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RAC Leader Wants To Help Arts Groups Get Through Pandemic, Advance Racial Equity

Vanessa Cooksey is charged with leading the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis through a pandemic and heightened demand for racial equity in the arts.  [2/10/21]
Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis
Vanessa Cooksey is charged with leading the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis through a pandemic and heightened demand for racial equity in the arts.

The Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis recently went through a stretch of unfortunate timing. The largest public funder of arts organizations in the region saw its leader leave abruptly in November 2019, as the organization was in the final stages of composing a five-year strategic plan.

Then it launched that strategic plan with a public event in March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began reshaping American life — and the subsequent economic downturn stripped the tax-funded organization of much of its revenue.

In November, Vanessa Cooksey took over as president and CEO of RAC. Her agenda includes steering the organization through the rest of the pandemic and leveraging resources to help struggling arts organizations. She’s also identified diversity, equity and inclusion within the arts sector as priorities.

Cooksey came to RAC from Washington University, where she was director of strategic communications and student engagement. Before that, she specialized in communications and community relations at Wells Fargo, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Cartoon Network and other companies. She’s also served on the boards of the St. Louis Public Schools Foundation, Deaconess Foundation, Mercy Health and other nonprofits.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Cooksey about RAC’s response to the pandemic and its role in promoting racial equity among arts organizations in the St. Louis region.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: Is the Regional Arts Commission in a position to advance the cause of racial equity in the arts sector?

Vanessa Cooksey: Absolutely. That is essential to our region’s well being. And diversity, equity and inclusion is part of our go-forward strategy. We need a thriving arts sector that is diverse — that has leadership from women, the LatinX community, African Americans — in order to really meet the needs of this region.

Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis
Vanessa Cooksey said the St. Louis arts sector is likely to recover more quickly than the local tourism economy, which generates most of RAC's funding.

And grant-making and capacity building are two tools we can use, in addition to our influence and our leadership role in the sector. And inviting and convening and collaborating with other arts funders and arts patrons to say: This is important, let’s set some goals and plans around achieving those goals.

Goodwin: What are some first and second and third steps that, from your seat at RAC, your organization can take to nudge some progress along? How do you do that?

Cooksey: First, it’s understanding the environment and meeting with organizations like the Black Rep and saying: What is it that you need? How can we be helpful?

Also, bringing other funders to the table with specific plans on how to support organizations. And so, while I don’t have specifics, the intention will be to listen and respond.

Goodwin: I think we’ve seen a lot of organizations scramble to produce a statement on diversity, equity and inclusion in the past 10 months. We’ve also seen a lot of organizations that are still figuring out where to go from there.

Cooksey: Yes. And statements are important. Saying what you’re going to do and making the public declaration is important. But then it has to be followed up with action.

Goodwin: The coronavirus pandemic has slashed tax revenues, and RAC’s largest source of funding is the hotel/motel occupancy tax. Last year, Mont Levy, the chairman of the RAC board, estimated that the funding you get from that source could decrease by 75%. Has the dropoff been that dramatic?

Cooksey: Yes. And since I’ve been on board, I’ve really taken the time to listen and to connect with leaders in the hospitality industry and Explore St. Louis to really understand what the impact of COVID on the hotel/motel industry is. And the recovery is going to be very slow.

So, while our arts sector may start to see some recovery over the next 12 to 18 months, the projections in terms of hotel/motel recovery say it could be two to four years.

Regional Arts Commission Chairman Mont Levy unveils a five-year plan meant to enhance RAC's role in a resurgent arts sector. [3/11/20]
File photo | Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio
Mont Levy, RAC's board chair, announced the organization's five-year strategic plan in March 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic began reshaping American life.

Goodwin: So if you’re losing 75% of your tax funding, has RAC been continuing with its usual program of grants? Have you just shifted to an emergency footing, with the relief fund?

Cooksey: In 2020 we were able to fund organizations who received general operating support at 25% or 20% of our initial award. For organizations that received programming support, we were funding those at 40%. Our goal and hope is to maintain that, but we certainly haven’t received clarity around our revenue projections for 2021 yet.

But our commitment is, no matter what, we will fund our organizations and our artists to the best of our ability.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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