Chris Hansen of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation speaks on a panel about St. Louis arts.

Gateway to the Arts: A Conversation with Chris Hansen of the Kranzberg 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 AFAR, Condé 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 Chris Hansen, executive director of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation. To learn more about the Kranzberg 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

How has the Kranzberg Arts Foundation’s support of the infrastructure of the arts helped our sector thrive and grow, and what are your top goals for that?

We are punching really high, and the role that our organization takes is to support creatives through infrastructure. Through an art-based approach to community development, we work with our neighborhoods and our communities of artists and arts organizations to build the artistic venues, workspaces and studios that it takes for them to build capacity and thrive in their work.

We now have 12 facilities – more than a million square feet of art space – that house 70-plus arts organizations and artists. Our role is to develop the venues, align them with the infrastructure, create a massive subsidy for them to be there and then help creatives tell their stories and bring their audiences to the district.

Eleven of the 12 facilities reside in the Grand Center Arts District, where the Pulitzer Arts Foundation and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra are located; it’s fertile soil.

It’s because of the prolific creative community that we have called this to action. We do a lot of active listening, and we align our resources and investments appropriately when the community defines its needs.

Because the arts are so prolific, we’ve heard a lot of calls. The theater community needed centralization; we now have five theaters across our venues. We have more than a dozen theater companies and dance companies that activate black boxes, and they produce approximately 600 opportunities to see dance and theater every year. We have live music programs happening throughout our venues, four different galleries and a new public art mural walk that we are embarking on right now.

This is all because the artists and the creatives have risen to a point in their work that they need infrastructure. When the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis gives them the grant, we give them the space and the time to do their work. It’s an important triangle of funding that is very unique to St. Louis. Not every market can do this; real estate is finite in a lot of markets. In St. Louis, we are lucky to have a central corridor that we can still take scale buildings and turn them into massive community benefits.

So, our goal is to continue to support these great artists and creatives and support St. Louis as a premier arts and entertainment destination for the world to see.

Tell us about Music at the Intersection, and why St. Louis is the right place for that festival.

In 2017/2018, there were several different groups getting together to talk about music infrastructure and the music industry. How do we sustain and support this community of musicians? How do we attract and retain talent? There were some things that were lifted up in these conversations, and one of them was a festival in our likeness.

The Kranzberg Arts Foundation took the mantle to produce Music at the Intersection because we had the infrastructure and the capacity to do it, but it really is a community lift. There are more than two dozen organizations involved in the effort, which celebrates St. Louis’ footprint on the American songbook.

It’s a festival that you’ll only see in St. Louis. It’s a glorious mash-up of visual art [and music], with more than 50 bands performing – the majority of which are from St. Louis. We do a really good job of lifting up our culture, our food scene and our artisan vendors while putting musicians on stages. Plus, we produce it all locally.

This is a major event for St. Louis. It happens in our urban streets; it’s a big block party! There are stages under The Big Top, on two different fields that have adjacent green spaces and on Washington Avenue in the middle of the Grand Center Arts District.

Audience question: When is Music at the Intersection?

Sept. 9 and 10, 2023. On Sept. 7 and 8, we also have a free two-day conference for artists that features leaders in art, music, fashion and technology.

Again, the festival will be rooted in St. Louis’ musical heritage. We take the story of how blues, jazz and soul informed modern-day rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop and R&B, and we create a festival that you won’t find anywhere else. Gen Z crowds are going to have a great time, but if you’re Gen X and closer to my age, you’re going to have an incredible time, too.

Music at the Intersection is truly diverse; it’s a real representation of the St. Louis region. More than 50 percent of the attendees are people of color, and we have a huge LGBTQA+ community that comes around this event. Everybody sees themselves there.

Fall is our festival season. If you come to St. Louis between late August and early October, you can enjoy everything that makes it great. Pick any weekend or any day in that time frame, and you’ll find the art, the music, the culture – and you’ll find it in density. You’ll find it in a way where you can immerse yourself for long periods of time.

Audience question: Would you say that St. Louis shows more contemporary art, or do you revisit past works, focusing on the historical context of them?

We are an authentic music, art and culture city. We have it in our DNA; we have it in our bones. So, we’re rooted in that heritage; we’re rooted in that history. But we trend set. We don’t make one genre or one thing.

We have prolific creatives who are choosing to live in St. Louis, but you can see their work on the walls of the MoMA; you can see them touring the world. These are folks who are choosing to stay in St. Louis because of what it offers them as a community, and we’re producing some of the most prolific writers and filmmakers and musicians and visual artists anywhere in the world.