The Regional Arts Commission Is Making Big Changes, with a Bold Plan to Transform St. Louis 

Felicia Shaw never considered that she would return to St. Louis for any reason — not even as the leader of an organization that would change the community.

"I'm a little black girl from the north side," she explains. "I went to Beaumont High School, and as early as I can remember I said, 'I'm leaving here.'"

After graduation, Shaw headed to Chicago for Northwestern University and was faced with a decision when she'd completed her degree. Would she enter the Peace Corps, or would she marry her boyfriend, who had been drafted by the San Diego Chargers? She chose the latter and headed to the West Coast, where she spent the next 35 years and lived the life of an NFL wife (and at some point, ex-wife).

"I never thought I would come back to stay, and then Ferguson happened," Shaw says. "Something was calling me back. I thought, 'If I could get back there, I'd go.' And then a headhunter I know called me about something and mentioned this job in passing: 'You're from St. Louis; I'm looking for a new executive director for the Regional Arts Commission. Do you know anybody?'"

At the time Shaw was the director of arts and culture strategy and analysis at the San Diego Foundation, a civic-engagement program that supported fellowships for creative entrepreneurs and neighborhood revitalization. Before that she'd held the position of program director for San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture, which implemented a grants program to maintain the city's standing as a cultural-tourism destination. She was pretty much exactly the person that the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission, or RAC, was looking for.

"Six months later I handed over the keys to my house and the Prius to my son, and came home," Shaw says.

  • Felicia Shaw.

Once Shaw had RAC's keys in hand instead of that Prius, she took stock of what she had to work with. RAC is the largest funder of the arts in the St. Louis area. Founded in 1985 — two years after Shaw left town for college — its mission is to grow, sustain and promote St. Louis' cultural identity, using funds levied by the area's hotel/motel tax. The organization has awarded 7,000 grants totaling more than $300 million since it began, funding everything from Opera Theatre St. Louis to, in one recent example, a one-off gallery show featuring local artists in a series of trading cards.

In 2018 alone, the commission received $6.4 million in tax money. Of that, $3.8 million has been awarded through a grants process to organizations and individuals working within the arts community. The next largest portion is used for the Community Arts Training Institute, which teaches individuals how to use the arts in a collaborative way to change their community. Funds are also used to support local workshops and conferences that fit RAC's mission. Remaining funds go to things like support, salaries and building maintenance for the organization's three-story building on the eastern edge of the Delmar Loop.

It can be tempting for anyone starting a new job to downplay the accomplishments of their predecessors. How better to show how hard you're working than to suggest you were handed a mess? But Shaw is a professional. She asks as many questions as she answers, and it's clear her goal is finding positives and trumpeting St. Louis' successes. She's quick to credit the people who came before her 2015 entrance.

"The first 30 years of this organization has been extraordinary," she says. "I didn't inherit a dump; look at what's already here." In that, she's referring both to RAC's headquarters and the thriving local arts community that surrounds it in all four directions.

But Shaw didn't move back to St. Louis to take it easy. On her watch, RAC has been exploring some significant changes — and what's arguably its most ambitious project yet.

See also: 11 Fantastic Arts Events Not to Miss in St. Louis This Fall

click to enlarge Gravois Park will see a big investment thanks to the plan promulgated by RAC and the Kranzbergs. - FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN
  • Gravois Park will see a big investment thanks to the plan promulgated by RAC and the Kranzbergs.

Evoke, the city's first comprehensive cultural and regional planning effort, began for RAC with a question. How do St. Louisans value the arts, and how could the arts play a larger role within the region?

More than 3,000 St. Louisans from all walks of life responded during listening sessions held in communities from East St. Louis to St. Charles County. A majority of them wanted to see a more equitable distribution of the wealth, more support for small and mid-sized groups and individuals doing good work, and increased arts opportunities for youth.

Armed with that knowledge, on Thursday, September 13, RAC announced Arts &: A Creative Vision for St. Louis, its new plan for supporting the arts and culture of the city and county. It shifts RAC's position within the community from solely a grant-making entity to one as a facilitator for change. Its primary goal is to use the arts as a means to emphasize our shared humanity and involve a greater proportion of all St. Louisans in the arts community, particularly those who have traditionally not been included. As representation increases, the organization posits, more connection and collaboration between diverse groups will follow, not just in the arts but in the area's broader civic life.

RAC still intends to foster and support the arts. The change is that now it's relying on the entire community to have a greater say in how that will be done.

A continual note sounded during Evoke sessions was that St. Louis lacks a central artists' district. To that end, in partnership with the Kranzberg Foundation and Incarnate Word Foundation, RAC would begin work on the St. Louis Art Place Project, a planned arts community within Gravois Park.

The south-city neighborhood just south of Cherokee Street has seen an influx of creatives in the last decade, but it also struggles with high rates of poverty and crime. It has both high population density and a large number of vacant houses.

And that made it a perfect target for the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, the twelve-year-old organization that's transformed Grand Center, one venue at a time.

Founded by Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, the foundation has made an unparalleled investment in the St. Louis arts scene by doubling down on the neighborhood surrounding its theater district. It now owns the Kranzberg Arts Center, .ZACK, the Marcelle and the Grandel Theater. It throws numerous community events, including the Wednesday night Grand Center Jazz Crawl and Music at the Intersection, and subsidizes .ZACK's arts-incubator program.

And now, Shaw explains, the foundation has turned its attention a bit further south. It's already acquired a dozen buildings and thirteen vacant lots in Gravois Park. Many of the buildings have been vacant for years, and are in sorry condition. Renovations will begin on the current structures and new buildings will rise on the empty lots, according to the plan.

