What is ephemeral? What is lasting?

During a visit to Jordan Eagles’ studio last May, the idea for the exhibition VIRAL\VALUE began to take shape. Jordan pulled out a box of posters to show me, suggesting the poster could be made available as a giveaway for visitors to the exhibition. The poster, featuring a very specific selfie on one side and an achingly passionate poem on the other, was a collaboration between Jordan and Ted Kerr, a Brooklyn-based artist, author, and organizer with What Would an HIV Doula Do?

Jordan Eagles in collaboration with What Would an HIV Doula Do?, “Vinci (Donor Portrait),” 2020.
Jordan Eagles in collaboration with What Would an HIV Doula Do?, Vinci (Donor Portrait) (obverse), 2020. Digital photo, text by Bryn Kelly. 24 x 18 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Jordan Eagles in collaboration with What Would an HIV Doula Do?, “Vinci (Donor Portrait),” 2020.
Jordan Eagles in collaboration with What Would an HIV Doula Do?, Vinci (Donor Portrait) (reverse), 2020. Digital photo, text by Bryn Kelly. 24 x 18 in. Courtesy of the artist.

The poster indeed became part of the exhibition, which draws its title from a pair of questions posed on the poster: “What Is Viral? What Is Value?” Visitors to MOCRA encounter a tray of the posters ensconced in a side chapel gallery, bathed in the projected image of Eagles’ Vinci (Illuminations). Many visitors leave with a poster—and sometimes two, saying that they can’t decide which side of the poster they want to display.

Installation view, Jordan Eagles: VIRALVALUE, at MOCRA, 2022
A dramatic nighttime installation view of Jordan Eagles: VIRAL\VALUE at MOCRA in 2022, featuring Vinci (Illuminations) and Vinci (Donor Portrait).
Installation view, Jordan Eagles: VIRAL\VALUE
Installation view of Jordan Eagles: VIRAL\VALUE at MOCRA in 2022, featuring Vinci (Donor Portrait) and Vinci (Illuminations).

I was curious to know more about how the poster collaboration came about, so I asked Jordan and Ted to share with us the story. — David Brinker, MOCRA Director

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re passionate about.


I am a 43-year-old white gay guy who was raised in Edmonton, Alberta, but currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. I teach, write, and organize. Sometimes I make art, and curate. I am passionate about people being decent to each other, themselves, and the world. Beyond that, I care a lot about HIV, public health, community and culture.


I’m a native New Yorker, gay, artist. I live in the Lower East Side and work in Ridgewood, Queens. I’m interested in creating new series that revolve around spirituality and materiality and projects that have a focus on ending discriminatory blood donation policies and stigma against the LGBTQ+ community.

How did you first connect with each other?


In 2013, a dear friend and curator I had worked with, Edwin Ramoran, introduced me to Ted, who at the time was at Visual AIDS. I had recently begun investigating the blood ban against the LGBTQ+ community and its connection to HIV/AIDS. Edwin thought Ted would be a great person to have a conversation with and that he would have interesting ideas, and arranged for us all to get together. Ted was—and still is—super committed to ending HIV stigma and had some extremely hardline positions that really got to me with his sensitivity to the overall subject and that pushed me to think deeper about the issues.


Yes! That is how I remember the first meeting as well. We met up, looked at some work, and Edwin watched us as we debated, discussed, and ultimately left with a deeper sense of each other’s commitments. What I liked about our first meeting and our working relationship ever since is our commitment to real conversation. Sometimes it gets heated, and it is always respectful.

Jordan Eagles, “Vinci (Illuminations)” (detail)
Jordan Eagles, Vinci (Illuminations) (detail), 2018. Grayscale image of Salvator Mundi printed on plexiglass, blood of an HIV+ undetectable long-term survivor and activist, and UV resin, with overhead projector. Dimensions variable. Installed at MOCRA, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

What inspired this collaboration?


In 2018, I began working on the chapter utilizing the Salvator Mundi and blood donated from an individual who is HIV+ undetectable, a long-term survivor and activist. Ted meanwhile had gone to Union Theological Seminary. After years of thinking about HIV through the lens of art, he wanted to think about the crisis through religion and spirituality. A few years later, the SPRING/BREAK Art Show had “Excess” for their 2020 curatorial theme. Given the astronomical amount that was spent on this supposed Leonardo da Vinci painting—depicting Jesus as “Saviour of the World”—I thought the project would be appropriate for the theme, and given Ted’s commitment to HIV/AIDS and seminary education, he would be a great partner.

We started talking and Ted asked if the collective he co-founded, What Would an HIV Doula Do?, could be included. I thought this was a great idea. Among the collective’s activities, they produce timelines, zines, and an assortment of online and printed materials, often in collaboration with artists. So it was natural that we produced something for the exhibition that would be a collaboration with the collective. Vinci (Donor Portrait) is the result and was offered a complimentary takeaway for visitors.


I want to add that had we not already had a foundation of trust and conversation this project would not have been possible. So what inspired this collaboration was also years of talking, knowing what the other person was into, and a willingness to dive into some sensitive topics like health, wealth, art world politics, stigma, and probably a lot more I am not thinking about right now.

How did you decide to make a poster, and how did you decide on each of the elements?


I am not sure how we landed on the poster format as the way forward, but I can tell you, a history of HIV can be told in the ephemera that has been created in response to the crisis, including stickers, zines, postcards and yes, posters. From Silence = Death to State-provided public health messages, posters have been a site for activism, public education, and general awareness. They are used around the world, and have been used from the early to the present days. I curated an exhibition of AIDS posters for the National Library of Medicine, and I worked with Chaplain Chris Jones to make a Litany for Burning Condoms, an AIDS poster.

In terms of the poster we made, together, it has a few elements. Jordan should tell you about the front, and I will talk about the back. The border on the back is a definition of U = U, undetectable equals untransmittable. It is a slogan that has been popularized for the last ten years by people living with HIV to highlight the fact that if someone is on the treatment plan that works for them, their viral count is so low that it is undetectable and this means that the virus can not be transmitted sexually.

Within this border is a poem by my friend, the writer Bryn Kelly. She wrote an advice column called The Hussy. And in response to a question from someone who was tired of taking their HIV meds, she advised staying on the pills and wrote a poem positioning people living with HIV as part of a select group of people with specific—and special—blood. “Tiger Blood” refers to Charlie Sheen, but I think the poem works even if you don’t know that.

Ed. note: I’ve had the opportunity to participate in two different gatherings where Ted led those present in a recitation of Bryn Kelly’s poem. It’s a galvanizing experience. —DB


The front of the poster is a photograph taken by the blood donor in the reflection of the painting, Vinci, in which his blood preserved. If you look closely, you can see the blood donor’s hands holding his camera phone, which obscures his face and identity.

Jordan Eagles, “Vinci (Donor Portrait)” (detail), 2020.
Jordan Eagles in collaboration with What Would an HIV Doula Do?, Vinci (Donor Portrait) (detail), 2020. Digital photo, text by Bryn Kelly. 24 x 18 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Where has the poster been seen, and what sort of impact has it had?


