The Saint Louis Art Museum is one of the city's free attractions.

A World of Art in One Season at the Saint Louis Art Museum

Wednesday December 28, 2022

By Rachel Huffman

Spanning time, place, culture and media, the comprehensive collection at the Saint Louis Art Museum informs new exhibitions with diverse narratives.

“That’s the starting point from which we curate temporary exhibitions for each season,” Min Jung Kim, director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, says. “Initially, the approach is largely philosophical. The stories that art tells help us reflect on our history, better understand our present and inform our future, so we must ask what stories we want to tell. Then, we begin to identify exhibitions that have a particular appeal for our audience.

“Increasingly, we also want to find new ways to activate the masterpieces in our collection so that they can become connection points of relevance and resonance for the St. Louis community.”

Water Lilies by Claude Monet is on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Water Lilies by Claude Monet | On view during Monet/Mitchell: Painting the French Landscape

Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, Min Jung Kim has spent half of her life in the U.S., building an impressive résumé that includes stints at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York.

“Now, I’m delighted to call St. Louis my home,” she says.

Kim started as the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum in September 2021. “Anyone would be considered a fool to not take this job, especially given how extraordinary the Saint Louis Art Museum is,” she says. “The museum’s collection is world-renowned; it’s held in high regard both nationally and internationally, and I knew about it prior to my move. I was also aware of the world-class facilities and wonderful staff, but now that I’ve been here for more than a year, I know more about the museum in the context of the St. Louis community, too.

“The Saint Louis Art Museum is just one of many intellectual, cultural and educational resources that exist in St. Louis,” she continues, “and I’m really excited about the role of the museum in the area’s rich arts scene as well as the possible collaborations with our peers and partners in the community. Professionally – and personally – I’m most inspired by collaboration. I’ve found it to be one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.”

See a helmet in the form of a sea conch shell by Nagasone Tojiro Mitsumasa.
Helmet in the form of a Sea Conch Shell by Nagasone Tojiro Mitsumasa | On view during Age of Armor: Treasures from the Higgins Armory Collection at the Worcester Art Museum

The 2023 season at the Saint Louis Art Museum will open with an exhibition titled Age of Armor: Treasures from the Higgins Armory Collection at the Worcester Art Museum. Running from Feb. 18 to May 14, the exhibition will showcase objects from the nation’s second largest collection of arms and armor, ranging from superb Sudanese helmets to steel Renaissance suits.

While there’s a universality of armor as a defensive tool, the exhibition also relays the story of armor as a fashion statement.

“Many of the gloriously decorated suits of armor were a medium for artistic virtuosity,” Kim explains. “As you make your way through the exhibition, traveling through the decades, it becomes clear that these custom-made suits of armor indicate the fashion of the time.”

Starting with artifacts from ancient Greece, the exhibition will extend into the 21st century with examples of modern defensive gear developed by the U.S. Army as well as representations of armor in Hollywood films such as Black Panther and Star Wars. You can also examine depictions of armor in paintings, prints and rarely exhibited Flemish tapestries from the Saint Louis Art Museum collection. From start to finish, the exhibition will have historical significance and contemporary relevance.

Ici by Joan Mitchell is on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Ici by Joan Mitchell | On view during Monet/Mitchell: Painting the French Landscape

Next, visitors can lose themselves in the lush landscapes of rural France.

Monet/Mitchell: Painting the French Landscape runs from March 25 to June 25, and the Saint Louis Art Museum will be the only North American venue for the groundbreaking exhibition, which brings the two extraordinary artists together.

French painter Claude Monet and American artist Joan Mitchell both worked in Vétheuil, France, which is approximately 10 miles from Giverny, France, where Monet painted many of his famous water lilies. Although decades apart, both artists looked at essentially the same landscape and painted essentially the same scenes in their own individual styles, creating an ongoing dialogue between Monet’s impressionist landscapes and Mitchell’s abstract expressionist landscapes.

“The relationships between color palettes and gestural brushstrokes are astonishing,” Kim says. “Both artists had an exceptional closeness to nature, and they address similar themes using trees, earth, flowers, water and other iconography. Just looking at the way in which Monet and Mitchell incorporated trees as a starting point for much of their work is absolutely fascinating.”

Monet/Mitchell will present 24 paintings – 12 by each artist – that are monumental in scale and overwhelming in impact. The majority of the works will come from the Musée Marmottan Monet and the Fondation Louis Vuitton, both of which are located in Paris, and collectively, they will highlight the painters’ passions for expansive, panoramic formats. The exhibition will also include two major works from the Saint Louis Art Museum collection: Water Lilies by Monet and Ici by Mitchell.

“We’re thrilled to bring this special exhibition to St. Louis,” Kim says. “It’s perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these remarkable works [side by side].”

