Con Christeson, Susan Uchitelle, Sara Burke, Gina Alvarez, Lois Ingrum, Kim Eberlein

This year is the 10th anniversary of Grand Center Inc.’s Visionary Awards, which honor women who are making a difference in the arts. Past winners include St. Louis greats such as Nancy Kranzberg, Carol Staenberg, Kim Massie and Jessica Hentoff. Below, we introduce the 2012 class, whose talent and dedication make the 10th anniversary all the more cause for celebration! They will be honored on May 16 at The Sheldon Concert Hall, with presenting sponsor Brown Shoe. For more information, visit


Gina Alvarez’s ‘affair’ with the arts began innocuously enough—she got a job as a registrar for a studio affiliated with a museum in Charleston, S.C. “I enjoyed the people, and the nice thing about working for the studio school was that I could take free classes,” she says. Eventually, she decided to go back to school in earnest and graduated with a degree in art, with an emphasis in printmaking.

Alvarez, the former gallery and education director at St. Louis Artists’ Guild, is currently education coordinator for Pele Prints in Crestwood and soon will be working at Paper Boat Studio. “There are people in St. Louis doing amazing things, who just need a little extra help,” Alvarez says. “I’m excited to work with both of these organizations and get things happening for them. It’s piecing things together, but it feeds into the same idea.”

She says the jobs also leave her time to work in her own studio, where she creates her own twist on printmaking, along with mixed media collages. “I think my work sort of begs to be touched, because it has this surface that’s a little indefinable.” She adds with a laugh, “You’re not supposed to be able to touch artwork, but I do. It’s egalitarian in that respect.”


When Sara Burke heard about legendary dancer Katherine Dunham, she was fascinated. But as a Green Bay, Wisc., native, she never thought she would study under the East St. Louis-based choreographer and anthropologist. By chance, Burke moved to St. Louis for college, and discovered that her neighbor was a drummer for Dunham’s dance troupe. He introduced her, and Dunham invited her to come take classes at the studio. “That changed my life forever,” Burke says. She became the first white member of Dunham’s troupe, and eventually opened The City Studio Dance Center in the Central West End, where she still teaches Dunham’s techniques.

She also is a board member of Dance St. Louis, MADCO, Kevin Kline Board, a commissioner on the Regional Arts Commission, and chairs a panel on preserving Dunham’s legacy and children’s arts programming. “My husband and I endowed a paid arts internship at the Regional Arts Commission for African Americans only,” she says. “It’s all about getting people to the table. I want somebody of color to be running the Symphony before I die.” The internship is only in its second year, and Burke is proud to say it is already a success, with the first intern having gone on to work at STAGES St. Louis.


Almost 13 years ago, Con Christeson started work on a project that was supposed to last for nine months. She’s still working on it today. The project is Community CollabARTive, an arts program that’s part of the transitional housing program at Peter & Paul Community Services. As LN spoke with her, she was preparing to open Public Spaces Private Places, an exhibit of photographs taken by the homeless men in the program and others. “They documented things that are significant to them: important, interesting, beautiful, ugly or in need of change,” Christeson says. Through the years, projects have ranged from painting and drawing to photography, sculpture and performing arts.

“Homelessness is something that is really scary for most people,” Christeson says. “We know very little about it, and lots of stereotypes and assumptions are connected to it. People who are homeless, poor, mentally ill or abuse substances rarely have a voice because of those assumptions—and because they’re busy doing other things besides exercising what social capital they have. Art not only gives people a voice but also gives them the opportunity to discover gifts and talents that have lain dormant for a long time.” Christeson also teaches communication arts at Webster University and engages in collaborative public art and studio art projects.


Upon moving to St. Louis, Kim Eberlein was struck with the accessibility of the arts in town, and has dedicated herself to keeping them that way. “We’re very fortunate to have all the things that are going on in the community— outreach in prisons, and all kinds of programs working with the homeless and with youth. It’s very exciting and it gets people engaged across neighborhood boundaries in a way that doesn’t happen otherwise. It cuts across cultural boundaries because the arts can include everybody.”

A consultant to the Institute for Public Health at Washington University, Eberlein is on the executive board for the St. Louis Symphony, and chairs the nonprofit’s Friends Committee. She also co-founded the Doctors and Scientists for the Symphony group. “Many people in scientific fields have grown up playing instruments and have an affinity for music, so they really have responded well,” she says. She also is on the executive board for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, serves as a panel member for the Regional Arts Commission. She previously was a board member for the Symphony’s Community Music School and St. Louis University Library Associates, and co-founded the Women’s Group on Race Relations.


Lois Ingrum has had a working studio for 23 years, and has been mentoring students for at least 10 of those years. “Once I have a student, they never leave!” she jokes. “They’re yours forever.” Known by many as ‘Mama Ingrum,’ she has taught in conjunction with Ranken Technical College, the Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Public Schools, North St. Louis Arts Council, COCA Interchange and others. The key to good mentorship, she says, is to let the students experiment. “You guide them; don’t stop them from being open to life,” she says. “I want them to smell every flower—not just the roses! Lilies and violets smell wonderful, too, and I want them to enjoy them all.” Her Doll Photography Project, for example, gives students the opportunity to document their own community. When students occasionally ask her Why are we doing this? No one will listen to us, she replies, “It only takes one person to create a movement. Everything you do is very important, so make sure it’s the best you can be.” When Ingrum is not busy teaching, she does commercial graphics and photography work, and is a staff photographer for the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Susan Uchitelle (PRESIDENT’S AWARD)

As founder of the Confluence Academy Charter Schools, Susan Uchitelle knew that Grand Center would be the perfect place for an arts academy. “So many of the arts are there: Jazz at the Bistro, Craft Alliance and two art galleries,” she says. Add the Fox Theatre and Powell Hall, and the opportunities are endless. “All of these cultural activities are centered there, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids.” The Grand Center Arts Academy has been open for two years, and will eventually serve grades six through 12. Students come from all over the city and county, Uchitelle says. “I’ve been in education a long time; and my feeling is, if kids can express themselves artistically they will do well academically as well.” Uchitelle’s vast educational experience includes many years working with the Interdistrict Transfer Program, and she gives regular commentary on KWMU radio.

“It’s really important for the youngsters to have options,” Uchitelle says. In addition to academic work, the school offers graphic arts, sculpture, theater, dance, painting and computer arts. The students also get the chance to interact with professional artists at the nearby arts institutions, she notes. “The kids think it’s something very special to be there.”