Cara Starke of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation speaks on a panel about St. Louis arts.

Gateway to the Arts: A Conversation with Cara Starke of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation

Friday April 7, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

We took the show on the road! On March 30, leaders from some of St. Louis’ most important arts organizations gathered at Lightbox in New York City for a media event spotlighting the impressive cultural scene in our region.

Hosted by Explore St. Louis, the event engaged the media in the story of St. Louis as a hub of artistic activity and a leading city on the national arts stage. More than 30 members of the media joined us for the experience, representing platforms such as AFARCondé Nast Traveler and Forbes. At the end of the discussion, Explore St. Louis’ Cat Neville extended an invitation to join us in St. Louis in May for an arts-focused media tour, which will connect media directly with the people and places that bring our city to life with creativity and vision.

The conversation, moderated by Vanessa Cooksey, president and CEO of the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis, uncovered details of why St. Louis deserves serious attention as a destination for those interested in experiencing groundbreaking exhibitions and performances.

Here, we present the conversation between Cooksey and Cara Starke, director of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. To learn more about the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, visit its website.

Explore St. Louis hosted a panel about St. Louis arts in New York City in 2023.
Gateway to the Arts panel | Photo by Kelly Williams

You relocated to St. Louis from New York. What attracted you to St. Louis and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation?

New York is my beloved city – it’s always wonderful to be here – but I moved to St. Louis because I fell in love with the museum. To be honest, I really didn’t know much about the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, and I showed up and I thought, “This exists?”

The extraordinary building designed by Tadao Ando opened in 2001. It’s his first freestanding building in this country. It is a gem of a space and an incredible place to see art. It’s very intimate, but also has grand spaces, and there’s a reflecting pool in the middle of the museum that infuses the galleries with natural light that changes over the course of the day.

When I saw it, I thought, “My gosh, this is extraordinary.” Then, on top of it, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation is a museum that’s very much committed to the community; it has a real desire to be part of the community. Across the street, a recent addition to our campus is a rain garden, which harnesses storm water runoff and helps over a hundred native plant species grow.

[The combination of all that] was enough to make me fall in love, so I left New York, and I’ve been very happy.

What can visitors expect to see at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation?

The Pulitzer is a non-collecting art museum. We show historic and contemporary art from around the world. We do have a few site-specific commissions, including a Richard Serra sculpture. We also have a very well-known piece by Ellsworth Kelly in our main gallery, but otherwise, we have constantly changing exhibitions.

If you were to walk through the museum this week, you would see two new shows, one by Faye HeavyShield, an indigenous artist based in Southern Alberta. She’s very well-known in Canada, and we’re pleased to be doing this major show of her work in St. Louis.

We also have a super fascinating show called The Nature of Things: Medieval Art and Ecology. It’s an eco-critical look at the production of art in the Middle Ages. A brilliant undertaking by one of our curators, it looks at how people were using and extracting resources from the natural environment during the Middle Ages and how that affected artmaking.

For example, we know that during the medieval period, the production of stained glass was important for churches. Well, it took 500 trees to produce a single pane of stained glass. So, what was happening with deforestation during that time? What innovative techniques were they developing so that they could continue to have forests to be able to produce more work? This exhibition takes a brilliant look at that.

If you come during the fall, we’ll have two very different shows. Artist Sarah Crowner, who is based here, will be doing a series of commissions [including painting and tile sculpture] for our space, and then we’re collaborating with a really unusual organization called the National Building Arts Center that’s based just across the river in Illinois. They have one of the largest collections of architectural fragments in the country, and we’ll be using their collection in our space to investigate the history of St. Louis in terms of the built environment.

You’re also partnering with Counterpublic for its triennial public art festival. Tell us about the civic exhibition.

Counterpublic is a really important public art exhibition, a civic art exhibition, that opens on April 15. It’s one of the largest in the country, and it will have 30 artist commissions that are engaging on a six-mile stretch of the city.

What distinguishes Counterpublic is its approach to engaging deeply within the community and making a tangible impact. For example, the organization is working with a neighborhood to produce a public park in one of the areas of the city that doesn’t have a public park, so [that’s a piece of this year’s exhibition that will] remain. In fact, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation worked with one of the artists who’ll be making a piece for the park.

St. Louis has a fascinating pre-Columbian history as a mound city. I highly recommend visiting Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. Cahokia had its height around 1100, and at the time, it was larger than Philadelphia. To this day, there are remaining mounds in Illinois. There’s at least one existing mound in St. Louis, as well, and Counterpublic has been working with the hopes that this will be repatriated to the Osage Nation through this process.

Of course, there’s going to be the fabulous art that you see, but Counterpublic also represents meaningful connection within the community and lasting change.

Audience question: There are a lot of indigenous artworks represented in the different museums and places around the city, but how are the indigenous people themselves still active or involved in the community?

It’s a really important question, but a complex one. I’m not sure that I’m truly the person to respond, but I’ll do my best.

St. Louis only has approximately 10,000 people who identify as indigenous in a region that’s, what, 2.7 million? The history of Missouri is complex, and, in fact, it was illegal to be indigenous and live in Missouri for a significant period of time. Many of the native communities moved to Oklahoma, so when Counterpublic is working with the Osage Nation, they are actually near Tulsa. A lot of the indigenous effort at this moment is about connecting to other regions of the Midwest. That is an extremely reductive history, but that gives you a little bit of the context why the community is actually quite small at this moment.

Both Counterpublic and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation are collaborating with several native-led organizations, but it’s such an important history of this country, more broadly, and I’m really pleased to see many organizations trying to empower and collaborate with native-led organizations.

Around the country, many arts organizations across disciplines are still struggling to attracts audiences post pandemic. Can you share your secret sauce for growing your audiences?

We have seen people coming back, and for me, I think the reason is that we need spaces of joy and connection, and [cultural institutions] can offer that. I think we look back at history and we look at our present in order to help us imagine our future, and our spaces enable that in different ways. We have seen our audiences coming back and candidly thanking us for that space to connect with each other, to be a part of something. So, offering those types of spaces has been really meaningful, especially on the heels of these last few years.