In the middle of a large rectangle of plush greens, elegant fountains and pristinely manicured squads of trees that splits open the miles of concrete and brick comprising the west side of St. Louis on a small road that laces through the verdant and rolling grassy lawns, there sits a stoic brick building. It stands like an air force colonel among the other civic buildings that occupy St. Louis’s Forest Park.


© St. Louis Art Museum

Maybe it’s not some avant-garde colossus of glass and cable, or some limestone clad cube rising like an aberration out of the landscape, but the St. Louis Art Museum wears is columns and cathedral windows like a square jaw and a full chest, a confident and purposeful construction that takes pride in its origins but is ever focused on its mission. And while those origins may have been humble they were full of the American dream, and the museum has, over the course of nearly one hundred and forty years the organization has become one of the most respected and well-curated art and cultural artifact collections in the United States.

Today the St. Louis Art Museum features a massive 33,000-piece museum collection, a rotating exhibition schedule and changing installation selection. The museum’s regularly features contemporary artists working in new media and works on paper. The museum’s mission states that it “collects, presents, interprets, and conserves works of art of the highest quality across time and cultures; educates, inspires discovery, and elevates the human spirit; and preserves a legacy of artistic achievement for the people of St. Louis and the world.” One visit to the building makes it obvious how dedicated the museum has been to seeing this mission through.

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2.Things to See

Things to See
© St. Louis Art Museum

The final decades of the nineteenth century were a bountiful time when art museums flourished; many were established and erected in many of the great cities of the eastern United States. In a procession of cultural edification that started years earlier with the founding of the remarkable Smithsonian Museum in the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C., followed by the United States National Museum in Washington’s Mall, and eventually the American Museum of Natural History in 1869 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870.

The year 1879 saw the establishment of the Saint Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts in a building in the city’s downtown district. At the time the school and museum were an independent business entity within the system of the Washington University in St. Louis, and operated in this location for decades as a resource for local artists. The school made use of the fledgling collection to educated artists and craftspeople in art history topics and studio art practices. Soon, the museum moved from downtown to the campus at Washington University.

At the turn of the century, the city of St. Louis hosted the historic Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the 1904 installment of the legendary World’s Fair. In the years leading up to the event, the city built a broad brick building in Forest Park specifically to house the fair and its exhibits. The building’s designer, the architect Cass Gilbert, took his inspiration and his aesthetic cues from deep in antiquity. With an eye toward the ancient thermal baths of Caracalla in Rome, the building would be a classically-inspired spectacle built in the Beaux-Arts style to balance the gravitas with the optimism of the futurism that characterized the World’s Fair.

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3.More Things to See

More Things to See
© St. Louis Art Museum

Afterward, the Saint Louis School and Art Museum would move to occupy the building, leaving the newly established Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in the wake of its empty University location, but from whom the museum would loan much of its erstwhile collection. In the late years of the twentieth century’s first decade, the city arranged a municipal tax to support the new museum, and in 1912 an organizing board was established and took control of the museum as it separated from the Washington University and was rechristened the City Art Museum.

Almost half a century later the museum was still thriving and expanding its ample collection. In the 1950s the museum built on an expanded addition which housed the institution’s new auditorium and allowed for new film, performance, concert and lecture programming.

The creation of the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District in 1971 expanded the tax base for the original 1908-created funding tax to include the whole of St. Louis county, and the museum was thus renamed the Saint Louis Art Museum, the moniker it still bears to this day.

The museum’s second expansion of its Forest Park campus was decades in planning, starting in the late 1990s. When it finally opened in the summer of 2013, it saw more than 224,000 square feet of additional exhibition space and an underground garage.

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© St. Louis Art Museum

The Saint Louis Art Museum houses a number of different collections within its walls, covering the breadth of art history and from all over the world.

