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St. Louis’ Luminary Founder Shares How-To Advice After Buying Cherokee Arts Space

James McAnally
Provided by M. McAnally

The Luminary Center for the Arts credits numerous supporters, volunteers and long-range thinking for the purchase of its own building.

To be successful in the arts, a business head can be as important as a creative mind.

One of the most pressing practical matters is a reliable location for working, practicing, performing and exhibiting. Late last month, the Luminary Center for the Artsannounced the purchase of its own building at 2701 Cherokee St. The arts incubator has been operating there since last spring, under a lease with an option to buy.

“We knew from the beginning we wanted to own our space,” co-founder James McAnally said.

As 2013 drew to a close, The Luminary cobbled together leftover Kickstarter funds and other contributions totaling about $18,000. Anonymous donors matched that amount, bringing it to $36,000 — enough for a down payment on the $203,000 property. The loan — which also includes money for renovations — is more than twice that amount.

The path to ownership was paved with determination but also a little doubt. At times, as McAnally and others worked to improve the 17,000 square-foot building, he remembered fondly what it was like to just call a landlord when things went wrong. But any drawbacks are far outweighed by the biggest benefit: stability.

“There’s a long history of artists and arts organizations — especially smaller ones like ours — who get priced out and have to move after several years, and it creates this constant turnover,” McAnally said.

Another plus is the constant reinvestment into its own operation.

“It means our payments every month go back to add value to our organization, not to some third party,” McAnally said.

Collaboration and Community

The Luminary couldn’t have reached its goal of ownership without substantial support, McAnally said. It started with the previous building owner wanting The Luminary in the Cherokee neighborhood and working to make that happen.

The collaboration continued with the help of nonprofit lender IFF and more than 1,000 hours of volunteer work, including assistance from architects from a local company called UIC, he said.

The Luminary during David Johnson's We Are exhibit
Credit Provided by The Luminary
The Luminary during David Johnson's "We Are" exhibit

In the midst of early construction, an exhibit called “We Are" reflected the idea of re-purposing existing space. Now that the building is empty again, final renovations will begin using construction funds rolled into the loan.

Those should be completed within four months. This spring, The Luminary, whose building will then be worth around $600,000, plans to debut its full potential.

“Everything will be open, space for exhibitions, concerts and studios,” McAnally said.

The re-opening will be the culmination of a long-range plan that began during The Luminary’s early days on Reber Street in South City.

“We went into it with kind of a mission of confidence and a little bit of naivete,” McAnally said.

So what's McAnally's advice for other organizations seeking to own their space?

“Have everything in line, understand what everything’s going to cost and how long everything’s going to take,” McAnnally said.

Oh, and know your own strengths — and weaknesses.

“Admit the limits of what you can do yourself,” he said. “And surround yourself with people who know the ins and outs of what you’re doing."

This video offers a speeded-up view of the work provided by numerous volunteers.


Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.