The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum houses modern and contemporary art on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis.

Meet the Curator: Meredith Malone of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

Monday October 23, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

As you step onto the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, which features predominantly Collegiate Gothic architecture in its academic buildings – with several listed on the National Register of Historic Places – you can’t miss the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum surrounded by the Florence Steinberg Weil Sculpture Garden.

Established in 1881 as the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum is one of the oldest teaching museums in the country. Today, as part of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, it continues its legacy of acquiring significant modern and contemporary art that represents major international aesthetics.

Spanning three floors, the permanent collection ranges from the late 19th century to global contemporary art. In a first-floor gallery, the museum recently hung all new acquisitions, including a sculpture titled Crown I by Rose B. Simpson, a resident of the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, and a work titled Dragon Scales by Tuan Andrew Nguyen, a contemporary Vietnamese-American artist.

“The latter features a Russian artillery shell from the Vietnam War that Nguyen has tuned to a specific frequency,” curator Meredith Malone explains. “When struck, the shell makes a therapeutic sound that’s believed to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder. So, Nguyen has turned a remnant of war into a beautiful object with a healing function.”

Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno's Cosmic Filaments hangs in the lobby of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
Tomás Saraceno (Argentine, b. 1973), Cosmic Filaments, 2019. Dichroic filters, polyacrylic panels, stainless steel and polyester rope, 17’6” x 53” x 27’8”. University purchase with funds from the William T. Kemper Foundation and Art on Campus fund, 2019.

During the museum’s expansion in 2019, Malone had the rare opportunity to commission a site-specific piece for the lobby, which you can’t miss when you visit. She worked with Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno for a number of years to create Cosmic Filaments, a series of translucent, geometric modules that spans the entire ceiling of the lobby. The artwork takes utopian ideals from the 1960s, when artists, designers and architects were grappling with issues such as war, racism and environmentalism, and puts them into a contemporary context.

“Preserving artworks for both current and future generations and engaging the campus population, alumni and visitors along with the St. Louis region and the global art community are part of our core identity,” Malone says. “If you come to the museum on multiple occasions, you’ll always find something new, and you can explore all three floors in an hour or two before heading to another St. Louis attraction.”

The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum has a pioneering program of special exhibitions. Here, Malone, who came to the museum in 2006 after receiving a PhD in art history, talks about current and upcoming shows as well as her curatorial approach.

Adam Pendleton's work on mylar covers a wall in a museum.
Installation view of Adam Pendleton: To Divide By at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis (September 22, 2023–January 15, 2024). Photo © Andy Romer Photography.

As curator, what is your approach to developing and caring for the permanent collection?

When it comes to acquiring new works for the collection, a lot of decisions are informed by the existing collection in terms of its strengths and its weaknesses. For instance, we have a strong collection of American and European abstract art from the 1940s and 1950s, featuring painters such as Grace Hartigan, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Antoni Tàpies. So, one focus of recent collecting has been on contemporary artists who are experimenting with forms of abstraction. That, in turn, expands how we think about our collection – we always strive to tell broader narratives through new acquisitions. In general, I also look at both established and emerging artists whose work interrogates and diversifies our ideas of art and its relationship to audiences.

What is your approach to acquiring special exhibitions for the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum?

The majority of shows at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum originate here. We try to present a balanced program of special exhibitions that complement the permanent collection while highlighting significant contemporary artistic decisions. Occasionally, we’ll take other shows, as well, to present a broader breadth of curatorial voices. Curating special exhibitions is my main responsibility, and I love it. I enjoy working with contemporary artists to facilitate their creative endeavors and to present innovative exhibitions at the museum. It’s also a privilege to shape the permanent collection, and I love creating public programs as an exciting and engaging way to elaborate on what we’re trying to say with any given artwork.

Adam Pendleton poses during the installation of his solo exhibition at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
Portrait of Adam Pendleton | Photo by Matthew Placek

Tell me about your current exhibition, Adam Pendleton: To Divide By, which runs until Jan. 15, 2024.

It’s taken over all our special exhibition spaces as well as our video gallery, and it features works from the last five years, including large-scale paintings, drawings, works on mylar, ceramics and two incredibly beautiful film portraits of American choreographer and dancer Kyle Abraham and American civil rights activist Ruby Nell Sales. Together, [Pendleton’s] works prompt a conversation between mediums, revealing his belief in abstraction’s capacity to destabilize and disrupt.

On Feb. 23, 2024, Kahlil Robert Irving: Archeology of the Present will open at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. What makes that exhibition special?

The show will come to us from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Kahlil Robert Irving is particularly known for his work in ceramics, and this beautiful show exhibits his pieces on an interesting platform, where he plays with the idea of an archeological dig. Some of the artworks are set into the platform; some stick out of it. You can walk onto the platform and even touch some of the pieces. With this approach, he encourages his audience to consider the history of ceramics as an art medium while challenging cultural constructs in the Western world.

The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum is ambitious, and it plans to keep moving forward, with special exhibitions already planned for the next three years.

If you want to dive deeper into the astounding arts-and-culture scene in St. Louis, check out our guide to making your trip a masterpiece.