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At the museum’s helm is director Paul Ha, 40, whose résumé includes stints at the Yale University Art Gallery and at White Columns, New York’s oldest nonprofit art gallery, known for discovering and exposing some of today’s most prominent artists early in their careers. As the director and curator of White Columns from 1996 to 2001, Ha exhibited such artists as Damian Loeb, Rachel Feinstein, Jenny Gage, Sarah Sze and Dana Hoey. To keep his finger on the pulse of the art world, he would visit 800 artists’ studios a year. Since moving to St. Louis 10 months ago, his vision for the Contemporary has been in part inspired by his work at White Columns.
“The heart and soul of the museum is to promote and support living artists and to help them realize their vision — giving them a place to show, supporting them financially so that they can finish up the projects that they had in mind, and having space available that they can display their work in,” said Ha in a telephone interview.
At 27,000 square feet, the new museum is quadruple the size of its predecessor. Founded in 1980 as the First Street Forum, it has gone through several name changes but its focus has remained constant. The Contemporary is a kunsthalle-style institution, or non-collecting museum. “For a contemporary institution you ask yourself, ‘At what point is the art not contemporary anymore?’” says Ha, who adds that the housing, storing and conserving of a collection seriously impacts the staffing and funding of a museum. “The board of directors decided not to collect and I think it was the right decision. We present what is happening in the studios.”
Located in Grand Center, the hub of St. Louis’ arts district, the Contemporary features three galleries, a multimedia performance and lecture space, a media lab, lobby, courtyard, café and bookshop. Its opening exhibition will be “A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad,” co-curated by the museum’s assistant curator, Shannon Fitzgerald and Tumelo Mosaka of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The show includes commissioned pieces from 12 African-born artists who have since left the continent.