an interview with a caretaker
Interviewed by laura schilli
Edited by Marina may
From the inception to implementation, Brea McAnally, Co-Founder and Caretaker of The Luminary, shares a progressive perspective on what it means to nurture a new kind of organization in an evolving ecosystem.
In addition to her integral role at The Luminary, Brea is an artist and photographer, with projects that have been featured in several esteemed publications such as The New Yorker and Art in America. She will be awarded for Outstanding Arts Professional at the 2019 Saint Louis Visionary Awards on April 22, 2019, and most importantly, she’s an active mother to an incredibly intuitive and handsome two-year-old boy. So, despite being one of the busiest humans in the world, Brea somehow managed to sit down with us to discuss details on the Luminary’s ambitious and expansive exhibition, Counterpublic and the idea behind “commoning the institution.”
Laura Schilli: What does Caretaker mean in regards to your role at the Luminary?
Brea McAnally: I was thinking a couple years back, I had changed my title from Co-Director to Caretaker because I felt it was more representative of the way I wanted to interact with our publics, with the artists and our peers and collaborators. There is something warmer and more generous about that language to me. I think that titles can be useful, but this was sort of a way of living into this language of holding myself to consider care as a grounding force to the work. It’s more of the whole picture and what the day to day really is.
LS: Can you tell us about the Luminary’s history and how the idea was born?
BM: It’s funny, we opened the Luminary when I was just 20 years old and James [McAnally] was 24. James and I had been making art and music together. When we met we had both planned to move from St. Louis - neither of us were from here - so I hadn’t imagined us to stay rooted in this city, but as we began making work together, thinking and dreaming about what kind of city we wanted to live in and the possibilities we saw in St. Louis, it quickly became this idea that we couldn’t let go of.
The Luminary began as a studio space. I always say that it started with a really open-handed plan. It’s always been values driven; believing that art can help us live better together. We started to ask a lot of questions of ourselves, back and forth in conversation and with many artists who started to gather around the Luminary space.
Many of our programs started out of that, by asking artists what they needed to live and work and thrive here. I think a lot of this was built around this optimism and hope. How can we dream of, this wild and radical optimism of what our city can be, and if we can start realizing this together? Our residency program is a result of seeing many students go through their BFA and MFA programs and not even consider staying in St. Louis, or not really seeing the city for what it was or getting very far outside the university program. So, we started the residency program as a way to build community around these folks who were graduating and framing out what their practice was going to look like after school, and then many of those folks ended up staying. It was very successful, something changed. And then the program became nationally and internationally focused where we would bring in artists, critics and curators from around the world. Now we have applications from 45 countries.
LS: What is the Luminary’s mission and purpose other than its residency programs?
BM: The Luminary’s mission is to be a platform for art thought and action. We host exhibitions and residencies. We work in publications, we host performances and conversations. Our programs are pretty broad, some focus within the gallery and much more of what we are moving into is bringing art outside of the gallery and bringing into the lives of our neighbors and our city. So what is it to think of art living among people? How can that change the way that we are seeing things?
LS: What are the Luminary’s goals today?
BM: We just celebrated 10 years! We are on our 11th year now. I think whenever you reach this stage of an organization, people also think a lot about growth, and I do too, but I think it's important to think of what kind of institutions the world needs right now and that visioning process is important to me. We think of the Luminary as creating these new models and exercising them and saying, ‘How can we do things differently?’ I think society is in this period of accelerated change and our institutions can be really slow and clunky and unsure of how to respond to those changes. It’s always been within our mission to be responsive, if we believe that contemporary art is the voice of our time, then we have to be really responsive to the changes of the world and what is needed now.
So my mission and my hope for the Luminary growth is that we don’t think of growth just vertically, but we think of it horizontally as an ecosystem within this region. I think within this practice and with this thought across the world how are we considering what it is to grow well together, not as these islands, but truly as these communities that are bound to each other’s well being. I’m excited about a future for the Luminary in which we are less of an institution and more of an organism that grows and changes shape and helps bring life to things around us.
