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St. Louis tries new approach in museum expansion

The St. Louis Art Museum is rearranging galleries by theme rather than time period, seeking to make them more accessible to visitors as part of a $162 million expansion.
/ Source: Reuters

The St. Louis Art Museum is rearranging galleries by theme rather than time period, seeking to make them more accessible to visitors as part of a $162 million expansion.

Galleries that once covered the 18th Century, for example, now focus on "The Modern Body" with nudes from different eras, or "The American Scene."

It's an approach already in use at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum and the Cincinnati Art Museum, as more museums try to connect art to visitors' personal experience, said Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews.

"Themes like food and eating or similar approaches are a way to get into other cultures or past culture so we see the commonalities with our own daily lives," Cembalest said.

So far, 18 galleries with 275 works have been installed with three more to go at the St. Louis Art Museum, which has one of the most comprehensive collections in the U.S. Midwest.

The redesign started in November and will be completed in March. A similar thematic approach will be followed in a new building, which will be completed next year and feature art produced after 1950.

"We have created some thought-provoking juxtapositions in the museum, bringing a real coherence to the displays that should be make them more accessible," curator Simon Kelly said.

"People are happy with the new way," Kelly said. "This is a work in progress and we will continue this approach throughout the new building."

One gallery in the original building is now devoted entirely to the works of German artist Max Beckmann. With 430 paintings, prints and drawings, the St. Louis Art Museum claims the largest Beckmann collection in the world.


Forty-five works in the newly installed galleries have either never been on view or out of sight for more than a decade.

One painting, "The Sinking of the Titanic," was made by Beckmann when he was 26 in 1912, the year the ocean liner went down. The painting, which shows the faces of the desperate and confused passengers in lifeboats and the great ship almost lost on the horizon, had not been on display for 10 years.

Also back before the public is Beckmann's "Scene from the Destruction of Messina," which has not been viewed in the galleries since 1983.

Other highlights of the new galleries include Rodin's small sculpture "Despair," missing from view for 15 years; a restored double-sided Cezanne painting that portrays his mother on one side of the canvas and his sister on the other; three paintings from the career of leading French Realist Gustave Courbet; and the newly acquired Degas "The Milliners" (1898).

The Beckmann gallery is the centerpiece of the museum's direction, showing 14 paintings that provide an overview of his career in one startling explosion of color and content.

"When you go to Europe, people associate Beckmann with St. Louis," Kelly said. "We have a very strong collection and we wanted to foreground the strengths."

Beckmann was a great success in 1920s Germany but with the Nazi regime in power in 1937 some 500 works were confiscated and he was branded a "degenerate artist" by Adolf Hitler.

Beckmann fled to Amsterdam that year and then to St. Louis in 1947 where he taught art at Washington University, and then at the art school of the Brooklyn Museum in New York until his death in 1950.

The St. Louis Art Museum was designed by architect Cass Gilbert for the 1904 World's Fair. The original building and the new building will eventually show 600 of the museum's collection of 33,0000 works of art.