Gateway to the Arts

Stories / Travel / May 21, 2015
Gateway Arch in St. Louis, courtesy of Debbie Franke

Gateway Arch in St. Louis, courtesy of Debbie Franke

Rising from the banks of the mighty Mississippi, the gleaming Arch is St. Louis’ most visible and iconic work of art, but the city is also home to the Grand Arts District, described as one of the most vibrant cultural/entertainment areas in the country.

Anchored by the Fox Theater and the St. Louis Symphony,  new museums, galleries,  restaurants and bars have sprung up in recent years around these major cultural attractions.

I wanted to explore this area of St. Louis, also called Midtown, and headed there on Good Friday, which happened to coincide with the First Fridays in Grand Center where many of the surrounding museums and galleries are free and open until 9 p.m.

Great timing.

First, I stopped at the World Chess Hall of Fame, which opened in 2011 in the Central West End. Always a fun part of town full of shops and restaurants – I exited off of U.S. 40 onto Kingshighway West and then turned right onto Maryland. I noticed Bissinger’s Chocolates on my way to the Hall of Fame,  4652 Maryland Ave., in what was once a private residence and then a pharmacy.

Amanda Cook, who handles public relations for the museum,  informed me that St. Louis is one of the top  chess cities in the world and that more grand masters live there than anywhere else. The U.S. Chess Federation named Saint Louis  “Chess City of the Year” in 2009 and 2011.

World Chess Hall of Fame Exterior

Word Chess Hall of Fame (submitted photo)

Who knew?

I do not play chess, checkers or cards, but I loved the dramatic and dangerous wizard’s chess game from the film, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Real chess is less dangerous perhaps but rigorous of the mind and body, according to Bobby Fischer, one of the best and most famous chess players in the world.

“A Memorable Life: A Glimpse into the Complex Mind of Bobby Fischer,” which runs through June 7, is on the top floor.  The exhibition features a video of Fischer being  interviewed by Mike Wallace for “60 Minutes” along with many photos of the genius taken by Harry Benson, a Scottish photographer whose photos appeared in Life and Vanity Fair. Fischer’s mother coincidentally hails from St. Louis.

Fischer caught my attention by way of the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, about the pressures and demands on a young chess prodigy and his family. Written and directed by Steven Zaillian, the film is based on a book about the life of prodigy chess player Joshua Waitzkin. I loved the film and watched it many times. Years later, while covering entertainment in Los Angeles, I visited my brother, Todd, who lived in Austin at the time. I attended the Austin Film Festival and interviewed Zallian, by then one of the A-list screenwriters in Los Angeles. The legendary Conrad Hall served as the cinematographer.

Ivory chess piece, courtesy of Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART

Ivory chess piece, courtesy of Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART

The strength of the film is its ability to draw in both chess aficionados and people like me who are totally out of that loop. That’s also the mission of the museum.

“We want to make chess fun and accessible and add an educational element and level of learning for a wide audience,” said Chief Curator Shannon Bailey. “We like that when people come in they usually say, ‘I never knew…I had no idea.’”

The Hall moved from Miami to St. Louis and opened with seed funding provided by Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield, who also founded the Chess Club and Scholastic Center across the street. During my visit the US Chess Championships were underway.

The Sinquefields have homes in the Central West End and in Osage County near Westphalia and are known contributing to conservative candidates and political causes. Recently they donated $10 million for a new music and fine arts building at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

As we walk through the exhibits space, Cook schools me on the game of chess. The queen turns out to be the most powerful piece, as she can go anywhere and move in any direction. Love that…girl power. Whoop. Whoop. The pawn is pretty cool too since it can transform itself.

The first floor gallery’s exhibit space featured “Living Like Kings” to showcase the strong relationship between chess and hip hop. The learning lab on the second floor featured some of the city’s graffiti artists and the work of Nick Gates, who fused hip-hop dance, sculpture, fashion and electronics.

Two new exhibits that run through Oct., 18 of 2015, include “Marcel Dzama: Mischief Makes a Move,” which features the sculpture, prints and drawings of the internationally-acclaimed artist, and an encore of Ivory Chess Treasures from the Jon Crumiller Collection.