LS: How is the Luminary funded?
BM: We are a non-profit so we do receive a lot of grant funding, a lot of individual donations and a lot of in-kind support. The grants that we have received funding from are the Andy Warhol Foundation, Mid-America Arts Alliance, Missouri Arts Council and the Regional Arts Commission.
LS: You mentioned 10 years ago was when the Luminary began and with that there was this vision. Last year, you embarked on a Vision Campaign. Can you explain the concept behind the campaign and what your goals were?
BM: Yeah, it was really a time to think about what the future of the organization was. We did this longer-term planning in 2016 and 2017 and asking what kind of institution do we want to become? What are our goals? What kind of projects do we want to realize? And the campaign was for a few things; Build out new residency housing that will offer three live/work spaces, a library, classroom and bookshop space, and to expand our programming.
It’s funny to talk about it as post- because we are still mid-, you know? We are post- the campaign, but we are amidst the work. with construction still underway. We have changed the layout of our space to offer a bookshop and seating area out front. After being on Cherokee Street for five years now, we really examined what the area needed the most and how people interact with our space and ultimately I think people need more spaces to linger, but it doesn’t have to be a monetary exchange. We aim to be open to everyone who is present in our neighborhood. So, breaking down the barriers of what it is to enter a white-walled contemporary art gallery. If there are tables and chairs and a bookshop out front, its less of a barrier to come in. So that was a really intentional decision about welcoming and making this space more accessible to people.
And the bookshop itself, we have always done a pop-up kind of bookshop that holds art books that you can’t get in St. Louis, otherwise. The topics that are presented within the publications, I think, help fill out the concepts of the exhibitions as well. So yeah, it’s putting that platform for art thought and action to work; giving space for people to gather and read and kind of dig into this rigorous thought, but also to come in and sit down.
LS: You use the theme “Commoning the Institution” for your residency program. Can you explain what “commoning the institution” means for St. Louis and the global art community?
BM: Yeah, so the “Commoning the Institution” theme for the residency program was last year’s theme.
LS: Oh! So there are different themes each year?
BM: Yeah - It was the first time we actually did a thematic residency in the same way, but it was an intentional decision to do that in parallel while we were raising funds for the Vision Campaign, a way to stay very values and mission focused. “Commoning the Institution” is really thinking about, what is it to invite criticality and care into the institution.
The invited residents, throughout the program, come in and critique our space from the inside out to really observe the space. There’s a survey [and as a result] we’ve transitioned our bathrooms to gender neutral restrooms, so you know there are very physical changes and changes that you see a lot as you interact with the space.
You’ll see the survey on the front desk as you come through, made by Alison Burstein [Survey for a survey we can live in and with], while she was in residence. We worked with Brian Droitcour to do this series of six different workshops with artists and folks who work at neighboring institutions to examine the way in which institutions speak to their publics and say, should we adapt? Should we change? It’s a really powerful and incredible thing to be able to invite people in. It’s a vulnerable process that I don’t think happens enough for us, but for other institutions as well to be reflective and willing to say there are better ways. We fall into a lot of patterns without being very purposeful about them and I think we also just look at patterns that are out in the world and follow those instead of choosing to interact with our publics differently. We can model a different kind of institution. So, it was a way to keep ourselves tethered to our values and our mission and then our communities and the people that we’re for, while we were raising funds to do these expansions.
LS: What was the financial goal and how much were you able to raise during the Vision Campaign?
BM: The goal was $500,000 and we raised $525,00.
LS: Nice! That’s so good!
BM: Yeah how about that?! (laughs)
LS: How exciting! You even got a little extra change.
BM: Yeah! And that was for our programming expansion, so as a result of that, Counterpublic is coming up, we will be doing a lot of other work in public space.
LS: What is Counterpublic and what is the intention behind it?
