When she was a young girl, Nancy Spirtas Kranzberg says she expected to grow up and become a wife and mother. And so she did. But along the way, through a combination of intelligence, curiosity, an engaging personality (she was voted “Funniest Senior” in her class at University City High School), hard work and good luck, Kranzberg has had a tremendous impact on arts, culture and education in St. Louis. And she has had a lot of fun, too.
Though Kranzberg was born in Belleville, Ill., “I consider myself a St. Louie woman,” she says. “My two grandmas were born here.”
Her parents moved to University City when she was in third grade.
“They wanted me to meet more Jewish kids,” she says.
She attended Washington University and earned a degree in education, then taught second grade for a few years.
While she was still in college, Kranzberg says, “A friend asked me, ‘Are you a Jew?’ I said yes. She told me she was dating the friend of ‘this neat Jew,’ Ken Kranzberg, and she wanted to fix us up,” she says. “Here was this handsome older guy wearing a hat! That was in the days of the hat.”
The two dated for five years before they got married.
“Ken was sort of old-fashioned,” Kranzberg recalls. “He wanted me to quit teaching and be a wife and mother. I was really conflicted because I thought about getting a master’s degree. But I went along with his request and everything fell into place.”
“I always loved the arts, all the different disciplines, but when I was younger I never thought about doing anything about it,” Kranzberg says. “I always sang in choirs, including at Washington University, and I enjoyed looking at art and going to plays. But my family didn’t encourage me, and in fact, I almost flunked art for elementary teachers!”
The story of how she became an arts addict is nearly legendary: “I had a friend who sang with me in the Washington University Choir and she knew all about the composers and the history of the music, and when we went to the St. Louis Art Museum she knew all about the art,” Kranzberg says. “I asked her, ‘How do you know all this?’ And she said, ‘My mom dragged me around to museums and things. I hated it but now I appreciate it.'”
So Kranzberg began to educate herself and also “dragged around” her two daughters to museums, galleries, plays and concerts. During one of those visits to the St. Louis Art Museum, Kranzberg noticed a guide leading a group.
“I asked her if she was a volunteer and she said, ‘Nooooooooo, I am a docent.’ Well, that’s all it took for me to want to apply and they chose 25 of us out of 100 applicants,” Kranzberg says. “I’ve been a docent there for more than 30 years now.”
She also is a board member at the Art Museum, and she and her husband are co-chairs of the board at Laumeier Sculpture Park.
“Nancy is simply amazing,” says Glen Gentele, Laumeier director. “She has a vision and a genuine concern for people. Also she has a wonderful intuitive sense that runs deep, and she can go from very serious to very lighthearted in an instant. She and Ken just give to the community in so many ways.”
In addition, Kranzberg is actively involved in Grand Center as a board member of Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Sheldon Arts Foundation and Jazz at the Bistro (“It’s a not-for-profit which people don’t realize,” she notes). She also is president of the board of the Center for the Humanities at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and serves on the advisory council of Art St. Louis and the Millstone Gallery at COCA. In addition she is a board member of the Mid-America Arts Alliance, a six-state consortium that takes arts out-state and to small institutions in larger cities, and the Missouri Mansion Preservation Council.
“Places for People isn’t an arts program but that’s a huge pet organization of ours,” Kranzberg says. Also she is a 20-year member of the Pioneer Literary Group, the oldest literary group west of the Mississippi.
“A lot of my boards and honors and awards have to do with money but I work very hard!” Kranzberg says. “There are two I’ll always cherish. One was from Laumeier, when Alvin Siteman was the money man and I was the creative-spirited one. The other was the first Dean’s Medal of Honor in 1996 for my work at Washington University Libraries in a fundraising capacity.”
She also has received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Washington University. That institution along with the St. Louis Art Museum are Kranzberg’s “two great loves.” She explains, “Washington University opened my mind and my heart to learning. I had a great education at University City but Washington U. put the finishing touches on me and taught me I could do whatever I wanted to do.”
Devoted to Washington University
Kranzberg dedicates a lot of energy to serving on the board of the National Council and Campaign Cabinet for Washington University Libraries and the Libraries’ Eliot Society Membership Committee. Another way she has shown her appreciation to the University is by founding the Nancy Spirtas Kranzberg Illustrated Book Studio, established in 1997 in collaboration with the Washington University School of Art.
“After I received the Dean’s Medal of Honor I thought, if Ken sells more bottles (through the family business, container-supplier Kranson Industries) I want to do something really nice,” Kranzberg says. “So a while later some representatives from the Art School told us that for a certain amount of money we could fund the studio. I promptly said yes but Ken said, ‘Wait a minute!’ But he kept selling more and more bottles and we were able to do it!”
Classes in the studio always fill up fast.
“They give an award to the best student book artists every spring, called The Nancy,” she says.
The Kranzbergs’ generosity to Washington University goes even further. They helped fund the Ken and Nancy Kranzberg Art & Architecture Library in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, which opened last fall. It contains more than 102,000 books and journals and hundreds of videos, DVDs and CDs that focus on supporting research and teaching in art, architecture, art history and archaeology.
In return, Washington University recently showed its appreciation to the Kranzbergs by awarding them the Eighth Annual Jane and Whitney Harris Saint Louis Community Service Award. It honors a husband-and-wife who have made an outstanding contribution to the culture and welfare of the St. Louis community. The $50,000 prize that accompanies the award is designated for a charity of the couple’s choice.
