Lisa Melandri took the reigns of the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) this month when she assumed the position of director, replacing interim director Dwyer Brown and former leader Paul Ha. Originally from Boston, Melandri studied art history at Harvard University and received her master of arts from Williams College. She worked at the Galleries of Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia before joining the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2001 as the deputy director for exhibitions and programs. Ladue News recently spoke with Melandri about her new position, as well as the move to St. Louis with her husband, Jordan Gaunce.
LN: After more than 10 years at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, what attracted you to this new opportunity?
LM: I had heard wonderful things about the museum through my travels. I think there’s something special about an institution that has legs like that and has received such high marks from the art world. Also, what became very apparent to me was the vibrancy of the cultural ecosystem in St. Louis, with a huge, committed following and base of support. I got the sense that the population really believes in and supports the arts, which is very exciting.
LN: How will you bring your experience and knowledge to make CAM even better?
LM: I think it’s important to look both inward and outward. Looking right outside our front door, we want to make sure that people know what CAM has to offer, enable them to take advantage of the exhibitions and programs, and really be served by the institution.
At the same time, looking outward, it’s important to remain part of the global dialogue about contemporary art. We need to figure out how we can link what we’re doing in St. Louis with what’s happening internationally. I’m looking forward to balancing those two things, and I think we can do a lot with our programming in those regards.
LN:What do you think CAM has to offer St. Louis?
LM: While other museums do contemporary programming, CAM is specific to that, and we want a whole range of audiences to take advantage, from those who are savvy about contemporary art, to the youth audience who can gain exposure and understanding as they grow into adulthood.
Because it’s non-collecting, we can really focus on being the seismograph for what’s happening out in the world. You can have a different experience every time you walk through the doors—you may not love what you see this time, and adore it next time, but in every case there’s an element of discovery.
LN: What are some of the challenges of running a contemporary museum?
LM: Contemporary art can be challenging for the general public, so one of the major jobs we have is to make sure everyone has as much access as possible so they can get information and feel comfortable in the space.
There also is the global challenge of keeping the support of the community in order to continue our work—that’s at the forefront of every museum staff’s minds. But I don’t think those challenges are insurmountable, and I have the sense that the St. Louis community is incredibly invested—it’s palpable here.
LN: Did you have any trepidation about moving here?
LM: I wasn’t familiar with St. Louis, but in the few weeks that we’ve been here, we’ve fallen in love with the neighborhoods. Coming from Boston and Philadelphia, it feels comfortable. But I was warned about the brutal summers, and the first week we arrived, it was over 102 degrees every day!
LN:What are you most excited about for your new position?
LM: The most thrilling thing for me is immersing yourself in a new place and truly integrating yourself—seeing what makes a city tick and who you serve. I’m really excited that this is a museum with strong roots, and it’s a well-oiled machine.When you walk into a place that’s running beautifully, you’re in the privileged position to dream big.