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Long An Arts Funder, Regional Arts Commission Seeks To Help Steer Arts Organizations

A five-year plan released Wednesday by the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis calls for an enhanced role for the organization and details a large number of broad goals for the arts sector of the St. Louis region. 

The plan aims to help the organization expand its role in the region by leading newfound collaborations among arts groups and helping set shared priorities for the sector.

“There is just no question that there is a desire in this community for an organization to step forward, to play a leadership role, to be able to bring together what is a very collaborative community but just needs some leadership,” Chairman Mont Levy said after RAC unveiled the plan at Palladium St. Louis.

He said that the efforts would require active participation from arts organizations, but that RAC is in place to set the pace. 

“It’s clear that RAC is the organization they see that has this unique role — that has public dollars and this platform to help move the arts sector forward.”

The five-year plan notes that distributing grants will continue to be a key part of RAC’s work. The organization, which distributes about $4 million a year, will review its grant-making process, but arts organizations shouldn’t expect any “radical change” on that front, Levy said.

The plan identifies four key priorities for the region: growing the “capacity” of artists and arts organizations, promoting arts education for young people, increasing equity and access to the arts for underserved groups and providing management training meant to help regional arts organizations run better. 

The plan calls for hiring new staff and building a workplace culture that will “establish RAC as a great place to work.” To support its enhanced efforts, RAC will also perform targeted fundraising for new programs, rather than dipping into its pot of tax dollars. RAC's commissioners also will consider whether the organization should move from its Delmar Loop building.

Changes in leadership and funding priorities

RAC has distributed over $100 million since the Missouri General Assembly established it in 1985. It receives a portion of the city’s occupancy tax on visitors to hotels and motels. Felicia Shaw became executive director in 2015, replacing founder Jill McGwire.

Shaw left her post in November; RAC did not provide a reason for her departure. RAC named Celia Hoster, a former chief operating officer of COCA, interim executive director. A search for Shaw’s permanent replacement is ongoing. 

RAC had begun to shift funding priorities in recent years, angering some leaders of smaller organizations who complained about losing program support from RAC that they were long accustomed to receiving. RAC distributed funds to 40 fewer organizations in 2018 than the year before, though the total amount of funding decreased only slightly.

Shaw said in 2018 that when renewing grants, the organization would focus more on the quality of an organization's work. Its new emphasis, she said, would be on awarding more money to smaller organizations and moving away from a system in which "everybody gets a dollar."

(L-R) Alexis Adams, Harvey Lockhart, Bernard Terry, Irvin Neal and Eimear Arkins perform at a launch event for RAC's five-year plan. [3/11/20]
Credit Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio
(L-R) Alexis Adams, Harvey Lockhart, Bernard Terry, Irvin Neal and Eimear Arkins perform at a launch event for RAC's five-year plan.

Building on recent studies

The five-year plan incorporates the findings of two studies that were released last year. 

In 2018, a consulting firm, the Rome Group, led a series of working groups that identified priorities for the arts sector. It recommended increasing support for arts education in schools, creating more partnerships between the arts sector and local governments to support the creative economy, and doing more to connect St. Louis’ working artists with each other. 

During the same time period, the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland also studied the St. Louis arts scene and made several observations that factor into the goals of the five-year plan. This look into the “arts ecology” of the region found that St. Louis’ large arts organizations are larger than those in cities of similar size, but that there is an overabundance of small groups and a lack of midsize ones. It also noted that there is no arts organization primarily serving communities of color with a budget of $1 million or more, despite the fact that African Americans compose a plurality of the city’s residents.

The DeVos study also found that St. Louis arts organizations lag in long-term planning and marketing efforts, and that a “small group of very generous funders is providing a large portion of philanthropy in St. Louis.” 

It described the arts sector here as “remarkably large, diverse and productive,” and noted that many organizations offer ticket prices that are “modest” or free.

The plan lays out a timeline for 16 objectives. They include launching a new RAC website this year, developing a regional marketing plan in 2021 and offering support for arts administrators of color each year through 2024. 

Levy said progress on the plan will quicken once RAC hires a new executive director.

“Having that person in place will really make a huge difference on when and how quickly some of these things move forward,” he said. 

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Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.