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The hipness of curating: One year with Museum Blue

Museum Blue Founders Lauren Cardenas and Michael Behle stand in the exhibit 'Water, Water'
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Museum Blue Founders Lauren Cardenas and Michael Behle stand in the exhibit 'Water. Water.'

Last year four artists and educators decided to turn their shared studio space into an exhibition space for other artists. The project achieved unexpected results.

“The most important thing that I have learned is how remarkably diverse and surprising our audience is with every single show, with every single opening,” said photographer Gina Grafos.

That outcome is likely the product of the shared curatorial approach split among founders Gina Grafos, Michael Behle, Lauren Cardenas and Carlie Trosclair. The curators view their gallery space with a sense of responsibility. As people becomeincreasingly interested in the idea of curating, from “curating” social media accounts and closet space to major exhibitions, the Museum Blue founders thought they could provide something different. They hope the space, which can be found at City Museum, offers a responsible approach to what makes up an exhibit by placing many of the decisions directly in artist's hands.

Objects in Museum Blue's 'Water, Water' are either found or constructed from household materials
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Objects in 'Water. Water.' are either found or constructed from household materials

“I see the real definition being this responsibility, not only to your audience but also to your community and also to the artists involved, to really give weight to their work and give weight to what they’re doing,” said Grafos.

For the Museum Blue founders this responsibility is a balancing act between featuring artists both local and international, connected and unknown, hip and accessible. The success hinges on a hands-off approach where they choose which projects to feature but take a hands-off approach to the exhibit’s final presentation. They’re hoping to maintain this balancing act to serve their unexpectedly diverse audience and artists alike.

“We want it to be a space that can be very open for however the artist or exhibition needs it to be and we sort of try to do what we can that’s within our control to make that happen,” said Behle.

Behle, Cardenas and Grafos all teach at local colleges and universities while running the space and maintaining visual art practices. The founders are additionally connected to other swaths of the St. Louis creative landscape. Cardenas is a Small Press Expo organizer. Behle runs the artist residency Paul Artspace. Closs Clair is deeply entrenched in the artist residency system.

When the founders decided to embark on the Museum Blue project last year they began conducting site visits and solicited artists for work. As the months passed, they’ve changed their approach. Now they receive artist and curator proposals for installations or shows. Once a project is selected they work with the artist on an exhibition timeline before basically handing over keys to the space. 

The operational learning curve was steepest last May, toward the end of their first exhibit season. The group committed so much time and energy to a wealth of exhibits in the space that it jammed up against their professional responsibilities as educators.

“We were just biting off too much, so this sophomore season we’ve refined our programming,” said Grafos.

Museum Blue opens the first exhibit of its second season this weekend. It’s an extension of their hands-off approach.

The project, “Water. Water.,” involves slightly abstract sculptures of boats, raw wood and shiny sequin-like material. Artists Alison Lacker and Jeff Robinson, who co-direct The Demo art space in Springfield, Ill., produced the installation. By incorporating daily materials to depict boats and water, they hope to draw a through line from the habits and objects of daily life to one of the world’s most precious resources.

“Water. Water.” opens this weekend and runs through Dec. 11. Museum Blue is on the fourth floor of the City Museum, 750 N. 16th St.

Raft from 'Water. Water.'
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Raft from 'Water. Water.'