The poster debuted at the SPRING/BREAK Art Show in NYC in February 2020. As you can imagine from the date, it was intense to be showing this work at the dawn of COVID-19. Jordan’s artwork became a catalyst for people to consider the connections between the coronavirus and HIV. The conversations we had with folks as a result were emotional, and informative. I ended up writing about it for POZ.

A few months later, we brought the posters to the NYC’s Lower East Side for an amazing outdoor event that artist and activist Emily Johnson does at Abrons Arts Center called Kinstillatory Mappings in Light and Dark Matter. It is a ceremonial fire around which everyone is invited to gather. For this event we partnered with the New York City AIDS Memorial. I had just worked with them to create an audio installation that Dave Harper came up with called HERE ME: Voices of the Epidemic. that serves as a sound collage about HIV in NYC. Around the fire, we listened to the project and as part of the event we spoke about Jordan’s work and handed out posters.


I am very much looking forward to VIRAL\VALUE traveling to Washington, D.C., in March 2023, and being part of conversations with another spiritual community, but also in city where policies are discussed and often formed.

Jordan Eagles, “Vinci (Illuminations)” (detail)
Jordan Eagles, Vinci (Illuminations) (detail), 2018. Grayscale image of Salvator Mundi printed on plexiglass, blood of an HIV+ undetectable long-term survivor and activist, and UV resin, with overhead projector. Dimensions variable. Installed at MOCRA, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

The Changing Face of Day With(out) Art

Visitors to MOCRA sometimes note that a significant number of works in the collection relate in some way to HIV and AIDS. Indeed, such works form a foundational stratum of the museum collection, due in large measure to MOCRA’s acclaimed 1994 exhibition Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS. A number of the works in that exhibition entered the nascent MOCRA collection.

Consecrations greatly expanded people’s understanding of what a museum focusing on the religious and spiritual dimensions in contemporary art was capable of. MOCRA Founding Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J., holds the conviction that art has a deep capacity for touching the human spirit. Art also “has a voice and a power,” he says, “to draw attention and call for a response.” By bringing together in Consecrations work about HIV and AIDS by artists living a range of gender, sexual, racial, cultural, and socio-economic realities, Fr. Dempsey sought to create an environment where people could face AIDS square on, as he had done personally through the loss of close friends to AIDS-related causes.

Consecrations stimulated a number of public programs, including a talk by the late Tom Sokolowski on “The Changing Face of AIDS,” which provided an overview of the ways artists responding to the pandemic in its first decade. (You can listen to the talk here.) Sokolowski was a co-founder of Visual AIDS, an organization that “utilizes art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue, supporting HIV+ artists, and preserving a legacy, because AIDS is not over.” In 1989, motivated by the overwhelming impact of HIV and AIDS on the creative community, Visual AIDS launched the first Day Without Art, a national day of action and mourning held annually on World AIDS Day, December 1. Renamed Day With(out) Art in 1998, the event continues to be observed by galleries and museums, evolving just as the experience of HIV and AIDS has evolved. 

MOCRA is housed in a former chapel, and Fr. Dempsey wanted it to continue to function as a site to gather community, a space where grief could be expressed, but also a place of solidarity, healing and hope. Fr. Dempsey collaborated with others in the St. Louis arts community to host a Day Without Art gathering at MOCRA on December 1, 1994, with a roster including a variety of members of the St. Louis community, including musicians, dancers, poets, and activists.

Some thirty years later, the landscape of HIV and AIDS has changed in many significant ways. MOCRA’s current exhibition, Jordan Eagles: VIRAL\VALUE, engages with this present reality, where a cure remains elusive, but more effective, less toxic treatments are available, as well as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) that drastically reduces the risk of contracting HIV. Yet stigma and inequities in access to treatment and support services persist. Looking back to Consecrations and in the midst of VIRAL\VALUE, I reached out to two people who played key roles in realizing Day Without Art in St. Louis during the 1990s and early 2000s. Roseann Weiss and Daniel Reich were gracious about sharing their recollections.

Day Without Art in St. Louis: The 1990s

Weiss was an art dealer in the mid-1980s when she and three colleagues realized that AIDS service organizations (ASOs) like Doorways and St. Louis Effort for AIDS (now Vivent) were having a hard time getting funding from traditional sources. In 1986 they organized a coalition of artists and art organizations under the name REACT, to put on a fundraising art auction. The event proved so successful that Weiss and her colleagues formed the AIDS Foundation of St. Louis as a fundraising organization that could channel money to local ASOs. The AIDS Foundation held various events annually, including an annual AIDS Walk. (I participated in the AIDS Walk—and still have some of the T-shirts to prove it.)

Weiss went on to work at the Forum for Contemporary Art, the precursor to today’s Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. In its second location near Strauss Park in Grand Center, the Forum occupied the first and third floors, while the Regional Arts Commission occupied the second floor. When Weiss and her Forum colleague Betsy Millard sought to encourage the St. Louis arts community to take part in Day Without Art, they received helpful financial and promotional support from their neighbors at RAC. Weiss says she was “floored by the response—so many folks wanted to do something.” She recalls that members of the arts community would do some sort of observance at their own organizations, then participate in something that brought the whole community together.

One of those folks was Dan Reich, who came to St. Louis in 1986 to take a position at the Saint Louis Art Museum as Head of Adult Programs in the Education Department. Reich recalls that the museum “recognized Day Without Art from its inception. It was organized through the Education Department, rather than through curators, so it was usually programmatic, rather than exhibition based. The museum  wouldn’t approve the removal of art from the walls, but we did screen appropriate films, which attracted large audiences.”

1994 flyer for Day Without Art films at the Saint Louis Art Museum
The program from the Saint Louis Art Museum’s 1994 Day Without Art observance. You could have attended the program at MOCRA, then hoofed it over to Forest Park to see the films.

In the early 1990, Reich recalls, “Day Without Art was commemorated [at the Art Museum] by the display of a recently acquired painting by artist John-Paul Wolf, who died in 1990. This was arranged by Betsy Wright Millard, Curator of Prints and Drawings.” (Millard left the Saint Louis Art Museum to become Director of the Forum for Contemporary Art.) As it happens, the poster produced for MOCRA’s 1994 Day Without Art gathering features three photographs by St. Louis artist John Hilgert dedicated to John Paul Wolf.

The poster for the 1994 Day Without Art gathering held at MOCRA
The poster for the 1994 Day Without Art gathering held at MOCRA

Day With(out) Art observances continued throughout the 1990s. Reich took a position at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in 1999, where Day With(out) Art was marked “either programmatically or with small installations.” Reich shares that, “For several years, I exhibited a work of art entitled Infinite Numbers, created by my friend, artist Duane Puryear, who died in 1991. He combined the frequently used symbol of shoes—to refer to the AIDS epidemic, as well as the persecution of gay men during the Holocaust. One survivor who was especially moved was Rachel MIller, who survived the Holocaust as a ‘hidden child,’ and refers to AIDS as her ‘second Holocaust’ because of her son’s death from the disease.”

