A girl rockets down a rooftop slide in St. Louis.

Meet the Curator: Rick Erwin of City Museum

Wednesday February 14, 2024

By Rachel Huffman

On their first date, Rick Erwin and his wife went to City Museum. More than 20 years later, he’s creative director of the weirdly wonderful St. Louis attraction.

Erwin studied art history and studio art at Westminster College, and he received a Master of Arts in arts administration and policy from The Art Institute of Chicago. In between, he tried his hand at art restoration in Italy – “but the chemistry was too much for me,” he says with a laugh – and he taught art therapy in Pakistan.

“I’m a trained sculptor,” he explains, “but early in my career, I realized that I wasn’t going to be an artist. I’m more interested in learning the stories and processes behind other artists’ work and then helping them make the connections and get the resources that they need to create.”

In 2006, after graduate school – and three separate interviews, including one with American sculptor Bob Cassilly, who founded City Museum in 1997 – Erwin accepted a job as executive director of City Museum.

“I was executive director for 15 years,” he says. “Two years ago, I stepped down to spend more time with my family. There are so many talented people working at City Museum that I don’t know if a creative director is even necessary, but that’s my title now. The team is full of geniuses, and I just kind of herd them like cats to make sure that they finish projects. I also have a lot of opinions that I don’t mind sharing.

“Out of everything that we’ve built at City Museum over the years, my favorite is the work culture,” he continues. “Our team welcomes everyone, especially people who don’t feel like they fit in anywhere else.”

“When Hostess filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012, I bought every CupCake, Ding Dong and Twinkie pan that they had; now, we build walls out of them.”

– Rick Erwin

Housed in a 600,000-square-foot former shoe company warehouse, City Museum is as much a playground as it is a museum. Exhibits consist largely of repurposed architectural and industrial objects, from colorful tiles to safety deposit boxes to stainless steel buffet pans, which decorate the veritable adventure park.

“Material dictates what we build,” Erwin explains. “We have general ideas of how to build, say, a labyrinth on the fourth floor [which is set to open this summer], but since we work with reused and recycled materials, we have to wait for them to become available. I don’t like to buy anything.

“When Hostess filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012, I bought every CupCake, Ding Dong and Twinkie pan that they had,” he continues. “Now, we build walls out of them.”

At City Museum, you can climb into a bowhead whale’s mouth, navigate an underground tunnel system, journey through enchanted caves, rocket down a 10-story slide and pilot a plane suspended in the air. Fully immersed in the space, you never know what you might discover.

“It’s difficult to describe City Museum, but in general, it’s a place that builds confidence,” Erwin says. “I’ve seen kids who were once scared to go down the multistory slides encouraging their peers – even their teachers – to take a turn. At City Museum, families are encouraged to play – and grow – together.”

Igniting the imagination, City Museum also pushes the boundaries of art with exhibits consisting of pancake designs, Louis Sullivan architecture, objects found in outhouses and George Dehil’s taxidermy butterflies, moths and insects. On the first floor, don’t miss the forks and spoons welded together to form a banana.

“There are little, obsessive, wacky collections throughout the museum,” Erwin says, “and I encourage everyone to spend time examining them. In the privy collection, for instance, one of the coolest objects is a piece of pottery shaped like a pretzel that’s really a flask!”

City Museum houses the world's largest pencil.
Photo by Mark McElroy

Until April 14, visitors can explore The Science of Guinness World Records, a new exhibition at City Museum.

“We go big at City Museum,” Erwin says. “We own the world’s largest pencil, the world’s largest underwear, the world’s largest seesaw and the world’s largest tennis racket. So, it was only natural for us to have a Guinness World Records exhibition.”

The Science of Guinness World Records spotlights the world’s greatest record holders and what it took for them to cement their names in the history books. Across the globe, people push themselves to achieve extraordinary feats. From the world’s longest mustache (14 feet) to the most drumbeats in 60 seconds (more than 2,100 beats, or 35 per second) to the most consecutive pinky pull-ups (36), the world is full of fascinating individuals with strange skills.

The exhibition also challenges you to set new records.

Later this year, Attaboy, who owns Hi-Fructose Magazine, will set up a cardboard art show on the third floor – plus, City Museum hosts epic events for all seasons. We hope to see you at one!