After perusing the cool items in the small gift shop, Cook and I headed down the street to eat some delicious sushi at The Drunken Fish.

The Central West End is very close to Forest Park, home to the St. Louis Zoo and the St. Louis Art Museum; the Science Center is just over U.S. 40.


Ignacio Hotel, Grand Center, courtesy of John Nagel

I headed east down Lindell to check in at the Hotel Ignacio, a boutique property on Olive Street, just over Grand Avenue on St. Louis University’s campus. An urban setting  within walking distance to many of the museums, the property was designed by Steve Smith of The Lawrence Group, and includes the motorcycle store MotoEuropa, which sells Ducati, Triumph, KTM and Vespa bikes, and has two restaurants and two museums.

I quickly walked through the Moto Museum, a showcase of 100 vintage and contemporary motorcycles, and then headed up a flight of stairs to the INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM, which is my kind of scene.

Previously located in the Science Museum in Oklahoma City, it opened in St. Louis in 2013.

The current exhibit, “St. Louis Architecture: A Proud Heritage,” runs through Aug. 30 and features the work of 10 photographers who capture some of the significant city landmarks.

After wandering around on my own, I met up with Executive Director John Nagel, a professional photographer and former professor of Art for the St. Louis Community College at Meramec. One of his photographs is part of a grouping at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, close to where I lived in Los Angeles.

Nagel and I walked over to The Dark Room, a new restaurant serving small plates that also displays the work of artists. I then set out to visit the places that are on the First Fridays map,  although The St. Louis University Museum of Art was closed.


Fox Theatre staircase, courtesy of John Nagel

Behind the Fox Theatre, and west on Washington Avenue, is the Sheldon Art Galleries on the second floor of the Sheldon Concert Hall.  I enjoyed the black and white photographs taken in Central and South America found in “Mario Algaze: A Respect for Light.” The AT&T Gallery of Children’s Art featured a selection of marionettes made by St. Louis puppeteer Bob Kramer. The exhibits were about ready to change for the summer.

The CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM, CAM, 3750 Washington Blvd., featured one exhibit by Joe Goode, born in Oklahoma City but lives in Los Angeles, with his torn skies motif and tornado images. Now through Aug. 16, CAM will feature “Sanatorium,” a living artwork by Mexico City-based artist Pedro Reyes.

Next door is THE PULITZER FOUNDATION OF THE ARTS, 3716 Washington Blvd., which was still closed for the renovations that added two new gallery spaces. It reopened on May 1 with new exhibitions and performance and other events.

On the way back toward Grand, I stopped at the BRUNO DAVID GALLERY, the one with the bright blue door. One of the exhibits featured “Max Starkloff: A Retrospective” runs through June 27. It is about the artist and civil rights leader born in St. Louis who was paralyzed from the neck down and has a star on the St. Louis Hall of Fame.

"Mischief Make a Move" by Marcel Dzama, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York

“Mischief Make a Move” by artist Marcel Dzama, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York

There’s also a second location of the gallery in the Grove, a business district between Kingshighway and Vandeventer Avenue with many fun shops and restaurants. There’s Dexter’s Art Studio, the Art Bar, for food, cocktails and a showcase for local artists and Small Batch, a whiskey lounge and restaurant nearby on Locust.

Back at the hotel, Baiku Sushi Lounge was packed along with the adjacent lounge it shares with the hotel. It had just been favorably reviewed by Sauce Magazine, which might have been part of the rush. Both it and Triumph Grill, which was also full, features a motorcycle theme – BaiKu is Japanese slang for motorcycle.

The next morning, I checked out early. I drove west on Lindell past the historic and majestic mansions that face Forest Park. At the intersection of Lindell and DeBaliviere, on the north side of Forest Park, is the Missouri History Museum, where there’s always rotating art exhibits.

I kept going to the beautiful Washington University campus that’s an extension of Forest Park and home to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Soon, I turned onto Wydown Boulevard and landed in my old neighbor in the Moorlands Area of Clayton, savoring all those tree-lined streets leading to delis and coffee shops in walking distance.

Soon, back on U.S. 40 I drove home awash in memories until I reached the exit U.S. 54 at Kingdom City and then thoughts turned to family and the rest of the day.

Alvin Leifeste

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