Duane Puryear, Infinite Numbers
Duane Puryear, Infinite Numbers

Reich notes that Duane Puryear’s panel in the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is the most requested panel for display.

Artist Duane Puryear holds his own panel from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Day With(out) Art in St. Louis: Since 2000

MOCRA was the site of a Day With(out) Art gathering in 2000, held in conjunction with a retrospective exhibition of work by Robert Farber. Weiss was again a gathering force, helping bring together David Halen, the concert master of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Donna Parrone and Marty Stanberry of HotHouse Theater Company, and the Ambassadors of the Gateway Men’s Chorus. Fr. Dempsey invited Flo Lawshe and Sharon Paige, two staff members from the Jesuit Hall community where he resided, to share their vocal talents.

The program for Day With(out) Art at MOCRA in 2000
The program for Day With(out) Art at MOCRA in 2000

On December 1, 2006, MOCRA paused its exhibition of Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, corralling the pillows and setting up a continuous projection of the images from Carolyn Jones’ Living Proof: Courage in the Face of AIDS project, several of which had been displayed in the Consecrations exhibition in 1994.

A film about the Living Proof project.

The observance of Day With(out) Art has shifted along with the contours of HIV and AIDS and related activism. In recent years, Visual AIDS has produced a variety of short films that are screened at gallery and museum venues across the country (including in at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis). 

What do we carry forward?

I asked Weiss and Reich what they learned from their early experiences with Day Without Art that think our community could benefit from today.

Reich reflects, “I think people reacted strongly to Day Without Art in the late 1980s and 1990s, because they wanted a way to show their concern for those suffering from this disease which had no cure or effective treatment at that time. If you weren’t willing to march or join ACT UP, attending a program at a cultural institution was something people felt comfortable with. Also, at that time, before effective treatment, members of the arts and cultural communities were disproportionately affected. While advanced treatments have largely controlled HIV and AIDS, it hasn’t gone away, and now it disproportionately affects marginalized populations. Day With(out) Art continues to be an important education tool to raise awareness of this ongoing crisis.”

Weiss is still awed by the power of artists and the arts. “One of the reasons I work in community-based art is my experience with art and activism on the front lines of AIDS. You couldn’t ignore AIDS, because artists wouldn’t let us ignore it.” Weiss highlights the ways collective action can help us overcome the powerlessness we might feel as individuals; when we invite people to take part in something bigger than any one person, they just might say yes! Artists can draw in even reluctant partners. Weiss recalls how Dr. Anthony Fauci eulogized playwright and activist Larry Kramer upon his passing in 2020. Fauci wryly noted that Kramer “had a unique capacity, when there were opposing arguments, to alienate everybody on both sides of the issue,” and Kramer spared no quarter in criticizing Fauci. Yet Fauci took a chance: “So I reached out — and over the years we went from acquaintances who were adversarial to acquaintances who were less adversarial to friends to very, very dear friends.”

Weiss admits to being puzzled and dismayed by our collective response to the massive losses of life from COVID and from gun violence. “What’s wrong with us?” she wonders. “How have we become so inured?” But then she recalls that AIDS activists, and artists in particular, didn’t give up. That may not be revelatory, says Weiss, but it’s something that needs to be remembered. Indeed, organizations such as Visual AIDS and What Would an HIV Doula Do? continue to harness the power of art in organizing to fight stigma, advocate for better policies and access to resources, and highlight the creativity and dignity of the diverse population of people living with HIV and AIDS.

— David Brinker, Director

Building a museum, brick by brick

A confession: I’m an AFOL—that’s internet shorthand for “Adult Fan of LEGO.”

As a kid, I spent many hours playing with my Classic Space sets. I’ve kept the bricks in an old green dishpan, occasionally getting them out for friends’ kids to play with or to cobble together something of my own. A few years back, my friend H. invited me on a trip to the LEGO store, where I built a couple of custom minifigs. I happened to pack one of those minifigs with me on a 2014 choir trip to Scotland. Along the way I started snapping pics of the minifig in various sites, resulting in the “The Adventures of Barry and Fitch.” (Tumblr displays the series in reverse chronological order, so you have to scroll down a ways to start at the beginning.)

Barry (a LEGO minifig) and Fitch (a mini cow) view a sweeping vista of the Scottish Highlands
Barry and Fitch take in the splendor of the Scottish Highlands

Later that year I came across a review of the LEGO “Museum Break-In” set by the head of security at the Getty Museum. I couldn’t resist going out and buying it as a Christmas present to myself—my first adult LEGO set purchase. It sits on a bookshelf in my museum office, with LEGO Bob Ross alongside painting a scholar stone.

LEGO Museum and Bob Ross
Bob Ross paints in plein air, oblivious to the shenanigans ensuing at the LEGO Museum.

More recently, I purchased a box of assorted LEGOs at IKEA to keep on my office desk (the lack of inscrutable building directions in the box seems like a missed branding opportunity). When I need a moment of decompression or creative spark, I pull out some bricks and start building. One of my first LEGO “doodles” was something that could pass for MOCRA’s building. Intrigued, I took my little model home and supplemented it with some of my dishpan bricks: LEGO MOCRA Mark I.


Before long I thought, surely I can improve the proportions. So, I went back to my trusty dishpan and cobbled together a patchwork LEGO MOCRA Mark II prototype. With the help of Bricklink, and some spare bricks from H., I procured the pieces to realize Mark II—only to discover that I still hadn’t quite got the proportions I was aiming for. Once again it was back to the dishpan and then Bricklink to arrive at LEGO MOCRA Mark III.

The essentials, the lines, the structure, were all there. Now I could focus on tweaking aspects of the build to achieve finer details. One more trip to Bricklink and finally: MOCRA Mark IV. You’ll note a certain Director welcoming visitors to the museum; the cat hairs on the slacks are an added element of verisimilitude.

For comparison, here are some shots of the actual building.

Maybe it’s fitting that I had the impulse to craft a LEGO MOCRA, as I’ve been involved with MOCRA almost since its inception, and thus had many opportunities to help shape a respected and vibrant small academic museum. Since creative play can provide inspiration and insights into the “real world,” here are some reflections on LEGO MOCRA and the actual museum.

The big picture and the details

Just as a good metaphor draws out the essence of the object of comparison, a model can help us see the clear outlines of a scenario by omitting extraneous detail. Models make projects or problems more manageable through generalization, or by focusing on one dimension in isolation. 

Building LEGO MOCRA provided an opportunity to visualize the museum’s physical plant in a new way, as I closely considered the proportions and interrelationships of the elements of the building. Working at microscale, I knew that there were certain details I could only allude to, like the narrow upper clerestory windows. LEGO MOCRA expresses the essence of the building.

Planning exhibitions and programming often begins with a degree of generalization, sketching ideas in broad strokes, followed by a period of refinement, of sharpening details and trimming away what is unnecessary. Hopefully the result is clear alignment with the museum’s mission, a focus on what is essential, and an efficient use of resources. On a larger scale, scenario planning uses narrative models to imagine possible futures, consider their implications for the museum, and explore possible paths forward to meet those futures.

