A contemporary art museum with a knack for exhibiting the next big thing next door to another arts museum housed in a building globally recognized as an architectural marvel.
An astonishingly beautiful symphony hall across the street from another of the nation’s premiere performing arts venues.
An arts hotel where you can select your room by color.
An annual music festival. Music and podcast recording studios.
Artist studios and rehearsal spaces for theatre and dance.
A fine art printing shop.
Put it all together within a half-mile radius and you have the Grand Center Arts District in St. Louis, the most exciting emerging arts district in America.
Powell Hall stands as the grande dame of Grand Center, a neighborhood about midway between the Gateway Arch on the Mississippi River and the city’s 1,300 acre Forest Park–New York’s Central Park has 840 acres by comparison. Opened in 1925, the fantastically ornate interior featuring iconic red velvet chairs has been home to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra since 1968.
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra wrapped up its 143rd season in 2023, the second oldest in America and one of the finest in the world.
Powell Hall will be closed for the next two years allowing for a $100 million renovation by Snøhetta, the most sought-after architecture firm in the world.
Upon reopening in 2025, venerable Powell Hall will have updated plumbing, electrical, HVAC, lighting, seating and ADA accessibility. A new lobby will be added along with a new education center and an entirely new backstage wing benefiting performers and stage crew.
Powell Hall has brought St. Louisans to Grand Center for arts and culture since the Vaudeville days and will continue serving as the neighborhood’s crown jewel for decades to come. Its presence, and that of other historic performing arts venues in the neighborhood, not surprisingly, set the foundation for the vibrant cultural momentum surging through the area today.
“The Grand Center Arts District has been one of our most important arts and entertainment destinations for many, many years; it had the anchor institutions, but it also had a lot of vacancy around it,” Chris Hansen, Executive Director for the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, told Forbes.com.
Powell Hall and the adjacent “Fabulous” Fox Theatre, which opened in 1929 and continues hosting Broadway shows and major national touring musicians and comics today, were the traditional one-two punch for performing arts in St. Louis.
When the Pulitzer Arts Foundation debuted its revolutionary Tadao Ando-designed building as a non-collecting arts museum in 2001 a few hundred feet from the Fox, which is a few hundred feet from Powell Hall, and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis opened two years later literally next door to the Pulitzer building, the imaginative floodgates for the arts in St. Louis broke loose. No longer was any dream too big.
Today, the Kranzberg Foundation funds many of those dreams.
The Kranzberg family has been St. Louis art patrons for 50 years, but the Foundation launched in 2006 with the unusual aim of supporting the arts through real estate. The Foundation makes its mission developing the venues, studios and workspaces artists across all disciplines need to foster their careers.
“No one wants to give an arts organization money when they’re bad operators of a building and they bleed out all their money on heat, light and power or poor operations of the facility,” Hansen explained. “When we come in and develop these (facilities), we’re building capacity for these organizations and we’re able to help them scale from a 50-capacity room to a 2,500-capacity room, but we’re also providing operational support. When they get money from funders, that money can go into programming, it can go into building staff capacity, they’re not as concerned about facilities management.”
The Kranzberg Foundation buys and operates the spaces where art takes place, allowing the artists to focus on what they do best: art.
Grand Center became a natural focus for these efforts because of its proximity to existing arts institutions and available, affordable real estate.
“This was an obvious place where arts infrastructure already existed, but we wanted to lower that barrier, make it easier for art to start, not just graduate, in this area, and create more of a pedestrian friendly, walkable version of an arts district that’s historically been a ticket-in-your-hand kind of district–you know where you’re going, you park there, and then you leave,” Hansen said.
What the Foundation is working toward creating in the neighborhood is a neighborhood. A community. Places for artists to work, for neighbors to access free public art, a destination of constant cultural discovery for locals and visitors alike.
“We truly believe that artists are the soul of our city and that when we nurture the arts, we affect health and wealth in our region,” Hansen said. “We see the arts broadly as one of the great reasons to live in St. Louis, work in St. Louis, visit St. Louis. It’s part of economic development. It’s part of creating a vibrant community that’s connected, and without it, nothing else looks quite the same or feels quite the same.”