“Nancy has been a fabulous adviser and advocate for our libraries and she has contributed significantly to our National Library Council. In fact the Kranzbergs have been influential in everything they are engaged in and we are proud to be among the recipients of their generosity,” says Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton. “Nancy is a tremendously creative person and her enthusiasm is infectious. She encourages others to get involved.”
On the Air and the Stage
Kranzberg is a familiar voice on community radio KDHX- 88.1 FM where she has hosted a weekly show, Arts Interview, for about 17 years. It can be heard on Wednesdays at 7:50 p.m.
“I interview people involved in the arts, whether it’s from the artistic or business standpoint,” she says. “I get offers to talk to stars who are in town for this or that show or event but I like to keep it local.” Since last August she’s also been building a following for her 90-second commentaries about the state of the arts in St. Louis on KWMU-90.7 FM.
In addition to being on the air, Kranzberg is now on-stage in her new career as a jazz singer. It’s another near-legendary story.
“I was at a party for board members of Jazz at the Bistro and I got up and sang The St. Louie Blues,” she says. “Tom George, the chancellor of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, was there and he told me, ‘You can really sing.’ He encouraged me and before I knew it we were performing at various fundraisers. So here I am, a jazz singer, at age 62!”
Along with George, Kranzberg’s group, The Second Half, also consists of John Wuest, president of the St. Louis Equity Fund, and local musicians Jim Widner and Gary Dammer. They’ve been invited to play at the St. Louis Jazz Fest in Clayton and other area gigs.
“‘Second Half’ stands for the second half of my life,” Kranzberg says. “I’m really enjoying it.”
This part of her life is as busy as ever, Kranzberg says. She’s not an early riser, generally waking up at 8:30 a.m. But she usually stays up late after an action-packed day-into-evening. For example, on recent typical day, she worked out with a personal trainer, met with a newspaper reporter, joined Ken for lunch, went with him to an Arts in the Loop meeting, met with Paul Ha of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, had dinner out with Ken, then went to a performance at COCA.
“It’s almost like a business,” Kranzberg says. “If you want your friends to pay attention to you and give to your causes and come to your things, you really need to go to theirs. But,” she adds, “I also really love to be out and I love people.”
Her love of others is confirmed by longtime friend, artist Alison Ferring. “For all her self-deprecating humor, Nancy really does have a heart of gold and truly values friendship. It’s a priority in her life,” Ferring says. “She keeps so many groups and so many friends in balance and goes out of her way to give time to them all.” Despite that, “Nancy doesn’t like to raise money,” Ferring says. “Her favorite line is, ‘I’m beggin’ you!'”
Ferring has accompanied Kranzberg on hiking trips to exotic spots all over the world.
“We went to the Himalayas in Katmandu because Nancy read The Snow Leopard. We did a Mount Everest trek up to 14,000 feet with the yaks. It was fun,” Ferring says. They also visited South Africa and Botswana together.
Kranzberg also has hiked all over Italy, Newfoundland, Canada, New Zealand and Patagonia (twice). After some bad falls that resulted in an injured knee, she limits her hiking to short treks in Palm Springs where the Kranzbergs have a second home and where the family frequently gathers, including daughter Lily, who’s married to David Dulan and lives in California. Daughter Mary Ann, who’s married to Andrew Srenco, lives in St. Louis and has two children. Kranzberg says she takes her granddaughter, Sophia Marcelle, age three, to art galleries and museums, just like she did with her mother.
When she has any down time, usually late at night, Kranzberg loves to read books and magazines.
“I love the movies, too!” she says.
“My parents were not particularly observant Jews but I have wonderful, warm feelings from my childhood about Judaism,” Kranzberg says. “They also had a lot of superstitions.”
For example, they prepared for Yom Kippur by observing the ancient custom of shluggen kapporos.
“Every year around the High Holy Days my dad would tell my mother, ‘Myrtle, get her in here! It’s time to shluggen kapporos!’ They’d give me a handkerchief filled with coins and tell me to wave it over my head and read out of a prayer book,” Kranzberg recalls, “I’d say, ‘But what is this!’ And my mom would say, ‘Just read!’ She’d tell me, ‘You’re lucky! In my day I had to do it with a dead chicken and your poor Grandma Esther had to do it with a live chicken!'” Later, Kranzberg says, “I asked my rabbi, ‘What is this shluggen kapporos?’ and he said, ‘Oh, it’s just some old bubba meinsa!”
Kranzberg also recalls, “My mother had a pishka, a cardboard box she’d throw change into for the poor. My parents didn’t have much money to give, but from them I made a connection between Judaism and giving and charity. And when we got married, Ken made it very clear that we would give a lot of money to Jewish causes.”
The Kranzbergs generously support and contribute to numerous Jewish charities and organizations. Ken Kranzberg is vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and a member of the national executive council of the Anti-Defamation League, among many others.
“Whether it’s in the Jewish community, the arts or the St. Louis area in general, we want to continue to make a difference wherever we can and as long as we can,” Kranzberg says. “I never had any desire to be a big shot. My life has turned out to be my best daydreams being fulfilled by accident.”
She adds, “To Ken, I say a big thank-you for selling all those bottles!”