Going back to the dishpan

As I developed LEGO MOCRA, I tried out a variety of approaches to modeling different features of the museum. Some worked, some didn’t. The process was akin to musical improvisation, where an underlying chordal structure or other rubric grounds a musician’s spontaneous expression. LEGO bricks have a certain logic and established ways of using them. But sometimes you turn a “headlight” around and suddenly you have a stained-glass window.

I bought a number of bricks I ended up not using. I had to be willing to recognize that what I thought would work, didn’t, and return to the drawing board. Yet my ventures to Bricklink weren’t wasted: going through the catalog of parts, I discovered bricks and colors that opened new possibilities.

This process reminds me of design thinking.  This methodology has gained traction in the museum field, with its process of identifying a problem, ideating and exploring possible solutions, iteratively prototyping and testing possible solutions, and implementing the final solution. Design thinking benefits from patience, humility, and a good sense of humor, and it entails a degree of risk by encouraging the involvement of end users (i.e., giving up a measure of control) and embracing failure.

Keeping up on inventory

I got some ribbing from friends whom I was updating on the progress of LEGO MOCRA, because I was drawing up parts lists and documenting each stage of the build.

And to be sure, it was sometimes a hassle, especially when I realized mid-build I could do something in a better way. I would disassemble back to a prior step, and start again, taking fresh pictures and updating the parts lists. 

My artist friend Con has sold me on the value of documentation and reflection when working on a project, especially a collaborative one. Arriving at the end of one problem-solving process is often the start of the next one, and it’s helpful when you can review where you’ve been, and why, before figuring out where you’re headed next. Documentation takes time and it’s tempting to gloss over it. But it’s invaluable for continuity at a museum from one generation of employees to the next, or even for long-time employees to pause and ask, why are we doing it this way again? What was the original reason for doing this, and do those conditions still exist, or is it time to reassess?

At MOCRA, this happened a couple of years ago when we changed our public schedule to add some evening hours. After twenty-some years with the same public hours, we realized that MOCRA wasn’t open at times students were likely able to visit. The public hours initially had been set to reflect a typical office work week, and weren’t that different from those offered at other area museums—and we had never re-examined them to see if they were working for the visiting public.

Reflection, revision and rebuilding are critical in the bigger picture. As was highlighted at the recent conferences of the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, COVID-19 has disrupted museum financial and operating models and exposed inequities and unexamined biases in staffing, collecting, and interpretation. It has brought to the fore questions about who is welcome at museums and the barriers that museums raise. (You can find some of my musings on this topic here.)

Scraping the bottom of the dishpan

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” it’s said, and scarcity can inspire creativity. To prototype LEGO MOCRA, I rummaged scuffed, faded bricks from my bin to combine with fresh bricks and even some off-brand ones (shhh). The result was charming, in a scruffy kind of way, but far from polished. As a “small-but-scrappy” museum, MOCRA operates on a modest budget with a minimal staff complement. As at many small museums, it’s sometimes a hand-to-mouth existence. But we’re adept at making the most of our resources and finding creative solutions with frugal means.

With both LEGOS and life, economic realities sometimes help clarify what is essential. I thought I’d try out the “headlight” piece in a few different colors to see what would best simulate the lower gallery windows . . until I discovered that one of those colors was extremely rare, and the only supplier who had the dozen I would need was charging $10.50 apiece for the part. $130 was not in the budget for an option I might or might not use. I only ordered the clear transparent version—and it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

Similarly, economics can sometimes rule out a course of action, freeing a museum to let go of an untenable option and invest resources in better ways. For instance, a members program could be a great way to build an engaged audience and raise financial support . . . until you realize the high upfront and sustained investment of staff time and budget needed for a successful program would compromise the museum’s primary work. And so you seek other ways to raise funds and to engage audiences.

However, sometimes the better choice is to invest the money and staff resources to accomplish the goal at hand. While the parti-colored LEGO MOCRA prototypes achieved the right dimensions and shapes, I needed to custom order parts in the correct colors to achieve the desired finish. The prototyping process allowed me to accurately determine what I actually needed, rather than spend in a scattershot way. This leads to a final observation.

Minding the gap

In any project or endeavor, there will be a gap between our intention and the realization, between the plan and the execution of the plan. Sometimes those gaps spur us to revisit and refine our plans, to make LEGO MOCRA Mark II and Mark III and Mark IV. And sometimes we realize that there’s no sense in letting perfect be the enemy of good. Or, as Seth Godin says pithily, “If it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t count.” 

The gap can be uncomfortable, especially for those of us with perfectionist tendencies. It might feed a lurking impostor syndrome, or stoke envy of museums with more robust staff rosters and budgets. But it’s also a helpful reality check, an opportunity to inventory your resources and prioritize what you’re going to do with them. And the gap leaves space to move, to adjust, rework, and improve. If there’s no gap, there’s no more to be done than maintain, and creative energy dissipates.

I’m pretty happy with LEGO MOCRA at the moment. This round of ideation, prototyping, and implementation is complete. Still, I’m sure eventually there will a Mark V (and perhaps the Director will get a pair of slacks without cat hair on them). Or maybe I should grab some bricks out of the box on my desk and start dreaming up an expansion to the museum with an experimental gallery and community gathering spaces . . . 

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

Riding the spiral of history

On a recent sweltering day in St. Louis, as Saint Louis University observed Juneteenth as a university holiday for the first time, I read back over a blog post that I wrote a year ago. Reflecting on all the significant events of the past year, while recognizing the persistent injustice in the lives of so many people, I found myself pondering the ways we view the passage of time.

Is it linear, so that we may say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”?

Or cyclical, with the same patterns repeating over and over? (King adapted his famous quote from an 1853 sermon by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, who said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”)

Personally, I favor the image of the spiral. It brings together the sense of forward motion and trajectory of the linear with the sense of repeating patterns of the cynical. Or put more directly, we may return to familiar ground again and again, but each time, we are different people. Our experiences give us opportunities to broaden and change our perspectives; we can make new choices about how to respond to the challenges of the moment. As MOCRA returns to actively organizing new exhibitions and programs, we aren’t the same museum, St. Louis isn’t the same community, the U.S. isn’t the same nation, as we were when we hit pause in March 2020.

A point raised frequently during recent conferences of the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries was that “museums are not neutral.” Museums don’t get to hold themselves above the fray wearing a guise of “objectivity”; we must engage all the complicated and difficult issues of our times. This includes examining and addressing blind spots and injustices in our past and present practices. For MOCRA, this includes being more intentional about how we build and diversify our collection; developing programming for our MOCRA Voices podcast that explores the interrelationship of between art, creativity, and racial and ethnic identity; and being an active participant in realizing Saint Louis University’s Clock Tower Accords commitments.

In the blog post from 2020, I quoted an op-ed from Usher:

“Recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday would be a small gesture compared with the greater social needs of black people in America. But it can remind us of our journey toward freedom, and the work America still has to do.”

