An all-ages playground in St. Louis has a growing art collection

This article is part of the Fine Arts and Exhibitions special section for the art world’s expanded view of what art is and who can make it.


The yellow school bus on the roof, the jumble of slides and climbing frames, and the castle in the parking lot loudly hint that the City Museum downtown here is no typical museum.

But what is typically a museum move adds to an art collection. The City Museum invites families to smile, stare, and sometimes climb over the art to appreciate it.

“It’s not about who we are,” Rick Irwin, creative director, told City Museum, where he usually works in a dark T-shirt and sneakers. “It’s about what we can deliver.”

Since 2014, the museum has added about $3.4 million in contemporary art and architectural works designed by Louis Sullivan. Adding more.

Children play “I Spy” with two glass block works by Brooklyn artist Dustin Yellin. Thousands of small picture cutouts are placed between the glass layers.

Families laugh at a nearly 10-foot-tall, bending bronze sausage man by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm, then bend over for photos.

“I’ve seen this sausage on so many Christmas cards,” Mr Irwin said.

People hit a 14-foot inflatable honey bear bottle that swings under the rooftop atrium. “Bop Bear” was created for last year’s Burning Man by a street artist who goes by the name Fnnch, a native of suburban St. Louis who grew up in the City Museum and now lives in San Francisco.

The artist compares traditional art museums to a stalactite coming from above, and the City Museum to a stalagmite coming from below.

“And these things can be touched,” said Finch. “But I think there was a gap. And I see myself filling that gap. And the City Museum is at the forefront of that.”

Mr. Erwin made sure the artist signed the bear. “It’s not about us,” he said. “This is his piece. He kills him. I want people to know about it.”

The city museum has not always collected art, at least not traditionally. The museum, which celebrates its 26th anniversary this month, is the brainchild of Bob Cassilly, a sculptor who created the massive all-ages playground in a former shoe factory building. Tree trunks, conveyor belt rollers, industrial coils and aircraft fuselages somehow work together to entertain and sometimes lose visitors.

Forget the traditional museum labels or map. “Things are changing so much,” Mr. Erwin said.

David Jump, president of American Milling, a grain processing company, owned half the museum at first. He saw the value in families enjoying preserved pieces of built history, deconstructed and reconstructed by Mr Cassilly and his team.

In 2011, while working on an art project site just outside St. Louis, Mr. Casilli was killed in a bulldozer accident.

“Look, you can’t cry here,” Mr. Jump told a stunned Mr. Irwin, whose title at the time was museum director. “You cry at home. You have to be a leader. I have this. American Milling buys the remaining half of the museum.

To keep people coming, the two realized they could buy contemporary art faster than their team could design and build interactive structures like slides and tunnels.

“It was like, can we do this? Let’s do this,” said Mr. Ervin, who has a master’s degree in arts administration and policy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “That was my wheelhouse. I was on it.

The couple had two conditions. First, art cannot be something that Mr. Jump, who admits he is not artistic, thinks he can do on his own. Second, art had to be fun.

They installed the first piece, a $500,000 Tom Otterness bronze whale called “The Great Moby Dick.” The kids immediately got on it.

Mr. Irwin hired his young nephews to pick out a piece by street artist Brian Donnelly, better known as KAWS. They chose “Companion (resting place)”, a giant, cartoonish figure with half of its brain and intestines exposed. The girls thought it was funny.

The museum purchased dozens of plastic Magis Spun chairs designed by Thomas Heatherwick. Visitors lean and spin in them until they stand up again in a daze.

The fourth floor gallery of the City Museum, St. Louis Art Center, displays a copper version of the chair. It has a museum label and rests on a low, rope-fenced platform. “Yeah, even then we hate it,” Mr. Irwin said of the no-touch treatment for some pieces.

Mr. Ervin is learning to navigate the world of art buying. He has traveled to the Art Basel fairs in Hong Kong and Switzerland, as well as Frieze London and Frieze New York. He said he had to buy and wear “fancy clothes” for art festival nights, but also discovered that some people in this world “also wear tennis shoes.”

Premier Parks, an Oklahoma City water and amusement park company, bought the City Museum from American Milling in 2019. They welcome art. It belongs to the St. Louis Art Center, which is owned by Mr. Jump, and the museum leases it.

Mr Jump wants the art to be “irresistible” for families and he’s glad people can enjoy it.

“You only have a few minutes with the Mona Lisa in the Louvre before you are moved on,” he said.

The city museum has also collected hundreds of pieces of architectural ornaments designed by Louis Sullivan. Tim Samuelson, the city of Chicago’s cultural historian emeritus, has laid down on the museum’s concrete floor to take in the view of his nine-foot-tall cornice section of the Chicago Stock Exchange building, which was demolished in 1972. He helped the museum acquire many other works by Sullivan.

“Typical museums will take a small isolated block and put it on a wall, and it’s like a moose head hanging in a bar,” he said.

Mr Samuelson calls the way the museum displays the massive objects “an unprecedented way of conveying important architecture in a museum context”.

Mr. Erwin just wants people to experience something great, new and fun. Where else, he said, could a family discover an artist, create a masterpiece in the creator’s space and disappear down a 10-story slide?

“And somewhere in there you grab a slush,” he said, “and go to the gift shop for a T-shirt.”

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