While the Foundation has been developing creative infrastructure in Grand Center since opening the multi-use The Kranzberg arts center in 2006, just since 2019, it has been rapidly putting more points on the board along Washington Avenue behind Powell Hall. Here, on a stretch of city street once more accustomed to muffler shops, Walls Off Washington mural park, Boulevard Fine Art Printing, Sophie’s Artist Lounge and a particular source of pride, High Low Literary Arts Café, reside.
“We have nearly a dozen arts organizations, primarily literary focused, that have workspace on the second floor. They meet the public in the library and cafe and the listening room. We have rotating exhibitions in the gallery there,” Hansen details. “It’s an amazing connection between the people who live and work here, the creatives who produce here, and the literary arts community at large.”
Also sharing the building are Bullivant Gallery, Metro Theatre Company, Peter Martin’s jazz media center plus offices and rehearsal space for the Shakespeare Festival. Siting these businesses together reaps benefits of its own.
“It’s not our job to curate anything, it’s (to) put people in proximity; there’s magic to that,” Hansen said. “When you do that well, it builds a wave of momentum, and we have that moment. These connections between creative artists, applied arts, traditional music industry–you have marketing agencies and tech industries here–it starts to put together a framework for how the arts drive opportunity, it’s dynamic. It takes a certain economy of scale to get it done, but it’s powerful.”
Bulrush, a contemporary dining and craft bar experience, shares a wall with High Low. Here, two-time James Beard award semi-finalist chef Rob Connoley explores the historic roots of Ozark cuisine. His family has been in the area since the 1830s.
What is Ozark cuisine?
“It’s not squirrel and ‘possum,” Connoley told Forbes.com, laughing, “although, it is squirrel and ‘possum,” he adds with another laugh.
Levity aside, Connoley’s vision for Bulrush is deeply principled.
“We want to go back to the origin of how Ozark food was actually created,” Connoley explains. “We’re pushing the idea of what it would mean to be a restaurant based on the principles and philosophies of reparations where we look at the true origin and attribution (of the cuisine).”
Beyond a star vehicle for a hot chef, Bulrush pays dishwashers $25 an hour and staff members receive full insurance and paid vacation.
When not at the restaurant, Connoley scours the surrounding region foraging for ingredients he’ll later be cooking in the round for guests. Ingredients on the Ozark tasting menu at Bulrush are almost exclusively locally sourced and not just seasonal, but “hyper-seasonal.”
Bulrush serves dinner Thursday through Sunday. Urban Chestnut Brewing and Biergarten across the street–this is St. Louis after all–and Turn brunchery down the block serving a biscuit flight cover the off hours.
As exciting as this all seems, the stretch vision for Grand Center is creating a Music Row for the Midwest.
“St. Louis has a deep, deep musical legacy and a big music scene, but it’s pretty spread out right now,” Hansen said.
Chuck Berry, Miles Davis and Nelly are all St. Louisans. Top that! The city is a historic and contemporary hotbed for blues, jazz, R&B, rock and roll and hip hop.
These are the credentials Grand Center is building on.
“Between Grand, where the Fox Theater and Jazz St. Louis is, and Compton Avenue (one block east of High Low), we will have the largest concentration of live music venues in the region,” Hansen forecasts. “What we’re hoping to do is attract more small venues to infill this and have a real focused concentration on attracting music industry and new musical opportunities for patrons that don’t require a ticket in your hand, where you can just pull the door and go in and hear live music.”
With everything already accomplished in the neighborhood, there’s no reason to believe it will fall short of this goal.
“We want St. Louis to be a premier arts and entertainment destination and we want St. Louis artists and creative organizations to be the premiere in their class worldwide,” Hansen said. “We want to continue to catapult our great artists out of here, and see them find success on the global stage, but know that St. Louis is home and bring their economy back here and choose to live, work and build their families here. We have the talent to do it. We have the infrastructure. We have the support. We have the legacy. Now it’s about connecting the dots.”