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“The Pulitzer Foundation: Palace of Pretentiousness”

Pulitzer Arts Foundation
Ranked #75 of 224 things to do in Saint Louis
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Attraction details
Recommended length of visit: 1-2 hours
Owner description: The Pulitzer Arts Foundation presents art in dynamic interplay with architecture, offering unexpected experiences and inspiring new perspectives. Valuing contemplation, close looking, and civic engagement, the Pulitzer brings art and people together. The Pulitzer is open Wednesday–Saturday 10am–5pm, with extended hours on Friday until 8pm. For more details, visit pulitzerarts.org. The Pulitzer Arts Foundation is closed temporarily for installation until Friday, September 14, 2018. Join us for the opening reception for "Ruth Asawa: Life's Work" and "Lola Álvarez Bravo: Picturing Mexico" on Friday, September 14 at 6pm.
Reviewed March 28, 2006

As a St. Louis resident, I have had three opportunities to visit the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Each time I've come away feeling intensely repelled, yet strangely fascinated, and usually with enough motivation for a repeat visit... once I get over my overall feeling of nausea.

For those not yet in the know, the Pulitzer Foundation is a small private museum--primarily a showcase for Emily and the late Joseph Pulitzer's private collection--opened freely to the public two days a week. Visitors may walk around on their own or join a docent-led guided tour. The Foundation also sponsors lectures, concerts and other cultural activities, for which the museum usually serves as a venue. The official back story is that the Pulitzers, of newspaper fame and fortune, wished to give this museum as a way of sharing their art and expressing their appreciation for the St. Louis community. One suspects that the true story is more nuanced, but to even contemplate that possibility would cut against the First Rule of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts: Emily Pulitzer is a hero deserving of cult-like appreciation. If you visit the museum, do yourself a favor and never forget the First Rule.

The airy, open, all-concrete building, designed by Tadao Ando, was widely hailed for its architectural significance when it was completed in 2001. It's a pleasant place, filled with intriguing spaces and vistas, and I would say it deserves the praise it's received.

The museum more generally, however, fails on a couple of points that are important to me. The Pulitzers' collection leans heavily towards Minimalist works for which I personally have an extremely meager appreciation. (Richard Serra and Ellsworth Kelly appear to be their fetish artists.) Now I know that my taste in art is my problem, not anyone else's, and I know that there is something valuable to be taken from any work of art, but the Pulitzers' heap of black monochromes and rusting steel has a distinct the-emperor-has-no-clothes feel to it. If you disagree violently with me on this, then you are going to love this museum.

If you agree with me, though, keep your mouth shut. The docents at the Foundation (mostly artists themselves) appear to have been conditioned to jump down the throat of anyone uttering even the slightest negative, critical, or even questioning opinion. This will happen to you even if you try, as I have, to keep your opinion to yourself on the whole. They are looking for a fight. The docents I've met have all been artists themselves and are hyper-defensive about their medium. They are definitely interested in fostering a conversation about art, but only if you toe the line and agree that there is nothing more brilliant than a pile of caramels.

Because the art being exhibited is mostly privately owned, there's often a personal connection between the Pulitzers and the artist. A few works were even commissioned specifically for the Foundation. This is wonderful, but the docents act as if they're personally close friends of the artists, referring to them on an exclusively first-name basis. Honest ingenuity or pretentious self-elevation? You make the call.

The museum is also suffused with a bizarre hero-worship directed towards the Pulitzers. Certainly, as the patrons (and owners) of this museum, they are entitled to a little respect and appreciation, but here it's a little creepy. The docents also appear to be fearful that Emily Pulitzer is personally watching them give their tours. When someone in my tour group accidentally brushed a sculpture, the docent scolded him violently, then looked around in a panic and declared to no one in particular, "I didn't see him do it! It wasn't my fault!" The museum's stated goal is to be like a house where the public can come visit Emily Pulitzer and her art, but the staff's paranoia will leave you wondering, "Is this how you treat your guests?"

At best the Pulitzer Foundation is an exercise in ostentatious bourgeoisie. Sure, I would also like to have $25 million to spend on such an exercise. Readers may call me a monster for assassinating a gift to the public and a benefactress of the art world. Maybe I am, but maybe I am just a meritocrat who is wondering if there are truly no critical voices in the art world today.

8  Thank Ferrites
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
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"tadao ando"
in 6 reviews
"richard serra"
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"grand center"
in 3 reviews
"reflecting pool"
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"interesting pieces"
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"changing exhibits"
in 2 reviews
"small museum"
in 3 reviews
"couple of hours"
in 2 reviews
"free admission"
in 2 reviews
in 4 reviews
in 7 reviews
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