A year later, we have that reminder. What will we do with it? Where do we hope to be when the spiral brings us to next Juneteenth?

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

Finding a way back

At the end of May, I wrote:

Yesterday the U.S. officially marked 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. The clinical detachment of that number masks a staggering loss of individual lives, a cutting short of vibrant stories. It has also encouraged a conversation about communal grieving and acts of memorial, asking how our present moment is like, and unlike, previous collective experiences of loss from war, terrorism, and illness.

I didn’t anticipate that five months later, I would be writing, “Yesterday the U.S. officially marked 250,000 deaths from COVID-19.” And yet, here we are.

Bearing in mind that nearly incomprehensible statistic, a work in MOCRA’s current exhibition Surface to Source has taken on new layers of meaning since it went on display in January.

Robert Farber, Western Blot #11, 1992. Oil and gold leaf on wood panels, mouldings. MOCRA collection. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

Robert Farber (1948–1995) worked on his Western Blot Series between 1991 and 1994. These twenty-three painting-constructions emerged from Farber’s experience of living with HIV and AIDS (the title comes from a test used to diagnose HIV.) The works juxtapose the Black Death in the fourteenth century and AIDS in the late twentieth century. Farber noted, “I started reading Barbara Tuchman and found compelling parallels between medieval man’s experience of the Black Death and AIDS today. There were so many equivalents: sociologically, economically spiritually.”

One panel bears a quote from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, written between 1348 and 1351, which includes 100 tales recounted by a group of ten young women and men who are sheltering in a villa outside Florence to escape the bubonic plague ravaging the city. Farber linked the psychological trauma of the Black Death to the experiences of gay men in the early decades of the AIDS crisis.

Robert Farber, Western Blot #11 (detail), 1992. Oil and gold leaf on wood panels, mouldings. MOCRA collection. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

I uncovered the context of this passage in the Introduction to the First Day of the Decameron. I was struck by Boccaccio’s descriptions of the various ways people responded to the plague.

Some there were who conceived that to live moderately and keep oneself from all excess was the best defence against such a danger; wherefore, making up their company, they lived removed from every other and shut themselves up in those houses where none had been sick and where living was best; and there, using very temperately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines and eschewing all incontinence, they abode with music and such other diversions as they might have, never suffering themselves to speak with any nor choosing to hear any news from without of death or sick folk.

Others, inclining to the contrary opinion, maintained that to carouse and make merry and go about singing and frolicking and satisfy the appetite in everything possible and laugh and scoff at whatsoever befell was a very certain remedy for such an ill. That which they said they put in practice as best they might, going about day and night, now to this tavern, now to that, drinking without stint or measure . . .

COVID-19 has likewise elicited a range of responses, from those who take every precaution to those who live as if in denial of the existence of the coronavirus. The Introduction also illustrates the tensions between individualism and community-centeredness, the despair that lurks behind a studied nihilism, the disorientation of becoming unmoored from social customs, and the ways communities break down when bereft of effective leadership and reliable public services.

The clearly delineated components of Western Blot #11 suggest the compartmentalization happening on so many levels right now. Some are physical: social bubbles, remote education, stay-at-home orders. Others are psychological and emotional, especially for frontline workers under tremendous physical and mental strain. A single open frame juxtaposed with an eye calls to mind the heartbreaking situation of people dying in hospital beds or nursing homes, separated from loved ones who can only communicate with them through windows or smartphone screens.

Robert Farber, Western Blot #11 (detail), 1992. Oil and gold leaf on wood panels, mouldings. MOCRA collection. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

Sets of hash marks evoke the mounting number of people diagnosed with and dying from COVID-19. The strokes visually express the cumulative tedium of days spent confined at home, hours spent on video conferences, missed sports events and theater performances and concerts and religious services. They speak to the scarcity of hospital beds and berths in homeless shelters, to missed mortgage and rent payments that may result in foreclosure or eviction. And they are an indictment of the inaction (or perhaps intransigence) of government leaders unable or unwilling to make decisions in the interest of the common good.

Robert Farber, Western Blot #11 (detail), 1992. Oil and gold leaf on wood panels, mouldings. MOCRA collection. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

F. Regina Psaki notes that,

The Decameron provides a metanarrative on compassion . . . [the world of the storytellers] begins in collective pain, incomprehension, chaos, and cruelty and must find its way back to solace, understanding, order, and compassion. . . . Yet they do return. They have recovered the compassion that pushes them to accept the responsibility of consoling and assisting their fellows, a responsibility they had earlier shed under the pragmatic impetus of self-preservation. 

I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, Volume 22, Number 1, Spring 2019

Robert Farber created the Western Blot works in the midst of an epidemic that devastated gay communities and brought into sharp relief the fear, prejudice, and discrimination aimed at gay men and other marginalized people who were most at risk of contracting AIDS. He brought to his work a vision by turns painful, moving, compassionate, and courageous, causing art historian Michael Camille to write, “Farber’s work has less finality, and more hope in my view, representing not death at all, but the struggle of art to frame life while it can still be lived.”

Back in May, I also wrote,

We at MOCRA don’t pretend to have any great insights, but we do believe in the capacity for art to carry us past the limitations of speech in articulating our grief, fear, confusion, and anger, to remind us of the power of empathy, compassion, and solidarity. This can be especially true of art that emerges from an engagement with the spiritual and religious dimensions: art rooted in the fertile soil of wisdom found in the world’s faith traditions, or shaped by the discipline of ritual, spiritual, or artistic practices; art that taps into a treasury of images and themes that speak across time, geography, and culture.

Today I reaffirm those assertions. We must be clear-eyed about the consequences of the polarization in our civic life: the politicization of our response to the pandemic at both the community and national levels, resulting in unnecessary suffering and additional loss of life; the ongoing turmoil following the November election; and the turbulent reckoning with the systemic racism that poisons almost every aspect of life in our nation.

And yet, works of art, be they literary or musical or kinesthetic or visual, afford us an opportunity to step away from our preoccupations, adopt new perspectives, reflect, and receive inspiration—so that we may return to face life’s challenges with renewed vigor, equanimity, and solidarity.

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

“Con-Texts” for reflection, Nos. 11–15

It is now a little over seven months since MOCRA closed its doors to the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The fatigue of continued social distancing and mask wearing (and arguments about how mandatory they should be) is the background to more immediate and urgent stresses as we enter into the final stretch of a toxic political campaign season whose outcome may fundamentally set or reset the course of our country for years to come. It’s a time when moments of introspection are all the more crucial for our well-being.

And so we offer more prompts for reflection from community artist Con Christeson (featured in Episode 24 of the MOCRA Voices podcast), based on prompts she has been posting in the window of her Red Chair Studio in south St. Louis. Even though Con has framed these questions for this challenging moment, I think you’ll find they are ones that could stimulate our imagination any day.

Enjoy this third compendium of “Con-Text” reflection prompts. Read the first five prompts here, or the second five prompts here, and follow MOCRA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to keep up-to-date on new ones.

