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Regional Arts Commission launches push to increase arts funding by boosting St Louis tourism

Hundreds of festival-goers wait outside of The Big Top on Washington Avenue during a recent Music at the Intersection Festival.
Music at the Intersection
RAC leaders said events like the Music at the Intersection festival, which drew large crowds to the Big Top in Grand Center last year, are a good place to market St. Louis to visitors.

The Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis is launching a campaign to raise the region’s national profile as an arts destination.

The commission, which gets most of its money for grants from a tax on overnight accommodations, saw its funding dwindle when tourism dipped sharply at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We need to get people in hotels,” said Jay Scherder, communications senior manager.

Tax revenues for RAC went from $6.9 million in 2019 to $3.5 million the next year, causing the grant-making agency to sharply cut grants it had already promised for 2020. RAC temporarily shed most of its staff, simplified its grant-application process and removed some limitations on how organizations may use their money.

RAC forecasts that it will receive $7.3 million in tax revenue this year. That would make 2023 the first year to exceed the 2019 total, but is still about $100,000 less than RAC forecasts it would have received if not for the pandemic.

The centerpiece of the marketing push is a new website that compiles arts offerings — StLouisArts.org. It’s a response to arts leaders who have said it’s difficult to get on the radar of visitors to St. Louis.

“What this website is hoping to accomplish is to be able to put St. Louis on the map as being an arts town,” Scherder said, “a place that people can come and have a very unique experience compared to other cities across the United States.”

The marketing push is a strategic shift for RAC, whose leaders have been exploring ways to boost its revenues. Previous profile-building efforts, including development of a mobile app and an arts calendar produced in partnership with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, did not succeed, Scherder, said.

Leaders from some of the largest arts organizations in St. Louis recently traveled to New York to discuss arts offerings with journalists.
Kelly Williams
Explore St. Louis
Leaders from some of the largest arts organizations in St. Louis recently traveled to New York to discuss arts offerings with journalists.

Funding for the campaign comes from RAC’s annual tourism outreach budget of $500,000, or about 7% of its expected revenue in 2023.

Studies by Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy organization, have found that arts organizations in St. Louis generate more income than its sports teams. As of fiscal 2015, arts organizations in St. Louis supported 19,129 jobs and generated nearly $600 million annually in direct economic activity.

“The arts are one of the biggest draws to St. Louis. The Cardinals and beer, they get more love than the arts, but the arts bring in more revenue to St. Louis than sports do, and so they really do deserve to get a spotlight,” said Cat Neville, vice president of communications for Explore St. Louis.

The commission is targeting potential visitors living in Peoria, Paducah, Chicago, Indianapolis and other cities with digital marketing and ads in major airports. Many early visitors to StLouisArts.org live in Germany, Scherder said — a place where St. Louis arts leaders hope to find new audience members after the start of nonstop flights from Lambert International Airport to the country.

The grant-maker also will begin co-sponsoring events its leaders think are likely to draw people from out of town, including the Open Highway Music Festival at Chesterwood Amphitheater, Kranzberg Arts Foundation’s Music at the Intersection festival in Grand Center and the inaugural Evolve music festival coming to Forest Park in September.

Explore St. Louis brought leaders from five of the largest St. Louis arts organizations, including Pulitzer Arts Foundation and Opera Theatre of St. Louis, to New York in March to meet with journalists and propose stories about arts offerings. Explore St. Louis plans to host visiting media for a tour of arts destinations in May.

“It's really a positive cycle that benefits everyone in our region to have folks come and for us to be known as a world-class arts and culture city, which we are. It’s important to scream that from the rooftops,” said Andréa Purnell, chair of RAC’s Board of Commissioners.

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