The museum holds a respected collection of African art and cultural artifacts. The collection began in 1936, when art museums rarely collected such works or held them in regard. The museum acquired a bronze head from the Benin kingdom, and soon expanded upon it with metalwork, ceramics, vessels, textiles, reliquary figures, headrests, masks, chairs and other items that include work form Ligbi, Fang, Kuba, Yaka, Fon, Widekum, and Chokwe peoples. The African Art collection now includes over 1,200 pieces of art, devotional paraphernalia, pots, and figures drawn from cultures in West Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, and many sub-Saharan sources.

The museum’s African American Art collections was kick started by a mid-century gift of 60 works, including paintings, drawings, and other prints and works on paper form the historic Federal Art Project. Other artists included in the African American Art collection include Kara Walker, Peter Bentzon, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Julie Mehretu.

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5.More Attractions

More Attractions
© St. Louis Art Museum

The Saint Louis Art Museum’s collection of artwork from the Ancient Americas includes an astounding 4,500-plus items from throughout North America, Central America, Mesoamerica and the Andes. Standing on the shoulders of a number of gifts to the museum in the late 1950s and onward, the collection is one of the most esteemed and comprehensive anywhere in the United States. Cultures ranging from the earliest civilizations from before recorded history, through the Aztecs and Maya are represented by the collection’s artifacts which include Mixteca-Puebla mosaic, architectural fragments from the Zapotec, figures from the Aztec and from Colima, and a Maya vessel portraying the Mayan ball game. Ancient North American cultures are explored in exhibits of ceramic work from the Southwestern the ancestral Pueblo. Even Caribbean ancient peoples are represented by artifacts that include ritual seats, bottles, mantles and metalwork. The Ancient American Art exhibit is one of the centerpieces of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s collection.

The museum’s modern art collection contains work from some of the greatest artistic minds of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Works include those from such masters as Monet (his famous Water Lilies), five pieces by Picasso, five by Van Gogh, the Matisse masterpiece Bathers with a Turtle, work by Gauguin, and the museum houses the world’s largest single public collection of paintings by Expressionist artist Max Beckmann.

The museum’s other European work draws upon 150 years of history and art in Europe, and entails nearly 160 works from movements covering French Impressionism and post-Impressionism, German Expressionism, and more eras on both sides of history.

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© St. Louis Art Museum

For visitors who aim to make the most of the museum’s thirty-thousand works of art, The Saint Louis Art Museum has Panorama, the museum’s fine dining establishment. For those with a smaller appetite or quicker tastes, the museum offers The Cafe, the aptly-named stop for a quick soup, sandwich or beverage.

The Saint Louis Art Museum accommodates rentals for social and corporate events in many of its halls, galleries and auditoriums as well as its restaurant, Panorama. The spaces can receive groups from 100 to 400, and are catered by Executive Chef Ivy Magruder.

The museum’s auditorium seats 465 and has a 1,600 square foot theatrical stage that offers state-of-the-art acoustics as well as both DVD and 35mm projection capabilities. The auditorium facilitates a regular performance calendar as well as concerts and films and other celebrations.

The Museum Shop offers a range of unique and inspired gifts and souvenirs in two locations throughout the museum.

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7.Visit the Museum

Visit the Museum
© St. Louis Art Museum

The Saint Louis Art Museum offers classes and workshops that allows the curious to take best advantage of the sprawling collection. The slate of classes include offerings for adults and children alike, and also includes gallery talks and informal discussions about the collection and featured exhibitions and lectures from distinguished artists, scholars, lecturers, curators, and other experts on a range of art, and cultural topics.

The Saint Louis Art Museum offers free parking to its guests and the public in two lot across from the museum of Fine Arts Drive, while paid parking is available in the underground garage below the building.

The museum is readily accessible from public transportation sitting within walking distance of two MetroLink stations, the Skinker Station and the Forest Park-DeBaliviere Station.

The Saint Louis Art Museum is conveniently located off of I-64 and easily accessed from Interstates 70, 44 and 55.

Back to: Best Things to Do in St. Louis, Things to do in Missouri

1 Fine Arts Dr, St. Louis, MO 63110, USA, Phone: 314-721-0072

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Things to Do in St. Louis, Missouri: St. Louis Art Museum