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

No. 11

The _____________ miles to work
have become _____________ steps to _____________ .

The company of friends
has moved from _____________ to _____________ .

Time and space
are _____________ and _____________ .

My daily map
is _____________ and not _____________ .

No. 12

I imagine that _____________ .

Because of that, I _____________ .

Of course, it’s also possible that _____________ .

We’ll see.

No. 13

I have an attitude of gratitude.

I have a space for grace.

In the spirit of _____________ ,
I have the time for _____________ .

No. 14


Are you willing to WANDER?
Are you willing to WONDER?

No. 15

I wish _____________ .

I think _____________ .

I want _____________ .

I have _____________ .

I need _____________ .

“Con-Texts” for reflection, Nos. 6–10

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold unevenly across the world, here in the U.S. many individuals and communities are also wrestling with pressing issues of systemic racism and injustice. It’s a time when moments of introspection are all the more crucial for our well-being.

We’re pleased to bring you more prompts for reflection from community artist Con Christeson (featured in Episode 24 of the MOCRA Voices podcast), based on prompts she has been posting in the window of her Red Chair Studio in south St. Louis. Even though Con has framed these questions for this challenging moment, I think you’ll find they are ones that could stimulate our imagination any day.

Enjoy this second compendium of “Con-Text” reflection prompts. Read the first five prompts here, and the third set here, and follow MOCRA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to keep up-to-date on new ones.

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

No. 6

The windows of the world are __________. 

I plan to:

( ) Close them.(  ) Open them. 
(  ) Climb out.(  ) Climb in. 
(  ) Wash them.(  ) Replace them.
(  ) Look in.(  ) Look out.
(  ) None of the above.(  ) Some of the above.
(  ) Find the light.(  ) Find the door

No. 7

I want to shut the door on __________ .

I don’t see the door that leads to __________ .

I can find the door to __________ .

We can build a door that opens __________ .

No. 8

I am present

I speak clearly of __________ 

I listen carefully to __________ 

I dream in color about __________ 

I move gently toward __________ 

No. 9

Eyes: From inside out, I look for __________ .

Windows: From inside out, I watch for __________ .

Souls: From outside in, I look and watch and wait for __________ .

No. 10

A Mapper Manifesto

The destination was:  __________ 

Along the way, let go of: 
1. _________________ 
2. _________________ 
3. _________________ 

Along the way, found:
1. _________________ 
2. _________________ 
3. _________________

“However the image enters / its force remains within / my eyes”: A Juneteenth meditation

Frederick J. Brown, Descent into Hell from The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994–1995 (reverse, detail). MOCRA collection.

Juneteenth is on the consciousness of more Americans than ever before. Like the vast majority of white Americans, I didn’t really know much about Juneteenth (or New Year’s Eve Watch Night observances) beyond the fact that they celebrate the end of slavery in America. The reality was much more complicated, as first the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed slaves in states that had seceded (which was only made effective in Texas with the arrival of Union troops in Galveston Island on June 19, 1865), and then the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in all U.S. states and territories when it was ratified on December 6, 1865.

The National Archives recently located the original handwritten record of General Order No. 3, issued by U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865.

The present-day stark disparities in health, employment, and wealth between Black and white Americans remind us that slavery may have ended, but racial discrimination, violence, and injustice remain deeply and insidiously rooted in contemporary society. Musical artist Usher wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday would be a small gesture compared with the greater social needs of black people in America. But it can remind us of our journey toward freedom, and the work America still has to do.”

While reading and reflecting this week on Juneteenth, a work of art by the late Frederick J. Brown (1945–2012) in the MOCRA collection kept coming to mind. Brown was one of America’s finest and most prolific expressionist artists. His paintings draw on many sources, including his African-American and Choctaw ancestry, his religious upbringing, and the folklore of the South. He referenced religious, historical, and urban themes in his work, but was especially noted for his numerous portraits of jazz and blues artists. In 1991 he told Eve M. Ferguson, “I think my heritage has a great significance to the images I produce, but you can limit people with a name or a title to only serve one group. When you see my work, you can tell it is done by someone who is Black. But, I want to provide as many beautiful things to the world as I possibly can.” (“Art Sings the Blues,” The Washington Afro-American, October 26, 1991)

Frederick J. Brown at MOCRA, December 1995.

Read a 2012 remembrance of Frederick J. Brown by MOCRA Founding Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J.

In 1992, Brown offered to execute a large, multi-paneled altarpiece for the soon-to-open MOCRA. The resulting Life of Christ Altarpiece was completed in 1995 and is comprised of a central triptych (BaptismDescent from the Cross, and Resurrection) and two side panels (Madonna and Child and Descent into Hell, which in the original the were placed at a 90° angle to the triptych). Through strong brushwork and brilliant coloration, Brown created a moving visual theological reflection on the life of Christ.

Frederick J. Brown, The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994–1995. Oil and mixed media on canvas. MOCRA collection, a gift of UMB Banks and the Crosby Kemper Foundations.

The work that has been on my mind is the final panel, Brown’s reflection on a subject rarely seen in modern western art—the Descent into Hell. Traditional depictions of this episode (more often seen in the art of the Eastern Churches) typically show the risen Christ astride the gates of the netherworld, now dashed asunder, as he draws the souls of Adam and Eve and matriarchs and patriarchs from death’s clutches.

14th-century Anastasis fresco in the Chora Church, Istanbul. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Brown’s version is distinguished by a return to the style of Abstract Expressionism that he used in the 1970s, the style which won the attention of the artist Willem de Kooning, who became an important mentor and friend for Brown.

Frederick J. Brown, Descent into Hell from The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994–1995. Oil and mixed media on canvas. MOCRA collection, a gift of UMB Banks and the Crosby Kemper Foundations.

The title of Brown’s version suggests we are in a moment before Christ’s triumph. There is no clear sense of scale, and the removal of figural elements heightens the sense of vast, even limitless despair. This is a descent into a hell with personal resonances, a deeply felt understanding of what it is to look into the abyss and be overwhelmed by the various struggles of life. (Brown intimated that this panel resulted from a dark moment in his own life.)

And yet there is such energy in this work! If it is a descent, it is the descent of the Tunguska meteorite smashing into the earth with a force that could level a city (or indeed, crack the gates of hell). But to me it also looks like an eruption, the energy of life unleashed and spirits triumphantly ascending. Death and life, despair and hope, held together in a single, infinite moment.

Now this energy speaks to me of the forces unleashed following the heartless killing of George Floyd. The pain, cruelty, and lack of human compassion compressed into eight minutes and forty-six seconds exploded, propelling protests and demonstrations—and darker moments of violence and looting. It is an unbridled energy, like the jets of paint that intertwine and race past each other on the canvas, with a momentum that has yet to expend itself (and, I hope, will not flag until substantial transformations of society are achieved).

Frederick J. Brown, Descent into Hell from The Life of Christ Altarpiece (detail), 1994–1995. MOCRA collection.
Frederick J. Brown, Descent into Hell from The Life of Christ Altarpiece (detail), 1994–1995. Oil and mixed media on canvas. MOCRA collection, a gift of UMB Banks and the Crosby Kemper Foundations.

