Lisa Melandri, the newly appointed director of the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) St. Louis, has a knack for crafting responses that are so articulate it’s difficult to shift her away from the clean, composed temperament she typically wears. This morning, Melandri is wrapped in a black, floaty ensemble, with two gold rings that curl around each of her index fingers. Her perfume is floral and feminine, but can only be detected slightly beyond her perimeter. It’s highly curated, almost like the exhibits themselves, but never rigid. You have to watch for the moments where she lets herself come undone.
One of her favorite paintings is called The Rose, by the Beat Generation artist, Jay De Feo. She calls it one of those “consciousness-shifting” pieces. “I cannot describe to you … ” she says, looking across the room and then trailing off, as she conjures a mental image of it in her head. “It has a depth and a resonance that is goosebump-producing, tear-making … I mean, it’s a really amazing thing.” A large-scale oil painting weighing over 2,000 pounds, The Rose is De Feo’s best-known work. It is several inches thick in some areas, so thick that some art restorers surmised it would take the piece over a hundred years to fully dry.
Investigating the premises for an ideal spot to film her interview, she leads us to her office on the second floor of the museum, surrounded by other desks and offices. We’ve caught CAM in the middle of its morning rush, as a flurry of employees madly type away on keyboards, file papers, and brew coffee. It’s a snapshot off the inner workings of Melandri’s team. Her office houses a small table with a few tea cups, still half-full, and breakfast pastries from an earlier morning meeting, still untouched. Carianne, Melandri’s assistant, notices the uneaten pastries and swiftly clears them away.
Melandri’s desk, decorated with several potted plants and flowers, looks out a window to the courtyard. It’s a quaint space, but too small to fit all of the film equipment. “Maybe we should go back downstairs,” she says, gathering a few plants under her arms and transporting them downstairs for decoration. Back on the ground level, with its concrete walls and modern furniture, Melandri happily chats up the film crew and sits down to talk at a long, bright white table.
“Have you ever heard of Stendhal syndrome?” she asks. “I don’t even know when they actually named this, but it’s funny. It was purported to be an intense emotional reaction to the beauty of art.” Melandri says it originated in Florence, when people “were being carted off to the hospital because they were getting light headed, slightly sick to their stomach, [or would] break down crying,” as a result of being exposed to great works of art. She can relate. “I really think there is this kind of crazy physical reaction that one has … it’s so deeply felt. If a piece of sculpture can put you in the hospital, doesn’t that speak to the power inherent in that form?”
Melandri came to St. Louis to serve as the director of CAM after spending eleven years in Los Angeles as the Deputy Director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art. She also did her undergraduate studies at Harvard, received her Master’s degree from Williams College, and started curating exhibits right out of school. She has somehow navigated around the common pitfalls of prestige, even though her resume has no shortage of it.
For one, she doesn’t name drop. She doesn’t even mention Harvard. She’s also not someone who enjoys being taped, and doesn’t understand people who do. “Does anyone actually like being recorded?” she asks, laughing, as cameras begin to stand up around her. It’s a warm, yet restrained laugh.
“You even get weird when you go to get your license. There’s no moment at which you get photographed when you’re just comfortable.” But she quickly changes her mind. “Well, I guess if you’re with your friends…” she says, before stopping herself mid-sentence, and changing it again. “It’s just scrutiny. Scrutiny brings out all your weirdness, right?” Her thoughts are sharp, well-tended, and able to pivot after further reflection. Fittingly, CAM has a similar personality. The museum doesn’t have a permanent collection, which allows it to be agile and deliberate with its choices as a direct reflection of what is happening in its surrounding environment. It can change quickly and easily. “I really love the dynamism of this model,” says Melandri.
Similarly, Melandri thrives on change. Once she accepted the position at CAM, Melandri packed up her life in the big, coastal city and took Route 66 with her husband all the way to the Midwest. “It was a really important trip for me,” she says. The drive made uprooting their lives and traveling into the unknown provoke a sense of adventure rather than anxiety, but Melandri doesn’t try to cover up the latter. “I’m human, like anybody else. So obviously when you feel like you don’t know something, you get fearful or … have a modicum of performance anxiety, or things like that,” she says, as she prepared to take on the huge leadership role.
Melandri didn’t know what to expect from the Gateway city. Non-natives can go either way: some love it, and some hate it. In a recent New York Times article, author Curtis Sittenfeld, a transplant from Ohio, said “The ultimate affront in St. Louis wasn’t politics or food; it was that my husband and I struggled to make friends,” but later praised the free cultural opportunities and ease of living here. This divided readers into two camps: those who took it as good publicity and shared it out to all of their friends, or those who unleashed scathing tweets and risked being blacklisted from their preferred social media portals in defense of provel cheese.
