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New Luminary Takes Shape On Cherokee Street

James and Brea McAnally in the work in progress at the new Luminary Center for the Arts.
Nora Ibrahim | St. Louis Public Radio Intern

In the heart of Cherokee Street, 2701 to be exact, The Luminary's new building is rapidly transforming.

The art gallery, incubator and performance venue (formerly the Luminary Center for the Arts) is moving from Reber Place into a 17,000 square-foot space that takes three different properties and melds the historic with the modern.

In only two weeks, a stage, office spaces and wall frames were erected. Over the next two weeks, the construction crew will install drywall and paint. And while its new location undergoes swift changes, The Luminary itself is rebranding.

To mark the Luminary’s emergence out of its cocoon, co-founders James and Brea McAnally launched a new website and re-envisioned the organization’s purpose as an incubator for new ideas in the arts. This means a focus on experimentation.

“We are a contemporary arts organization. That means, for us, it’s exploring the forms of art being made today,” James McAnally said. “That’s always changing, so as an organization, we’re always going to be evolving alongside artists. That’s the heart of our organization.”

The husband and wife team has a close-knit relationship with the neighborhood already. For one, they have been Cherokee residents for six years. Even when they founded the Luminary in 2007, James McAnally said they had been looking among Cherokee street buildings as potential first properties

“There are a lot of experiments taking place,” James McAnally said. “Cherokee is where we see in the city a lot of people taking risks, a lot of young people who are investing in the city and in the community and keeping it the diverse community that it has been for a long time – but also trying to push new ideas, push new restaurants or models of businesses.”

Brea McAnally said their former location on the busy Kingshighway and its stolid brick appearance (it was a former convent) made accessibility to the public an issue.

“The architecture communicated that it was closed, that you couldn’t see in from the outside, that it wasn’t necessarily open to the public,” she said. “And the neighborhood was a residential space bordered by a really major street with several lanes. We were just ready the entire time to keep our eyes on the future, and Cherokee was where we wanted to be when it was the right time.”

Moving to Cherokee Street is their “homecoming,” James McAnally said.

stud walls in gutted luminary building
Credit Nora Ibrahim | St. Louis Public Radio Intern
With new walls in place, the work may go faster.

After buying three adjacent buildings in December 2013, they started to work on creating the inviting space they lacked in their former location. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows at the front with two double-door entrances on opposite ends will invite the public in – they hope.

“It’s such a diverse community, and there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic and people who live in this area,” James said. “We wanted to make it feel very open, so that you could see into the galleria any time and feel very welcome to come in. That’s the defining feature of the space. It’s very open to the street-level.”

What is now the main gallery used to be a theater that opened in 1905. Here you’ll find a distinct homey ambiance. The theater’s old, wooden joist ceiling, which had never been exposed previously, is another defining feature for the new gallery – one that lays raw the history of the space. The asymmetry of the rest of the property adds to the gallery’s quirky character.

A lot of labor was needed to transform the place. Friends, former residents and many Cherokee community members came together to help with demolitions, wall framing and odd jobs.

“We’ve just been surprised by people who we’ve never seen before walk in the door and say, ‘I heard about you guys. I’m excited you’re coming to the neighborhood,’” Brea McAnally said. “Tons of people from the Cherokee neighborhood have come and helped.”

More than 1,500 volunteer hours have been clocked in so far, Brea McAnally said. The stage that was put up just recently will be used for music performances and other shows. And as a part of its rebranding, The Luminary wants to start music residencies, along with its already established artist residencies and concert series. The new building has two separate living quarters that can accommodate visiting artists.

James McAnally said they aim to bring in experimental artists who are already strongly embedded in their own communities outside of St. Louis but eager to learn from an extended stay here.

“They’re coming in to work on their work, but to also interact with St. Louis,” he said. “For us, (artist residencies) are a way of creating these exchanges between what’s happening with the rest of the world and what’s happening in St. Louis.”

James and Brea McAnally said they themselves are looking forward to interacting with St. Louis in their own space.

“We’re ready to do what we do again, and for everybody to be able to see that,” Brea McAnally said. “We did a lot of off-site exhibitions, and we kept the residencies going. But I don’t think the public can see all of those things without the physical space to promote that from.”

The new Luminary Center for the Arts will open May 17.