Min Jung Kim of the Saint Louis Art Museum speaks on the New York City arts panel organized by Explore St. Louis.

Gateway to the Arts: A Conversation with Min Jung Kim of the Saint Louis Art Museum

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 Min Jung Kim, Barbara B. Taylor director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. To learn more about the Saint Louis Art Museum, visit its website.

Vanessa Cooksey moderated the New York City arts panel organized by Explore St. Louis.
Vanessa Cooksey of the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis | Photo by Kelly Williams

You joined the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2021 after having held several leadership roles here on the East Coast in New York and Connecticut. What attracted you to St. Louis and the opportunity to lead SLAM?

I was initially attracted by the world-renowned reputation of the Saint Louis Art Museum, which is primarily based on its permanent collection.

We have an extraordinary encyclopedic collection that ranges from ancient to contemporary. We’re perhaps best-known for German art, with a key strength in German expressionism. In fact, we have the largest holdings of Max Beckmann artworks in the world, which is really quite extraordinary, as well as a wonderful collection of artworks from Africa, Oceania and the ancient Americas, among many, many others.

As I’ve come to know the museum and the collection and how these remarkable pieces have come to St. Louis, it’s also given me a sense of the St. Louis collectors and the community at large. [I’ve come to know] Forest Park, where the Saint Louis Art Museum is located alongside the Saint Louis Zoo, the Missouri History Museum, The Muny and the Saint Louis Science Center, as well. All these institutions within the park are free.

We are one of the few museums in this country that has been free for more than a century [thanks to legislation in the early 1970s that established the Zoo Museum District of St. Louis]. This has been embedded in our DNA and in our mission.

So, understanding the context of the museum and where we’re located – [surrounded by] extraordinary colleagues and peers – has been a truly extraordinary experience, [and I’m grateful] to be a part of St. Louis and its arts and culture scene.

How are you curating new exhibitions for the 2023 season, and what will wow visitors this year?

[The 2023 season at the Saint Louis Art Museum opened with an exhibition titled] Age of Armor, which shows the Higgins Collection of arms and armor from the Worcester Art Museum, and just last week, we opened a wonderful exhibition called Monet/Mitchell: Painting the French Landscape, inspired by the fact that the Saint Louis Art Museum owns the center panel of one of Monet’s last and most important triptychs of Water Lilies.

Inspired by this work, the exhibition pairs the work of Claude Monet and Joan Mitchell, who lived in Vétheuil, France, which is approximately nine miles outside of Giverny, where Monet lived. In fact, the place in which Mitchell painted and lived in Vétheuil overlooked the same cottage where Monet also lived and worked. They were looking at essentially the same landscape across many, many decades. While the exhibition is not necessarily structured to compare the two, it does show a parallel conversation about abstraction, memory and, of course, landscape painting as a whole.

We’re very fortunate that we have key loans from two major French institutions – the Fondation Louis Vuitton and the Musée Marmottan Monet, which houses the largest collection of Monets in the world – and that we’re the only venue in North America where this exhibition can be seen. [It’ll be on view] through June 25.

Later in the summer, we’re going to have an exhibition called Action Abstraction Redefined. The exhibition title is a play on an exhibition that we showed many years ago called Action Abstraction Defined, which featured many of the masters of action paintings. This exhibition is “redefined” because we are featuring modern Native American abstract artists exclusively.

Our fall show will be an exhibition that we are co-organizing with the Baltimore Museum of Art. In fact, the show opens in Baltimore tomorrow before it comes to us in the fall. The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art of the 21st Century [coincides with] the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.

Our block party opening of the exhibition occurs on Aug. 19, which is one week later than 50 years ago when a block party launched the hip-hop movement in the Bronx. From that moment, hip-hop transformed into this global cultural phenomenon. A key part of the exhibition will feature collaborations with a number of our St. Louis partners.

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

I don’t think there’s one singular answer, a silver bullet, but one thing that we’re leaning into is collaboration and partnership, recognizing that we’re not alone. The more that we’re able to work together, this concept of “one plus one equals three” really resonates. As you can see here [from this panel] each of us has distinct and unique strengths. With very little overlap, it creates more space and more opportunities to be able to work together and to shine together.

It’s the 10th anniversary of the expansion of the Saint Louis Art Museum. Tell us about the expansion.

The main building was initially designed by Cass Gilbert for the 1904 World’s Fair, and while many of the buildings [for the exposition] were temporary, ours was designed with the museum in mind.

[The Saint Louis Art Museum moved into the building in 1906], but over time, space became a premium. Through an architectural competition, David Chipperfield was selected as the architect to expand the museum, which also enabled us to expand our gallery spaces and public spaces by more than 30 percent.

We’re delighted that this year celebrates the 10th anniversary of that wing and that it coincides with the fact that Sir David Chipperfield was selected as this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize recipient. So, it’s a celebration all around!