All Mark Sarich wants to do is bring art to the people. The goal isn't so unusual -- just his target. Rather than cultivate the wine-sipping, New Yorker-quoting, six-figure-earning set that bankrolls the establishment galleries of the Central West End and Clayton, Sarich has set his sights on the poor and working-class people of his neighborhood, Benton Park, where he's lived for the past fifteen years. "Art's the best tool for social change because it's all about communication," Sarich explains. "If we bring experimental art into St. Louis, particularly into this neighborhood, then we're doing a service. It just promotes so much good."
A true capital-R Romantic, Sarich believes in the power of art to enlighten, to redeem, to humanize, to transform. One of his buildings, the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center (3301 Lemp), doubles as his manifesto: Painted on the weathered old bricks is the slogan "Art relieves social constipation."
Unfortunately, relieving social constipation can be a major pain in the ass sometimes, as Sarich has learned firsthand. Chief among his current woes is the disrepair of two of his buildings, the LNAC space and the currently unoccupied property next door, which he hopes someday to gut-rehab and turn into lodgings for visiting musicians and artists.
Rehabbing a pair of neglected, century-old brick buildings takes a lot of money, and Sarich, an adjunct college instructor and composer of experimental music, doesn't have much. With the help of friends and volunteers, he has been able to do a lot of the grunt work himself, but materials, equipment and specialized labor don't come cheap. For months he and other LNAC volunteers collected money at shows; whatever remained after the performers got paid was deposited in a coffee can, which Sarich took home with him for safekeeping. The building where he lives, just behind LNAC, is outfitted with a burglar alarm. "I took the can with me for security reasons," Sarich says with a grim chuckle. "It wasn't in a safe or anything, which was stupid, I guess. All told, they took $1200. That's a king's ransom for us."
By the look of things, the burglary appears to have been an inside job -- which is even more depressing, because only a first-class asshole would steal from such a worthy enterprise. Readers of Radar Station may know LNAC only as a cool venue for weirdo punk rock and experimental music (e.g., "You know, that funny Chris Smentkowski place!"), but it's also an art gallery, a community meeting place and an educational center for disadvantaged youth. Last summer, in conjunction with Joint Ministries, a consortium of local church groups, Sarich organized a workshop on found-object instruments. "We basically looked for stuff that's been discarded that the kids could play," he explains. "The kids actually made their own instruments, from their own environment. It teaches them to look at garbage differently, that maybe you shouldn't throw everything away because there might be uses for some stuff. Ultimately, we ended up videotaping interviews with them about their lives, and we projected the video while the kids provided musical accompaniment on the instruments they made."
At the moment, Sarich is preoccupied with trying to scrape together the cash he needs to bring the buildings up to code, but he'd like to start another youth program in the fall. He also continues to work on his own experimental-electronic compositions. "The most recent piece I've done was take [George W. Bush's last] State of the Union address and turn it into a rather pointed political statement for drum set and tape," he says. "I got a recording of Bush's voice, put it in the computer and then worked with it -- that applause track was really the kicker. I'm looking forward to putting it on in the fall at the center."
In the meantime, the local music community is doing its part to keep LNAC afloat. Last week the Detainees and a couple of touring bands hosted a benefit show, dubbed "Rock Against Petty Theft"; other local philanthropists, such as the Conformists, are planning similar fundraisers. Check the Web site for upcoming events and other details: www.lemp-arts.org. If you'd like to make a donation, you can either do it at a show or mail a check, payable to Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, to 3301 Lemp Ave., St. Louis, MO 63118.