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‘And then Ferguson happened’: Unrest, opportunity drew RAC head Felicia Shaw home

Felicia Shaw, new executive director of St. Louis' Regional Arts Commission, said she had a sense that this community would now "be open to change" after the events of Ferguson.
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

When new Regional Arts Commission (RAC) executive director Felicia Shaw realized her job at a San Diego foundation might be eliminated, she wondered what that might mean for her life.

“I was thinking about what new direction I wanted to go in,” Shaw said. “And then, Ferguson happened.”

Embarrassment, sadness, anger and guilt

Last August, when Shaw listened to the news coming from her hometown of St. Louis, she went through a gamut of emotions: embarrassment, sadness, anger and guilt. What she heard loud and clear were the very same issues that drove her to move San Diego — more than three decades earlier.

“Not being progressive, the segregation, the lack of regard for rights,” Shaw said.

So why return, in the face of the same old problems? In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Shaw said it was a combination of opportunity and timing. Her children were grown. RAC founder Jill McGuire retired. Shaw heard about the opening and applied.

“I had a sense that this would be a community that would be open to change, now particularly open to change,” Shaw said.

Since May, Shaw has spent the first few months of her tenure meeting with heads of organizations who receive RAC grants, from giants like the St. Louis Symphony to smaller groups like MADCO dance.

“Without exception, someone would bring up the Michael Brown incident … saying, ‘This happened here in St. Louis but it didn’t just happen, you know, in that community,’” Shaw said. “'It happened to all of us.’”

More money for minority arts?

When Shaw was growing up in North City, it wasn’t called “North City.”

“It was all ‘the city,’” Shaw said.

Other kinds of divides became apparent as Shaw met with RAC grantees. All 250-plus funded organizations were invited, resulting in five sessions with 20-30 organizations represented in each. Individual artists will get their say in meetings to be held Aug. 17 and 19.

Felicia Shaw sits at the head of the table in one of five meetings with organizations that receive RAC funding.
Credit Sherry Sissac
Felicia Shaw sits at the head of the table in one of five meetings with organizations that receive RAC funding.

After the events of Ferguson, many organizations said they began shifting their focus to a more social-justice mission. But some groups said that wasn’t necessary, that change springs not from a specific focus but from the inherent transformation that comes from hearing music, watching a play, seeing a painting or sculpture.

“[They said] ‘Art, in and of itself, is a social-change agent. The fact that when you go into a space and witness creativity, you’re being changed,’” Shaw said.

That debate continues in tandem with another issue: money. Since 1985, RAC has handed out more than $93 million in grants. But who’s getting the bulk of that funding?

In 2012, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) found that only 10 percent of national foundation funding for the arts goes to groups that focus on minority and other under-served populations. These institutions, according to the NCRP, predominantly “serve wealthy, white audiences ... whose attendance levels have been declining over the past few years."

Shaw said the situation is not all that different in St. Louis.

“There are a lot of similarities,” Shaw said.

She said funding organizations, themselves, are historically responsible for setting up a precedent to give more money to Euro-centric arts like the symphony, the opera and ballet. But shifting more funds to minority organizations is a tricky task.

“You’re talking about taking from someone and giving to someone else,” Shaw said. “So we have to hold hands together. This can’t be about us coming in and mandating and taking something from someone else.”

It’s a difficult conversation — but one we must have, Shaw said.

“How can we balance this, so that these small, community-based organizations that have not enjoyed years and years and years of investment, can now begin to get a foothold?” she said.

We want it now and we want it free

Technology has revolutionized the way we consume art, Shaw said. Particularly when it comes to the performing arts.

“You push the button, it’s there for you. You can have it right now,” Shaw said.

Felicia Shaw
Credit Provided by the Regional Arts Commission

Today’s on-demand entertainment is at odds with the traditional model of selling tickets, and especially subscriptions, for performances that are months away.

“If you can pull up a world-class performance on your computer, watch it and enjoy it in the comfort of your slippers, in your living room, are you really going to pay for a ticket, pay to park, put fancy clothes on?” Shaw said.

The bottom line: “How do we make them choose the live experience?” Shaw wondered.

These are issues that don’t have quick, easy answers. But Shaw said she plans on staying in St. Louis long enough to figure it all out, along with its many implications.

“I’m looking at and saying, ‘Now, how does that impact how we give away money?’” Shaw said. “I haven’t answered all these questions yet, but obviously they will inform where I’ll be leading RAC in the years to come.”

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

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Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.
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