Melandri’s reaction to St. Louis has been completely different. She is level-headed, calm, and open-minded. “This is the kind of city where people are very welcoming. I feel that very much professionally, and I feel that with the people who live next door to me, and the people who love the coffee shop down the street. I have been very grateful but also wildly impressed by how warm and helpful this population is,” she said in an interview with St. Louis Magazine. But she’s also the type to entrench herself in the atmosphere of wherever she is. Perhaps the disposition of the person, rather than the city, makes the most impact.
She has also had frequent contact with other transplants who see the advantages of living here, advantages which natives tend to miss. “A lot of us who are relatively new to town are like, ‘this place is great!’ And then you have a lot of people who’ve lived here all their life who are … apologists for it. So that’s something we have to change,” she says.
The transplant-versus-native mentality has struck a particular chord with her. She has witnessed transplants who champion the benefits of living in St. Louis more than those who are actually from here, resulting in a jarring irony. She has met people who have lived here for generations who “don’t give it its due in a lot of ways,” she says. “That’s been really, really interesting. It’s sort of like, your hometown people are the ones who are supposed to be boosters, and in fact you really often find that its people who aren’t from here who are raising the mantle of St. Louis, and saying it loud and proud. It’s a very fascinating thing.”
But amidst transplants and natives alike, Melandri has witnessed a collaborative revolution in the city. Even donors to the arts organizations have begun to collaborate with one another, “where in other cities, if someone supports the contemporary arts museum, maybe they wouldn’t support another arts organization. That is not the case in St. Louis. You have a sense of the rising tide lifting all boats,” she says.
Her language is purposeful. She consistently refers to herself and natives with the same personal pronoun: it’s something “we” have to change, rather than “them and me.” To Melandri, divisions don’t work. There’s no invisible line drawn in the sand. We’re all in the same place together, and we all want to see it flourish.
Yet, she also knows that the city has changed dramatically in the past decade, and sees that it may take some time for a new influx of pride to spread. “You remember how something was, and you don’t realize that it’s improved extraordinarily.”
One of her missions at CAM is to revitalize St. Louis’ enthusiasm about art that appears in a museum. While visual art has the capacity to make people feel things, there’s a palpable fear that comes with looking at work in the context of a museum. “I think there is a human propensity to be afraid when you don’t feel knowledgeable. It brings us to a point of insecurity, and insecurity makes you fearful. So I’m saying, get rid of that. Love that moment.”
But despite her sunny optimism, making a museum a comfortable space is easier said than done. “A lot of people would assume that, ‘if I go in there and look at something, I’m supposed to like it, because people who know what they’re talking about like it.’ I think that’s a problem we have to get over.” To get around that, Melandri says people need to embrace the museum the same way as the park, the Zoo, or the Science center. “These are all places that are in some way curated.”
Melandri is also committed to creating a space where viewers feel empowered enough not to like something. Just because a work of art appears in a museum doesn’t mean it is the arbiter of what is good art and what isn’t. And though Melandri is deeply invested in the art world, she doesn’t require herself to love something just because it has been through a curatorial process.
Sometimes, “I simply don’t like it … and I allow myself that,” she says. “You should never let art make you feel stupid.” But she’d never let it stop her from going back to that museum or gallery. You never know what gems you might find rising to the surface later on.
While she firmly believes in giving oneself permission to respond truthfully to a piece, negatively or positively, she has also felt the power of a full, rich response to art, time and time again. “Instead of it making you feel unanointed, it can make you feel like the whole world broadens before you.”
Often times, the moment she departs from the neat and orderly is out of her control. Art takes her into messier, emotional territory. “I cry a lot in front of art. And I’m not really a crier. I really cry a lot in front of art and sports.” Yet also, someone else can look at the exact same piece and not feel a thing. “We’ll have some people that will say, ‘oh my goodness, this is such an extraordinary work of art,’ and then I’ll have other people who will say to me, ‘you know what, the last one was much better.’ And I love that,” says Melandri. “There are works of art that make you see the entire world in a way that you didn’t before. There are things about the arts that really open your eyes to re-assessing things you thought you knew. And that, I think, is the best that art can do. And that’s a really big thing.”
Art can change people. It can challenge what we think we know, what we actually know, and how we experience the world. Melandri is absolutely convinced of this. She has seen it, felt it, and heard it. “I find visual art objects to be very transformative. I’ve had the experience in my life where I’ve seen a painting, a drawing, a film, [or] a sculpture that has made me see the world in a different way. That moment is unparalleled for me, and that’s something that the visual arts can do.”
Art is so deeply embedded in her being, it has become her, in a strange way. It has pervaded every facet of her life, from the professional and physical to the emotional. As someone who has devoted her life to spaces where people can appreciate art, she has studied this phenomenon in depth. She has researched, labored, yelled, laughed, shed sweat, shed tears, assembled, dismantled, and reassembled spaces in order to breathe life into an artful experience for others. “I think it’s a very deeply felt thing. Art changes lives. That isn’t just a Hallmark card. That’s real.” This is what drives Melandri. Her mission is to continue creating a space capable of facilitating that feeling, that change, and that passion in a new space.
For more information about Lisa Melandri and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, visit www.camstl.org.