New leader of the Luminary wants to make the St. Louis gallery a neighborhood hub
The new artistic leader of the Luminary art gallery wants the nonprofit to better boost St. Louis artists and become a community hub.
Kalaija Mallery recently became the Cherokee Street-based nonprofit arts organization’s first artistic director, sharing executive authority with interim Executive Director Stephanie Koch.
The organization is transitioning from its founders, James McAnally and Bree Youngblood. Youngblood left the organization at the end of 2019 to focus on her commercial photography and other projects; McAnally left in July to devote more time to Counterpublic, a biannual festival of public art in St. Louis that began as a Luminary project.
Mallery joined the Luminary in 2020 as gallery manager before becoming manager of public engagement. Her major projects included opening a small bookshop within the gallery and inviting St. Louis artist and entrepreneur Aloha Mischeaux to open the first brick-and-mortar location for her pop-up business Black Coffee.
For Mallery, such efforts don’t distract from the art — they’re a way to make the Luminary more of a community hub, where visitors may pop in to hang out for a bit, maybe read a book or work on a laptop and make connections with their neighbors.
The Luminary is still looking for a permanent executive director, as Koch will step away this week for a position at another organization, said Kristin Fleischmann-Brewer, chair of the Luminary’s board of directors and deputy director for public engagement at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin asked Mallery what her priorities are in her new position and where she wants to lead the Luminary.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: What was the Luminary doing that made you want to relocate from the West Coast to join the organization?
Kalija Mallery: I was in grad school at the time, and I knew that I wanted to be an institution shaper. I was running a DIY project space out there in Portland, Orgeon, called Third Room. That was based on the tenants of a third place, which is a sociological term for a space between work and home where regulars gather. Often bars and cafes are known as third places. But my theory was that art could be a good crux for a third place.
So I was already doing that research in grad school, and I came across the Luminary’s post for a gallery manager and sort of fell in love with it.
I was actually working in kitchens. And I applied. I wrote my cover letter on an upturned milk crate in the back of the kitchen. I had never been to St. Louis before. And it felt like a huge long shot. And then I got the call.
Goodwin: One of the things you did was open a bookshop within the Luminary. Most of us think of the Luminary first as an art gallery, so how does something like that fit in?
Mallery: James McAnally gave me a beautiful gift. He said: "Sometimes we’ve had the thought of maybe having a bookshop. What do you want to do with that?"
I was just like, this could be a third place. This could be the point of activation in the gallery. We can bring in furniture, we can bring in tables and chairs, we can bring in a copier and have it be kind of like an internet cafe vibe.
In all my research about third places, they usually have what they call a socializing agent. It's oftentimes coffee and beer. I thought books could maybe be a socializing agent, but they tend to be more of an inward agent.
I had been in conversation with Black Coffee, run by Aloha Mischeaux, who is an amazing artist of many talents as well. She was doing pop-ups for us and also bringing coffee to farmers markets and events and the business was very successful, but she didn’t have a brick-and-mortar store. She was doing a pop-up at the bookshop opening, and I asked her, "Do you want to just stay here?" And she agreed.
Goodwin: How do you see the Luminary fitting in with its neighbors around Cherokee Street?
Mallery: Our building has got some of the biggest visibility on the street. And yet, for a long time, people felt like they didn't know what was going on in there. So now, through having Black Coffee and having a bookshop and being open pretty much every day of the week, it's created more reasons to come and visit for folks who don't understand art as just a static exhibition.
Street art, as you know, is huge on Cherokee Street. And music is huge. And so those spaces already are really active and activated. So I'm interested in: Can the Luminary be in conversation with those? And, how?
Goodwin: Making the Luminary more of a community hub is a big, open-ended goal. What are your more concrete priorities as artistic director?
Mallery: I can't say it enough. I'm really excited to bring more St. Louis artists into the gallery. I'm looking forward to curating group shows that are responsive to issues of the times, but also what's happening in contemporary art right now,
Contemporary art is going through a really interesting moment where it is socially responsive and politically active, and on the other hand there's sort of like a maximalist response to art where people are so tired of the tension that they've kind of gone off the rails and made art that's got a pop color, that’s very humor-driven, like art is pointless. It's almost nihilistic. And then there's another pocket of the art world that's very deeply emotive and spiritual, that’s also less connected to being directly about social issues.
So I'm kind of interested in finding out if I can string those things together somehow, or poke at those things or really just show what the whole art world is doing right now.
But going back to what my role was in the first two years of my time here, it’s basically about getting people together in a space. Because that then has a ripple effect going outward. I have a survey at the end of every public program, and there’s a question, "Did you meet someone and have a conversation that you otherwise wouldn't have?"
More often than not, the answer is yes. That feels like success to me. So finding more ways to do that and making exhibitions that are really top tier are my priorities.