Retiring leaders of local museums, arts groups deserve community’s thanks

Gateway+Arch+photo+by+Brittany+Moore%2FPexels

Gateway Arch photo by Brittany Moore/Pexels

NANCY KRANZBERG, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

I’m usually giving a warm, welcoming hello to art directors, curators and others who are coming to St. Louis to head our art institutions. I’m always telling them how culturally rich St. Louis is and how I know they will be happy here. Today, I’m saying a sad farewell to those who are about to retire or have done so recently. I’m telling these special folks that they will not be forgotten and am going to highlight some of their accomplishments. 

Father Terence Dempsey, SJ is a Jesuit priest and had a career of over 30 years at St. Louis University. He was the founder and first director of MOCRA (the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art), which opened in 1993. Dempsey described MOCRA as having a unique approach to contemporary art which arose from his insight that artists still engage in meaningful and interesting ways with the religious and spiritual dimensions, often with unexpected results. 

Personable, friendly, an excellent curator and scholar, Father Dempsey brought exhibitions of the highest level, of artists known both locally and nationally. 

My two favorite exhibitions were, “The Spiritual in Art in the Time of Aids” (1994) and the largest ever installation of Andy Warhol’s “Silver Clouds”(2001).

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Paul Reuter became the executive director of the Sheldon Arts Foundation in 1994 and was like a one-man band. He created the Sheldon’s long running signature concert series, he wrote and created educational programs for students in jazz, folk, classical and world music, he expanded the Sheldon in 1998 with a capital campaign to create the Sheldon Art Galleries, and 500-seat Louis Spiering Room, he founded and coordinated the city-wide American Arts Experience Festival, and he opened the Steward Family Plaza in 2019, a gathering space and vertical garden on the west side of the Sheldon. 

For more of Nancy Kranzberg’s commentary, listen to KWMU (90.7) St. Louis on the Air the first Friday of each month at approximately 12:50 p.m. She also hosts a weekly Arts Interview podcast for KDHX (88.1), available at artsinterview.kdhxtra.org.

Reuter was always open to new ideas and collaborations with other institutions city-wide and especially in Grand Center. 

Jeffrey Bonner was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of the St. Louis Zoo in 2002. During his tenure, he maintained the zoo’s premier status as not only a top tourist attraction, but as an institution that is nationally and internationally recognized. He modernized the century-old campus with world class habitats and experiences, and most recently, he was instrumental in the zoo acquiring a 425-acre property in north St. Louis County called the St. Louis Zoo Wildcare Park. It will be home to conservation and breeding programs as well as wildlife adventures for the public to enjoy and connect with nature and animals.

I was lucky enough to get to know Bonner on a trip with the St. Louis Zoo to see the Polar bears in Churchill, Canada. I also enjoyed his never-ending enthusiasm and to learn that our zoo is much more than just looking at animals on the zoo property.

Dennis Reagan is retiring as its President and CEO of the Muny.  Mike Isaacson, the institution’s artistic director and executive producer, describes Reagan’s devotion to the Muny as stalwart and faithful in every way. 

Reagan has worked at the Muny for 53 years, beginning there as an usher and a member of the cleaning crew. Not only did his status grow to the “top of the heap,” he was awarded a very prestigious Arts and Education award in 2018 among many other awards and accolades. He is not at all “snooty” and is at the entrance to the seats greeting all and making each guest feel special and welcome.

According to Charles Lowenhaupt, chairman of the Board of Commissioners of the St. Louis Art Museum along with past chair, John Weil, retiring director of the museum, Brent Benjamin has put the museum in a fiscally and extremely well-respected position nationally, in these difficult times. Weil says most of us know that Benjamin was responsible for raising the funds for SLAM’s new wing designed by world famous architect David Chipperfield, but few remember that Benjamin was also responsible for the wonderful print and drawing study room.

Lowenhaupt also reminded me that the art museum has had a 20% increase in acquisitions during Benjamin’s tenure of over 20 years.

Terry Suhre, director of Gallery 210 at UMSL for two decades, has curated shows of nationally known artists and has given local artists a chance to exhibit their works.

Suhre is beloved in St. Louis’s contemporary arts community and has seen to it that his exhibitions are socially relevant and very much a part of today’s issues. An example of one of his powerful shows was Damon Davis, multi-media artist and filmmaker, who directed the critically acclaimed documentary about Ferguson. Another powerful exhibition was Jess T. Dugan’s photographs, which documented the lives of trans individuals. 

Dan Reich, curator and education director of the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum, says it was very rewarding to see the museum grow in stature and over the years to educate hundreds of thousands of visitors, mostly students, about the history and lessons of the Holocaust. He notes that a major accomplishment as a curator was re-installing one of the major areas of the museum — the renewal of life in St. Louis. Now, he is part of a team designing an entirely new and updated permanent exhibition.

These a just a few of the recent retirees that I have known well and worked with in the arts. There are others as well and I wish you all the best. Now, I am looking forward to welcoming the new folks on board in our great art-filled city.

For more of Nancy Kranzberg’s commentary, listen to KWMU (90.7) St. Louis on the Air the first Friday of each month at approximately 12:50 p.m. She also hosts a weekly Arts Interview podcast for KDHX (88.1), available at artsinterview.kdhxtra.org.

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