If we let our focus shift behind the bright skeins and spumes, we begin to notice deep purples, blue-blacks, blacks tinged with yellow—the colors of bruising, of throbbing and tenderness, the evidence of trauma. Saturating the canvas, this background is both illumined by and indelibly linked to the energy of the foreground: Not unlike the deep pain of generations of unjust, accumulated and accustomed, but insufficiently acknowledged.

We might also notice the raw canvas at the upper corners and along the left side. These areas have caught some overspray, but they are largely blank, fresh pages offering the possibility of writing a different story.

One of the perks of working in an art museum is the opportunity to see works from perspectives not visible to the general public. In the case of Descent into Hell, seeing the reverse of the work is discovering another work of art.

I usually get the impression of an image from the Hubble Telescope of unbridled cosmic energies swept along in currents or gathering in whorls and eddies. But today I’m also seeing a roiling vortex sucking us down deep into cold waters, away from the light beckoning at the surface. And my imagination takes me to the horrors of the Middle Passage, to the dead and half-dead tossed overboard and consigned to oblivion.

As noted above, when first displayed, the Mother and Child panel faced the Descent into Hell.

Frederick J. Brown, Mother and Child from The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994–1995. Oil and mixed media on canvas. MOCRA collection, a gift of UMB Banks and the Crosby Kemper Foundations.

The hallmark piece of the work, Madonna and Child has an iconic and a monumental feel. Brown builds on the long tradition of this subject, but makes it clearly a work of the late twentieth century. Read in the context of Descent into Hell, the vaguely melancholy child Christ seems to sense his destiny. But the Madonna towers over us, her face bearing the influences of African, Egyptian, Byzantine, and Oceanic art. At first she seems severe, but then we notice that her closed eyelids are pronounced and glistening, as if she is tearing up in anticipation of her son’s trials to come.

Today, this interaction of mother and son reminds me of “the talk” that Black parents must have with their sons. As explained by filmmakers Geeta Gandbhir and Blair Foster:

For generations, parents of black boys across the United States have rehearsed, dreaded and postponed “The Conversation.” But when their boys become teenagers, parents must choose whether or not to expose their sons to what it means to be a black man here. To keep him safe, they may have to tell the child they love that he risks being targeted by the police, simply because of the color of his skin. How should parents impart this information, while maintaining their child’s pride and sense of self? How does one teach a child to face dangerous racism and ask him to emerge unscathed?

This Op-Doc video is our attempt to explore this quandary, by listening to a variety of parents and the different ways they handle these sensitive discussions. In bringing about more public awareness that these conversations exist, we hope that someday they won’t be necessary.

Out of the nearly three-hundred graduating seniors in my 1990 Jesuit high school class, three were Black. I’ve been thinking about Melvin and Charles and Kevin, about how limited my conversations with them were and how little I knew about their lives—about my own obliviousness. And yet, in the fragments of conversation I can recall, I glimpse the multiple worlds they were inhabiting, the outsize burdens they were carrying. I can guess now at “the talks” they received from their parents and elders.

The title of this post comes from the Audre Lorde poem “Afterimages,” a searing meditation on the murder of Emmett Till and its impact on Lorde’s psyche: “His broken body is the afterimage of my 21st year / when I walked through a northern summer / my eyes averted / from each corner’s photographies . . . ”

I think about my young niece and wonder what afterimages of this summer she will carry with her into adulthood. She has seen boarded up businesses in her Washington, D.C., neighborhood, but also the many messages and artworks that adorn them. She has walked by her father’s side at a peaceful demonstration alongside people of many races and all ages. She gives me great hope.

Descent into Hell reminds me also of that crescendo in grand fireworks displays when rocket trails on rocket, a riotous cacophony accompanying coruscating light. The afterimages persist well after the sparks wink out. This seems like a fitting metaphor on this Juneteenth of 2020. Today’s celebrations remind us that, even as we confront painful memories and mourn significant loss, we can harness our creative energies to live our way into a better future. As the juxtapositions of Frederick Brown’s Life of Christ Altarpiece suggest, sometimes that may require a powerful eruption that remakes the world; at other times we need a moment of quiet embrace and contemplation.

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

Remembering Christo

Christo, the great international environmental installation artist, passed away on May 31, 2020, at the age of 84. I had the good fortune of knowing him and his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009. They were impressive, generous people who viewed themselves as soulmates because they were both born in the same year (1935) and on the same day (June 13), Christo in Bulgaria and Jeanne-Claude in Casablanca.  

Christo and Jeanne-Claude.MARKUS WAECHTER/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK Source:

I first learned of their work in the early 1980s while I was studying at the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California at Berkeley. I was taking a course on modern and contemporary sculpture taught by the late Dr. Peter Selz, and found myself particularly fascinated by two of Christo and Jeanne Claude’s projects that Peter presented to the class: Valley Curtain (1970–1972) and Running Fence (1972–1976). 

Typical of Christo’s works, these two works were monumental in size. The saffron-colored Valley Curtain was 1,250 feet wide and 365 feet high. The Smithsonian Institution called Running Fence (24.5 miles long and 18 feet high) the “single most important work of art in the latter half of the twentieth century,” and it was the first work of art that required an environmental impact statement. Peter was the project director of Running Fence, and he worked closely with Christo and Jeanne Claude. 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972–1976. Photo: Wolfgang Volz, © 1976 Christo.

Peter became one of my dissertation advisors and I had the privilege of working with him closely. In early 1988 Peter announced his retirement from Cal-Berkeley, and the university announced plans for a special program for him on April 18 featuring artists, colleagues, and students with whom Peter worked. I was invited to give a presentation at the conference. The participants read papers that focused on Peter as curator, museum director, scholar, and professor, but I wanted to do something different. 

At the time I was the curator of exhibitions at the Graduate Theological Union (a theological consortium located one block north of the Cal-Berkeley campus), and knowing of Peter’s role in Running Fence, I hit on the idea of mounting an exhibition in the GTU’s Flora Lamson Hewlett Library of the correspondence, designs, and legal issues involved in realizing the work. I obtained copies of the written correspondence between Christo and the property owners in Marin and Sonoma counties, as well as some of the key legal documents. I also displayed over fifty photographs of legal hearings and the construction process. With Peter’s help, I was able to borrow original drawings of the proposed work, including a major piece owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

The response was excellent as visitors filled the exhibition area of the Library on the April 15 opening night. Best of all, Christo and Jeanne-Claude flew from New York to attend the GTU reception and to participate in the Peter Selz tributes on the Cal-Berkeley campus. During the months-long process of planning the exhibition, I had many long-distance phone conversations with Jeanne-Claude, but I had never spoken with Christo until they arrived in Berkeley (Jeanne-Claude would run interference for Christo, managing all the business details while he focused on the creative process.) I was nervous about meeting them, but they were both pleased to be in attendance and they were charming guests. Accompanying them was Jeanne-Claude’s mother, the Countess de Guillebon. 

