Between assembling faux Christmas trees and arranging props for the Mary Engelbreit Christmas storybook exhibit, museum owner Jeanne Johnston realized copies of illustrator Richard Bernal's latest children's book had yet to arrive for the next day's book signing.
Just as she starts to worry, Bernal strolls into the Children's Illustrated Art Museum, closely followed by his publisher, Josh Stevens, who is wheeling two boxes full of Brother Jerome and the Angels in the Bakery.
Warm hellos are exchanged as everyone waits for Stevens to cut through the packing tape and pull out a hot-off-the-press book. Johnston is all smiles as she flips through, running her hand over the pages until she pauses and says, "See, this picture is right here." She turns and points to an original drawing by Bernal hanging on the wall behind her.
The Johnston family founded the Children's Illustrated Art Museum in Crestwood Court in 2009. It is a tenant of ArtSpace, the result of a resourceful and innovative transformation of a previously dwindling indoor shopping center. In 2009, the mall's management company teamed up with the Regional Arts Council of St. Louis to rent numerous vacant shops to local artists at starving-artist-friendly prices.
There are at least three themed collections housed at the mall in what could be called "pop-up" museums. In the fashion and retail world, "pop-up shop" describes a temporary store that opens with the aim of cultivating new followers and connecting with customers in an original and trendy way.
Similarly, the Children's Illustrated Art Museum refreshingly diverges from a conventional museum in its history, current operation and location. There is something intriguing and enjoyable about viewing art in the skeleton of a suburban mall, knowing that it won't be housed there forever. It reinvents museum-going; the experience feels unique and accessible.
Instead of being one of thousands of visitors shuffling along a well-trodden path through galleries under the watchful eyes of security guards, you become an explorer charting your own course, perhaps even meeting one of the featured illustrators. You become engaged with the museum visit in a new way, wondering what's next.
The Johnstons view the museum's establishment as just one step along the way of their meaningful journey to help a young family member who was diagnosed with Leukemia.
In 2004, Johnston and her granddaughter McKenzie founded a nonprofit in the hopes of raising money for St. Jude's Children's Hospital. The endeavor led to the birth of the museum.
The Johnstons initially envisioned designing journals in which the hospitalized children could record their hopes and fears. The family reached out to several artists asking to borrow an illustration or painting for reproduction on the diary pages.
Without the credibility that the Johnstons now have because of the museum, many artists were hesitant to loan out their valuable work. But one children's book author and illustrator from Springfield, MO, Riki Lipe, took a chance and donated an oil painting from her children's book, The Secret of Ricena's Pond.
"It just kind of came in the mail," said McKenzie Johnston, remembering the day. Gradually the Johnstons--now including her father Jimmy Johnston--acquired a collection of original illustrations, drawings and paintings from children's books fit for a museum. So, they opened one.
Visit the Children's Illustrated Art Museum in Crestwood Court for a memorable experience and to see the works of illustrators Don Bertram, Richard Bernal, Guy Gilchrist, Kevin Belford and Astrid Sheckels among others.
"The Holiday Experience" exhibit featuring Mary Engelbreit's Christmas book illustrations is open through Jan. 10, Mondays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.