Arts & Culture: Grand Center

photo by Bryan Schraier

    Excitement is in the air at Grand Center as it celebrates a dynamic fall line-up, as well as new cultural additions to the midtown arts and entertainment district. Among them, the former Woolworth Building adjacent to the Fox Theatre has reopened as the new Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri headquarters. The Kranzberg Arts Center, on the building’s ground floor, is now home to Craft Alliance’s second location and two performance venues.

    Susan Wedemeyer, marketing and communications director for Grand Center Inc., says the district has taken a huge step forward in the past couple of years. “The progression may seem slow, but from a real estate standpoint, it’s been steady. So much has happened here in the last two years,” she says.

    Grand Center, between Lindell and Delmar boulevards with Grand Avenue as its spine, is home to 12,000 theater seats, 12 galleries and museums, and 1,500 cultural events, that draw 1.3 million visitors every year, according to Wedemeyer. “We just celebrated the grand opening of our arts season with the second annual ‘Dancing in the Streets,’ showcasing all kinds of dance,” she says. “We want this event to be known as the dance festival in St. Louis with streets full of people.” Another annual event that has established itself in the district is First Night St. Louis, a celebration with musicians, artists, dancers and other entertainers to usher in the New Year.

    A boost to the district’s thriving arts scene came with the recent launch of Craft Alliance’s satellite location. Executive director Boo McLoughlin says the addition gave Craft Alliance an opportunity to throw a wider net. “We wanted more people to have a better understanding of our craft, but it was difficult to expand at our University City location,” she says. “Being in Grand Center is an exciting opportunity for us to be in the middle of St. Louis’ cultural center.”

    McLoughlin says Craft Alliance’s gallery at the corner of Grand Boulevard and Olive Street has 32 feet of windows. “The visibility along Grand is ideal for viewing crafts,” she says. “And with 1,400 square feet of space, we can show large-scale, site-specific installations. It really gives us a space to create environments.” In addition, McLoughlin notes that underneath the gallery, a 4,000-square-foot education center houses clay, fiber and metal studios and three artists-in-residence. “We’re not only offering an opportunity to view art, but also to allow people to be involved in the process of creating and experiencing contemporary art,” she says.

    Moving forward, McLough?lin hopes to see synergy at work among those who’ve made Grand Center their home. “When you have this concentration of organizations devoted to various aspects of art, there’s something explosive that happens, there’s so much opportunity for collaboration with entities like the Contemporary Art Museum, The Sheldon, Circus Flora and Jazz at the Bistro,” she says. 

    Jazz at the Bistro and Jazz St. Louis executive director Gene Dobbs Bradford agrees, saying that a real spirit of collaboration exists, vastly improving the look and feel of the district. “When I first started 10 years ago, I remember musicians telling me that the area seemed a little depressed, with a lot of boarded-up buildings and the streets not being cared for,” he says. “But over the years, there’s been more life and direction, definitely a lot more going on.”

    Bradford notes that Jazz at the Bistro was recently cited in USA Today as one of the 10 great places for jazz. “St. Louis has a reputation of being a great jazz town, but when I arrived here 10 years ago, there weren’t a whole lot of places to hear jazz,” he says, adding that when the curtain fell on Gaslight Square, “it took a lot of the jazz with it.” Bradford says with performances, education and outreach, the hope is to bring the culture back. “We need to have a strong jazz presence here and show everybody who comes to St. Louis that jazz is a vital part of our culture.”

    Bradford says a combination of music and other cultural venues brings excitement to the district and an appreciation for all forms of art. “In a center where we have great institutions like The Fox Theatre, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, The Sheldon and Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, there are so many opportunities to come up with creative ways that would bring people here.”