Firelights by T.C. Cannon is a painting with abstract figures.
Firelights by T.C. Cannon | On view during Action/Abstraction Redefined: Modern Native Art, 1940s-1970s

Action/Abstraction Redefined: Modern Native Art, 1940s-1970s, which will run from June 24 to Sept. 3, has great importance, as well. It will be the first ticketed exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum that focuses on modern and contemporary Native American art.

“In many ways, the pieces in this exhibition challenged the stereotypical expectations of Native American art during the postwar era,” Kim says. “We’re presenting the exhibition in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, a center of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), which was founded in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1962. While the core of the exhibition has been traveling to different venues, we’ve been working with the museum to not only take on the show, but to also expand the number of works in the show. At this point, the exhibition has almost doubled in size, offering a greater presentation of key artists and providing a deeper context for the remarkable story of abstraction during the first decade of IAIA.”

The exhibition will introduce audiences to an exciting body of artwork, including paintings, sculptures, textiles and works on paper. Thanks to curators from both art institutions, it will also deepen scholarship by spotlighting many women artists whose work remains largely unknown even among specialists.

Derrick Adams artwork features a beautiful Black woman with skin tones and hair colors.
Style Variation 34 by Derrick Adams | On view during The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century

Different but equally alluring, The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century will run from Aug. 26 to Jan. 1, 2024, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip-hop. The Saint Louis Art Museum is co-organizing the exhibition with the Baltimore Museum of Art to present a sweeping art history of hip-hop culture and its myriad expressions across the globe.

“The exhibition encompasses everything from the genesis of hip-hop as a way to amplify marginalized voices, especially those of Black, Latinx and Afro-Latinx youth, to its resounding impact on contemporary art and culture,” Kim says. “By focusing on the last two decades, in particular, we can celebrate hip-hop as a global cultural phenomenon.”

In addition to spotlighting the importance of the written and spoken word, The Culture will also explore hip-hop’s unique contributions to innovations in performing arts, visual arts, technology and fashion with significant examples, including looks from Virgil Abloh’s collections for Louis Vuitton and legendary streetwear brand Cross Colours.

The multidisciplinary and multimedia exhibition will also identify pressing issues within the realm of hip-hop, such as the complex relationship between capitalism, commodification and racial identity.

“Accessibility, community engagement and education are key to the success of this show,” Kim explains. “We’ve assembled a global advisory committee that’s made up of hip-hop’s leading thinkers. From academics to musicians and curators to fashion designers, they’re helping us refine the theme of the exhibition and adhere to the ethos of hip-hop. Through those conversations, we’ve created a well-thought-out show along with a number of programs that will rely on local collaborations. At the end of the day, we want the spirit of The Culture to extend beyond the walls of the museum, creating a citywide celebration of hip-hop and St. Louis’ contributions to the art form.”

Wisteria by Claude Monet is on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Wisteria by Claude Monet | On view during Monet/Mitchell: Painting the French Landscape

Each ticketed exhibition of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s 2023 season can be considered on its own merits, including the story that it tells and the community engagement that it inspires, but as a whole, the season proves to be even more powerful.

“The variety of exhibitions coming to the museum in one year is astounding,” Kim says, “and we believe that there’s something for everyone. The Saint Louis Art Museum is a major attraction – and the perfect excuse to visit St. Louis. Come and see an exhibition that interests you, and while you’re here, explore all the things that the region has to offer. St. Louis is such a wonderful place, and now that I know, I want to make sure everyone else knows, too.”

This painting combines Japanese imagery and graffiti.
Ride or Die by Gajin Fujita | On view during The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century

The Saint Louis Art Museum boasts more than 36,000 objects, and Kim has the luxury of focusing on one at a time, sitting with it, contemplating it and taking a deep dive into its story. The museum has a strong pull on her; however, Kim has also become more interested in music since moving to St. Louis.

“We have extraordinary music in St. Louis, including Jazz St. Louis, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra,” Kim says, “and with a certain level of intentionality, we’re beginning to explore the intersection of music and art.

“That’s what I love about my job,” she continues. “I have a wonderful opportunity to learn, to learn about my own field as well as other fields and to identify opportunities for collaboration among professionals.”

Throughout the year, the Saint Louis Art Museum also hosts free exhibitions and events, including SLAM Underground, Family Fun Days and the ever-popular Art in Bloom, the museum’s annual celebration of fine art and flowers. During Art in Bloom, dozens of works from the museum’s collection are imaginatively interpreted through floral designs by the region’s most talented florists. Art in Bloom 2023 runs from March 3 to 5, but you can see the flowers first during a special ticketed Art in Bloom preview event on the evening of March 2.