitions and site-specific installations, the monthly Post Performance Series concerts and the founding of the Temporary Art Review, a new art-criticism website that has already expanded to include work from a dozen cities nationwide.
So instead the McAnallys prefer to think of the Luminary Center for the Arts not so much as a place — though it is most certainly that: a 9,000-square-foot former convent across Kingshighway from Tower Grove Park, to be precise — but as an incubator of ideas. And most of their ideas begin to germinate with the question, "Hey, do you know what would be awesome?"
The answers have taken many shapes since the brick-and-mortar building opened in 2007. There was the time artist Charles Gick caked an inches-thick layer of mud on the floor of the Installation Space, resulting in a cracked desert landscape gallery-goers could walk over. And Of Montreal's July Fourth concert appearance earlier this summer, when the McAnallys had to convince the public that, yeah, the band really is going to play the small venue. Or when they asked Zoe Ryan, curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute of Chicago, to deliver the keynote address at the FORM Contemporary Design Show, the Luminary's recent fundraiser. Ryan accepted the invitation and later told the pair how much she enjoyed it and wished Chicago had a similar arts organization.
"It's amazing what people will do," James marvels.
True enough, but it's little wonder the yeses keep coming: Brea and James, married four years next month, are approachable, engaging and, their peers attest, unpretentious. The partners are also well aware that a significant portion of the populace views art and artists as anything but. That was an important catalyst behind the Post Performance Series, a free monthly event at Old Post Office Plaza that pairs musical acts with artists who construct site-specific pieces. Staging an outdoor event the public can just happen upon — as opposed to, say, a gallery opening — literally removes the doors between artist and community.
"The experience of walking into a gallery is one that unless you've done it before or are with a group of friends or you're from that culture — a lot of people off the street aren't just going to walk in," Brea says. "It's a very different thing experiencing art when there's this window showing people that they're welcome. And it challenges us as creators. It's easy for musicians to get into a world of other musicians only, and it can be a really beautiful and incredible thing to be influenced by something that's so far outside of it."
Crowds at the Post Performance Series have been exactly what the McAnallys aimed for: a vibrant mix of grandparents, hipsters, toddlers and passersby. "We just try to look at something to see what's needed and what we can provide, and we start from the idea instead of starting from the root," Brea says. "So we made the kind of organization that made sense to us, a kind of organization that we wanted to see."
"In my opinion, James and Brea are making some of the most significant and meaningful contributions to the arts community," says Liz Deichmann of St. Louis Arts Project and the Secret Sound Society. "Not only do they continue to curate high-quality visual-art shows and multiple music series, but they invest in the community by offering important resources and educational opportunities."
The McAnallys themselves are equal-opportunity artists, versed in opera, literature and photography, and they perform together in and out of town as the band US English. Their wide and varied interests are reflected in the convergence of music and art in the events they present. They enjoy combining pieces in unexpected ways to reach many different kinds of audiences, even if it means every exhibit won't resonate with every person.
About a recent show, Brea recalls, "Some people hated it. And it's OK! It's OK to hate it sometimes. It's all right. You don't have to like everything that we do."
Adds James: "In general contemporary art seems to be really inaccessible — like, that's the general consensus of the culture — but what's interesting about it is that the artists who are making it are trying to talk about what it's like to be alive and to be interacting with those ideas. So it should be the most relatable thing. And we want to make it relatable. Even if you disagree, at least you know what they're feeling."
And there's always something new percolating. "We're always looking," Brea says. "We're always scheming."
To learn more about the Luminary Center for the Arts, visit www.theluminaryarts.com.Click here for a complete list of our MasterMind Award winners.