BM: Counterpublic is a large-scale public art platform, scaled to a neighborhood. The idea came out of conversations with our neighbors when we were renovating the Luminary space before we had even opened. We were next door to a third-generation barber shop and this amazing woman named Angela Lee would bring her clients into our contemporary gallery set up that we had, we were programming while we were renovating at the same time, because why not?! (Brea laughs) She was bringing customers over in the gallery space and she said, just kind of offhandedly one day, that she always wanted to have a gallery or show art in her windows.
And we were really thinking about what it is to open up a contemporary art space in a neighborhood that has so many different publics, so many different cultures and businesses represented, so as a way to honor those spaces and consider taquerias and barber shops and bakeries that have their own publics and that hold down their own neighborhood. I think for us, it’s a way to see [that] art can live among people. I think about art as this means for understanding and this very expansive form that reaches into places that other things cannot. That’s the thing that I love most about art’s capacity.
So it’s going to be in 20 different sites all around the neighborhood and there are 35 artists who are commissioned.
LS: When does it start and how long does if go on for?
BM: It opens on April 13th and closes July 13th and there will be near weekly performances and programs throughout that entire stretch, everything from a brass band to contemporary dance performances that will span through the neighborhood, there will be screenings and talks and some parties and gatherings.
LS: What are some of the venues that will hold the installations?
BM: Treffpunkt and Fellowship a former chapel space will hold Cauleen Smith’s installation. Cauleen was in the most recent Whitney Biennial. [Her work] was part of a film that will also be showing downstairs in the fellowship.
Ted Kerr will be coming in and do some work with The Griot Museum of Black History and with Red Chair [Studios]. He is an artist, writer and organizer whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS, community and culture.
And then Anthony Romero, Josh Rios, and Matt Joynt will be doing this performance about the kind of politics of sound in public spaces.
Yowshien Kuo has an installation at Carrillo Western Wear that’s down the street.
Thomas Kong is a Chicago based shop owner and artist and he is going to have an installation inside the Economic Shop.
Azikiwe Mohammed is going to be in BLANK Space and he is setting up this portrait studio from April 13th through May 6th. He is going to be offering free portraits to the neighborhood.
LS: That’s really cool. So a lot of things that people can not only see, but they can also interact with when they visit?
BM: Yeah, like Rodolfo Marron III is commissioning this series of cookies to be made by Diana’s Bakery and those will be available for sale at Diana’s and at the Luminary and possibly some other sites. The proceeds of these sales will go to benefit Latinos En Axion which is this nonprofit organization that supports immigrants.
And John Riepenhoff is creating a beer with Earthbound for us called Counterlager. So there are many things that can be interacted with and there are also many performances and programs scheduled. Some of these projects and installations will be on view the full run of Counterpublic and other things like Isabel Lewis, speaks of her performances as occasions, will be a one day event on June 1st at Cherokee Yoga.
LS: Are are the Luminary’s greatest needs right now and how can the community help you?
BM: That’s such a nice question!
BM: It really is! Independent art spaces are in desperate need for support. The tendencies to support the institutions that have a well been, and I think there is a place for that, but I think a lot about [the] ecosystem and we don’t think about the fact that small independent art spaces need support in a lot of capacities. So show up! And also coming into community, making space for yourself and seeing yourself as adjacent to this [space].
You can donate and become a member on our website. That goes a long way in supporting extremely ambitious projects by an independent arts institution. There is membership info on our site [www.theluminaryarts.com] and there is monthly memberships that start as low as $5 a month. But, seriously, just showing up is super important!
You can come out and show your support this Friday, April 13, 2019 for the opening of Counterpublic, the biggest project, that the Luminary has done to date!
“Counterpublic is a major new triennial exhibition organized by The Luminary set to animate the everyday spaces of Cherokee Street and the surrounding neighborhoods with expansive artist commissions, performances, processions, and public programs.” Counterpublic runs through July 13, 2019. You can find more information at https://counterpublic.us/.
You can also celebrate with Brea on Monday, April 22, 2019 as she is honored, alongside a roster of incredible women of whom work and support the arts in this region, at the 2019 Saint Louis Visionary Awards. Tickets are available at https://www.vizawards.org/.