Interview with Dominic Molon
Within the St. Louis contemporary art community, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAMSTL) holds a unique position as a significant, non-collecting institution that has been responsible for some of the most exciting projects in the region. A shift in Curators always raises eyebrows and interests, suggesting new directions for the exhibition program and the broader role of the institution in the community.
As a curator, one wants to present oneself as a serious academic, but still maintain the communication with an audience. The exhibition devoted to rock music (Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967) was more about my snobby taste in rock n roll (laughs) than any desire to be “populist” by presenting a familiar subject. In other words, that exhibition dealt with an inherently “popular” phenomenon but featured content that emphasized the more obscure, unconventional, and experimental examples of rock music.
JM: In what ways have you approached this process working primarily in the Midwest?
DM: It is imperative to show progressive contemporary work in these Midwest communities, particularly artists with political contexts outside of ours. Working in St. Louis presents a more interesting challenge to demonstrate contemporary art’s relevance and find ways to make it relevant. I find it a refreshing place to work, but there is always the question of how to make the public aware. How you communicate with who is there. There is a sense of fait accompli in places like New York or LA that you don’t feel as much here. I am still getting used to the city, exploring the curiosities in neighborhoods. I don’t have a full grasp of what the community needs yet.
JM: Leaving a position always feels unfinished. Were there any projects that you wanted to present at MCA but never had a chance?
DM: I had wanted to present a show with Paulina Olowska, a Polish artist with previous ties to Chicago from her time at the School of the Art Institute. Much of her subject matter arises from her exploring the tension between suppression and creativity that exemplified culture in Poland under the communist regime. Given the strong Polish population in Chicago, I think it would have been an interesting perspective to present. I also had wanted to curate an exhibition chronicling the history of European Conceptualism. There’s been a more resolved historicizing of Conceptual Art as it developed in America, yet there’s still an insufficient understanding in the United States about how it developed in Europe.
JM: What kinds of programming are you interested in bringing to CAMSTL?
DM: In many ways this will be determined by my getting a more complete sense of how the institution relates to the city of St. Louis. I’d like to let the character of the city seep into my own sense of what to program so as to be reflected in the program. I think we need to create more major and meaningful shows with artists of color. I am also fascinated by Route 66 as a possible touchstone for an exhibition about larger considerations of the American road/landscape in the work of contemporary artists from around the world. In making the drive from Chicago to St. Louis so frequently over the past several months and Mapquesting directions in the city, I kept noticing the “Historic Route 66” on signs, on billboards and even in directions I’d get from Mapquest or GoogleMaps and began thinking about how we’ve sustained this relationship with a highway that was made irrelevant by the Interstate system. The continuing presence of phenomena connected to Route 66 – themed restaurants, roadside museums, and so on – speak to the enduring resonance and mythical status of this American icon. We shouldn’t forget that St. Louis native Chuck Berry popularized the song!
JM: You brought up that you feel there is an imperative to show progressive work in the Midwest, particularly artists with political contexts outside of ours. What exhibitions have you organized that best respond to this? Could you expand on why you feel it is important?
I’d like to enhance and expand our interpretation of contemporary art for the St. Louis audience to allow it to become more accessible while preserving the complexity and integrity of the work. I think we also function a bit differently than other institutions here by providing opportunities for the work of St. Louis-based artists to be presented alongside their national and international peers.
JM: Following up on a question from a recent interview before the move, how does it feel to work outside an ‘art center’?
DM: It feels great and perhaps a bit more urgent, despite not having the kind of print and other critical resources on hand to provide the kind of visibility and feedback that one expects in places like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. It means that what we do is that much more necessary, especially in a country as vast as the United States, by providing opportunities for people who might not be able to travel frequently—if at all—to places like those mentioned above (never mind Berlin, Brussels, or London). I think it’s also more interesting to create a sense of cultural exchange by introducing international artists to a part of the United States that they might not be at all familiar with. The most critical thing is to never, ever take an apologetic or defensive stance or tone. I’ve found the art production and presentation and many other cultural entities here to be extremely sophisticated in a way that feels very relevant in general and totally appropriate to this context.