While planning their trip, Jeanne-Claude called me from New York to find out if there would be a post-opening dinner. I said yes, and that I planned on about six people for dinner at a fine East Bay Italian restaurant. That was not acceptable to Jeanne-Claude, who said that she and Christo could not possibly come to Berkeley without thanking the many people who helped them with Running Fence: I should plan for about thirty people at the dinner. I nearly panicked; this would be well beyond what my tight budget could support. I admitted this to Jeanne-Claude, who quickly reassured me. “Mon Pere,” she said, “I have a solution. You pay for your guests, and Christo and I will pay for our guests.” With this equitable and face-saving arrangement, I ended up paying for my six guests, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude paid for their twenty-four. 

At the restaurant, Jeanne-Claude asked if any of the guests spoke French. Several did, and she asked one of them to sit next to her mother, who did not speak English. Jeanne-Claude also noticed one young couple sitting by themselves, and she quickly did some furniture arranging so that the couple was included in the event. I was witnessing firsthand how important Jeanne-Claude was in her partnership with Christo. The food was delicious, the conversations were animated, and both Christo and Peter made remarks to the dinner guests.

The program for Peter took place the next day, April 16. Christo was among the participants seated on stage, and I sat next to Jeanne-Claude in one of the front rows of the auditorium. During the program, noticing my fatigue, she leaned over and, in a soft voice, said to me, “Mon Pere, just think how happy you will be tomorrow.” Startled, I asked her why I would be happy, and with a twinkle in her eye, she said, “Because we will be gone.”

Indeed, Jeanne-Claude, her mother, and Christo departed the next day. But two years later, I encountered them at a cocktail party held for them in New York, and they immediately came over to say hello to me. That was the last time I saw them.

Although I had curated an exhibition of one of Christo’s most famous works, I didn’t experience any of his works in person until February 2005, when The Gates opened to the public in New York’s Central Park. I told my good friend, artist Tobi Kahn, that I planned to come to New York to see the The Gates, scheduled to open on February 12. Tobi knew that February 10 would be my sixtieth birthday, and he and his wife Nessa prepared a wonderful birthday celebration for me. Two days later, I joined the throngs of people to walk through the 7,503 gates that comprised the installation, each approximately eleven feet wide and sixteen feet high. It was a beautiful mild winter day, with recently fallen snow resting on the tree branches, grass, and park benches and architecture. It was a breathtaking and peace-filled experience, as the saffron color nylon fabric panels hanging from the tops of the frames dramatically contrasted with the monochromatic winter landscape of Central Park. The colors of The Gates, reflected in the melted snow on the asphalt walkways, gave me the sensation of walking on liquid saffron. Although I did not walk the full twenty-three miles length of the installation, I did walk about eight miles; I can’t think of a more magnificent birthday experience.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude truly were a remarkable couple. Their environmental sculptures may have been temporary, but those works were so imaginative and impressive that they remained in our memories long after the works were taken down. Truly, these were artists who helped to change how we see the world.

Terrence Dempsey, S.J.
Founding Director Emeritus, MOCRA

“Let go of certainty and grab hold of creativity.”

Those are the words of Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, welcoming me and other “attendees” last week to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) virtual conference. The theme of “Radical Reimagining” seemed prescient in a moment when Americans are called to radically reimagine social structures, policies, and priorities.

Some people have been doing the risky work of challenging the status quo for years, rooted in painful personal experience. Some have given lip-service to the idea of reform, but have not felt the urgency to act. And some actively oppose any change to a system that, to them, seems to work just fine. I occupy that middle group, as a white cisgender male who has benefitted from systems of housing, education, and employment that favor folks who look like me. I am thankful that my privilege included a Jesuit education that cultivated critical reflective skills and emphasized the call to be women and men for others. But the murder of George Floyd and everything that has followed since, have made clear to me that my complacency and acts of omission far outweigh the actions I have taken to work for change.

There’s a yawning gap between letting go of certainty and grabbing hold of creativity—like a trapeze act working with no safety net—but it’s time to launch into that void.

For at least two decades, diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) have sounded a steady drumbeat in the museum field. Progress has been halting and uneven, from tentative steps like gearing exhibitions toward underserved communities, to more equitable relationships where museums involve those communities in decision-making. Museums are confronting difficult questions about their roots in, and role in perpetuating, the injustices of colonialism and racism. They must examine the makeup of their boards, the sources of their income, and inequities in their staffing and compensation.

MOCRA is a relatively young museum, but even so, we must undergo this same self-evaluation. Thus, we respectfully acknowledge that our building sits on the traditional, ancestral lands of the Osage Nation. The process of knowing and acknowledging the land we stand on is a way of honoring and expressing gratitude for the ancestral Osage people who were on this land before us.

In 2016 the Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern Province, and Saint Louis University created the Slavery History, Memory, and Reconciliation Committee, which shed light on the fact that SLU’s early Jesuit leaders brought six enslaved men and women from Maryland to St. Louis in 1823; eventually the Jesuits owned as many as thirty-five to forty slaves. We acknowledge that we, too, have benefitted from the forced labor of those men and women. 

Looking over MOCRA’s collection, exhibitions, and programs, I can point to times when we brought to the fore Black artists and artists from other marginalized identities, or confronted difficult and painful issues directly tied to America’s racist history. I also humbly admit, on my own part and the museum’s, to moments of presumption, naïveté, and missed opportunities to affirm that Black lives matter. 

Museums can no longer look away from their history of complicity in racist and white supremacist structures. Yet Lonnie Bunch (14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institutions and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture) reminded us during an AAM keynote address that museums are a glue in our communities. At their best, museums highlight our common humanity, provide a space for healing, and help us envision a better future. Bunch exhorted us not to retreat from the uncertainties of the present moment, but to commit to the work of justice and equity.

On behalf of MOCRA, I join with my colleagues at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art and Samuel Cupples House, in affirming that the Museums and Galleries of Saint Louis University stand together with the SLU community in stark opposition to the systemic racism and structures in our society that oppress Black people and other people of marginalized identities. We must bring hateful rhetoric and dehumanizing violence to an end. Solidarity and community mean that we never have to face such evil alone. With a firm belief in the capacity for art to articulate grief, fear, and anger, to inspire empathy, compassion, and solidarity, we pledge our support and join with those working for justice and equity in our community. MOCRA’s mission prompts us in a particular way to bring to the fore, through art, the ways in which the religious and spiritual dimensions can be transformative positive forces, while never being blind to the ways religion can be twisted and perverted to sustain unjust structures and beliefs. 

Thank you for taking the time to read these thoughts, which I share as a way of holding myself accountable, and asking you to help hold MOCRA and me to account. I am aware that they may resonate with some people, provoke anger in others, and fall short of the mark for yet others. I welcome your responses, thoughts, and suggestions. You can e-mail me at david [dot] brinker [at] slu [dot] edu, or leave a message through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

May you and yours remain safe and healthy amid the ongoing pandemic, as we travel together through this uncertain terrain, seeking a better future.

David Brinker
MOCRA Director