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The arts generate St. Louis nearly $900 million a year, but many local artists struggle

Eliana Cristancho, of Chesterfield, and Luisa Otero Prada, of Uplands Park, apply sealant to the mural they painted alongside Carol Lara, of Florissant, and Aleida Ruelas Hertel (not pictured) of St. Louis, outside the Loop Trolley headquarters in St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Eliana Cristancho of Chesterfield and Luisa Otero Prada of Uplands Park work on a mural outside the Loop Trolley headquarters in 2021. The Regional Arts Commission will fund 28 murals in St. Louis next year, two per city ward.

Two studies of the St. Louis arts ecosystem show it's a significant driver of the local economy, but many individual artists are struggling to get by.

The St. Louis arts sector contributed $868.7 million to the local economy in 2022, according to “Arts & Prosperity 6,” a study conducted by the national advocacy group Arts for America. Audience members attending in-person events account for $289.4 million of the spending.

Altogether, arts spending supported nearly 12,000 jobs and generated $155.2 million in tax revenue, according to the study.

Organizers behind Arts in America’s study and “Creatives Count,” a closer look at the needs of local arts workers, presented their findings Monday at Cultura 2023, a mini-conference sponsored by the Regional Arts Commission at the Center for Creative Arts in University City. John Carnwath of Massachusetts-based consultants Wolf Brown compiled “Creatives Count” on behalf of RAC.

“One of the things that's been coming out, especially when it comes to artists of color and different marginalized groups, is [we need] a different way to get them connected to funding sources,” AC Research and Evaluation Manager MK Stallings said. “That's something that has loomed large.”


“Creatives Count” found that 36% of arts practitioners who responded to a survey said they are “just getting by” or “finding it difficult to get by,” a higher percentage than the 27% national average. The financial picture is dimmer for administrators at arts organizations, 42% of whom said they are struggling.

Artists of color lag behind their white peers financially. “While it was not a focus of this study, the survey data clearly reflects widespread racial inequities in our society,” reads “Creatives Count.”

Among white survey respondents, 70% said they are either living comfortably or “doing okay.” Another 30% said they are “just getting by” or “finding it difficult” to get by.

The picture is worse for people of color and Indigenous respondents: 54% said they are comfortable or at least OK, and 46% said they are struggling.

Among all respondents age 55 to 74, 20% said they have no retirement savings, and another 17% have less than $50,000 saved.

“Participants frequently note the constant hustle that’s required to make a living as a creative in St. Louis,” study authors wrote. Yet 48% of respondents agreed with the statement “St. Louis is a great place for artists and creatives.” Another 19% disagreed.


Grant system in question

Some study planners were surprised by findings about artists’ views toward grants.

“Creatives Count” found that “grant programs, as they’re currently designed and implemented, don’t meet the needs of many creatives.” Only 34% of survey respondents applied for a grant in the previous year, and 23% received one.

“Our artists are really looking for investment and how they approach their work is really framed in business and entrepreneurship,” RAC President and CEO Vanessa Cooksey said. Study authors recommended encouraging private investment in the arts and connecting more artists with potential investors.

RAC will make several changes to its grant processes in 2024, Cooksey said, including turning all grants into unrestricted funds.

Depending on the size of their annual budgets, organizations may apply for between $25,000 and $100,000 in support. For the first time since before the coronavirus pandemic, RAC will consider applications from universities and other non-arts organizations seeking to run arts-related programs.

The maximum grant for individual artists will remain $7,500, but RAC will run two annual grant cycles instead of one, to provide more flexibility for artists who develop projects at different times in the year. RAC also will continue speeding up the pace of its grant distribution, getting the full amount in the hands of recipients within six months rather than sending checks through 18 months of staggered payments, as it has in the past. The application process will also be simplified, with applicants needing to provide less documentation than in the past.

“We want to get the money in the hands of artists so that they can create,” Cooksey said.

This year RAC announced $4.5 million in grants to replace income lost by artists and organizations because of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2024, RAC will distribute another $6 million from the ARPA money designated to the city of St. Louis. The remaining funding will go toward arts efforts that spur tourism to the region.

Among them, Cooksey said, will be a program to commission 28 murals in St. Louis — two per ward.

RAC is funded by the tax on overnight stays in St. Louis hotels and motels. If not for the federal ARPA funds, RAC grants would still be lagging due to a drop in tourism caused by the pandemic.

The Americans for the Arts study found that 19.5% of attendees at St. Louis arts events traveled from outside St. Louis or St. Louis County. Among tourists, more than 80% said the arts event was the primary reason for their visit to the area. Visitors to St. Louis spend an average of $53.65 per event, in addition to admission fees — more than the $35.74 per person spent by local residents attending exhibits, concerts and other arts events.

“It’s better today than it was three years ago, for sure. But there’s still quite a bit of uncertainty and volatility in audience attendance,” Cooksey said of the tourism picture. “St. Louis is an arts town, but we have to get more people to be excited about it and come to St. Louis from other places.”

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