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St. Louis arts leaders ask city to commit millions in federal funds to arts groups

The Muny is looking to extend its lease to 2071, and free up some funds earmarked for parking lot upkeep. A city fund for that purpose has a surplus of approximately $180,000. 6/14/18
The Muny
Audiences attend a show at the Muny. Its president and CEO, Kwofe Coleman, said federal coronavirus aid will help sustain large and small arts institutions.

A bill that would bring $10.6 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to arts organizations will soon be heard by the full Board of Aldermen.

The bill would allow the Regional Arts Commission to use federal funds for arts organizations and programs that shut their doors during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This $10.6 million is actually spread out over a number of years,” said Alderman Dan Guenther, the bill’s sponsor. “It is what we believe will be helpful and help not only to replace lost revenue but also help grow our arts programing and our arts culture in the city of St. Louis.”

If approved, the executive director of the city’s Community Development Administration would sign a sub-agreement with the Regional Arts Commission, which would distribute the funds to arts organizations. A spokesperson for Mayor Tishaura Jones said she supports the bill.

Arts leaders said Thursday that the pandemic forced theaters and other arts organizations to shut their doors to prevent the virus from spreading. The Regional Arts Commission receives a substantial amount of funding from the hotel/motel sales tax, which was depleted during the pandemic. Tax revenues for the commission went from $9.5 million in fiscal 2019 to $3.186 million in fiscal 2021, said Nahuel Fefer, executive director of the city’s Community Development Administration.

Revenue generated from the hotel motel sales tax is still years away from a full recovery, said Vanessa Cooksey, executive director of the Regional Arts Commission.

Cooksey said RAC would have received $7.2 million revenue this year but has so far received $4.2 million with four months left.

“Unanimous approval of this bill will benefit creative residents and arts and culture organizations in your ward,” Cooksey said. “RAC has the plan, the existing infrastructure and strong relationships to effectively equitably and efficiently distribute ARPA funds to artists and arts and cultural organizations in St. Louis.”

Last fall, more than 100 arts leaders sent city and St. Louis County leaders a letter asking for the region to allocate 5% of federal relief funds to support the arts. A county bill, if approved, would distribute $1.6 million to the commission. Arts leaders said the funds are critical, as the arts sector supports more than 19,000 jobs and generates nearly $600 million a year, more than all local sports combined.

Many of the region’s arts organizations are essential to the community as many of the organizations use their funds to support jobs and education opportunities, said Kwofe Coleman, president and CEO of the Muny. But he said the Muny is facing a multimillion-dollar loss for another year.

“We benefit from size in a way that I know some of my colleagues do not, so if we are experiencing that, I know that for some of our colleagues and for individuals not represented on this panel, it's far more dire than then I can even say here,” Coleman said. “I cannot stress enough that there are individuals and organizations of different scales that are suffering in a way that we can't even properly articulate. There are a number of artists who will never have their first opportunity or their new beginning.”

Smaller and midsize groups make up a substantial part of the region’s art scene, said Joan Lipkin, artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company and Dance the Vote.

“The larger arts organizations are in need of funding, everybody is in need of funding,” Lipkin said. “But the smaller and midsize groups who are an essential part of our arts ecology are struggling even more. If we do not provide more ways for artists and small organizations to survive, they will be leaving.”

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.