"Artists will be able to buy these places affordably, for homes or studio space, and help sustain something in the city," Shaw says.

Much of the project is still being worked out. The legal incorporation of the project as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with a working board and a paid administrative assistant is still being finalized, as are the particulars of the selection process for determining how artists can apply for residency. RAC will have one seat on the board and will advise the project specifically on artist engagement and selection.

In addition, the board will maintain communication with the neighborhood to ensure that current residents aren't priced out, and also work with elected officials to forestall any economic problems that arise. The goal is not the gentrification of Gravois Park, but rather a new development that will benefit the neighborhood, the residents and the artist community.

And by investing so heavily in that community, Shaw hopes to elevate the entire city.

"We need to be more inclusive, more strategic and to reinvest," she says. "Most of the major funders pass St. Louis by. If we could lift up the arts community, they won't pass us by at some point."

New Line Theatre's award-winning 2015 production of Threepenny Opera was funded in part by RAC. - JILL RITTER LINDBERG
  • New Line Theatre's award-winning 2015 production of Threepenny Opera was funded in part by RAC.

Rest assured, RAC's grant-making function isn't ending. But under Shaw, RAC has made some big changes to it as well.

RAC's $3.8 million earmark for grants in 2018 meant funding for 125 organizations. The earmarks are as large as the one granted the St. Louis Symphony ($413,276) and as small as $500 for one person's one-off project. In between: dozens of mid-size performing arts groups and nonprofits in disciplines ranging from music to visual arts. They're awarded from $2,100 to $13,500, depending on stated need. In a separate bracket are the artist fellowships awarded to individuals working in literary, theater, musical or theater arts. Each grantee receives $20,000 to sustain themselves and their work.

When Shaw arrived on the job, she saw the grant process needed improvement. Whether grounded in reality or not, there were whispers around town that if you were liked by someone in the building, or friends with an employee, your application was rubber-stamped. If you were new in town, or had never gone through the process before, your application was a long shot at best.

"That anyone had the impression that their tax money was locked up in a system of nepotism, whether that's true or not, was unsustainable," Shaw explains.

The new director made transparency and fairness into major goals.

"How could we even the playing field so everybody had a shot?" she asks rhetorically. "If you're doing good work, and manage your organization well and you're providing something good to the community and you told your story well in your application, you're getting money.

"We developed a formula so everybody would be evaluated with the same standards. Just because you're friends with someone, or showed up on the day of review, shouldn't outweigh someone who couldn't get away from work that day."

Under the new process developed by Shaw and other executive staff beginning in 2015, all grant applications are now adjudicated by a combined force of volunteer review panelists, who have a background in the arts, and volunteer discipline readers, who possess working knowledge about a particular field. (All are trusted to declare any potential conflicts of interest.) Panelists review an application and samples of work before assigning a rating. RAC's Grants Committee then considers their findings, and uses them to determine if an application is approved and how much will be allocated. The RAC Board of Commissions then approves the grantees and amounts.

RAC prides itself on the transparency of the process. Anyone is welcome to sit in on a Citizen Review Panel meeting to see how applications are evaluated, and panelists' names are shared with the applicants before the review.

But just because the process is clear cut doesn't mean everyone is happy. RAC's 2018 awards may have made 125 organizations happy — but 79 found their applications rejected.

Scott Miller, the co-artistic director of New Line Theatre, was surprised to learn that his theater company, which he founded to produce high-quality rock & roll musicals, wasn't getting funded this year.

"When we got zero-funded, we were in shock," Miller says. "Part of the shock is that RAC has been amazing to us over the years. We incorporated in '91 and produced the first show in spring '92, but RAC gave us the first grant before we'd even done a show." New Line has received a grant every year since.

Miller knew the application and review process were changing. But at first, that didn't sound like a bad thing. "We were told that they were developing a new category for organizations like ours, and that we could potentially get $15,000 to $20,000," Miller recalls.

Then came the bad news: "Got a call back that we weren't eligible because we don't meet the $150,000 operating expenses requirement."

Undeterred, Miller filled out a new application for the theater company's usual grant category. That was also unsuccessful. "The feedback we got is that [it's] because the office is in my apartment, and we hire people as independent contractors and not as employees," he says. But, he adds, "The state and our accountant tells us that's the way we should be paying them." (RAC's guidelines state that "an experienced administrative staff and/or volunteers to implement the project" is something it looks for in a grantee, which suggests the bedroom office was more the problem than the contractors.)

RAC has an appeals process, but only if the applicant feels an error was made. Miller didn't file one. "We know how the appeal process works," he says. "I don't think they made any errors."

Miller is candid about New Line's past financial difficulties and acknowledges they may well be an additional factor. But he says he believed his handling of those matters should count in his favor. "We know we've had some problems in the past years," he admits. "We've reduced our debt by about half and reworked our budget after losing a few big donors. We have new board members. We're in a pretty stable place right now."

The feedback Miller received from the peer panel seemed to support that view.

"There were compliments about how we've worked on our budget and dealt with the debt," he says in a puzzled tone. And beyond that, he feels the quality of the company's work should matter more than its finances. "In the past it's always been about how we fill a need in the community. We use local people, we do unusual shows. The one proof of quality we have is the reviews, and we get great reviews."

While Shaw won't discuss any individual applications, RAC's grant guidelines make it clear that good reviews, artistic merit and community benefit matter, but so does an organization's financial health and fiscal responsibility. No one part should be lacking.

"Now your application depends on what's in those pages," she says of application process. "Past work, or likability, doesn't matter anymore."

As for Miller, he's philosophical, and already working on patching the hole in his budget.

"We'll just have to make it up," Miller says. "The one bright spot is that several donors have already sent us notes that they heard about what happened and included a little extra, and hoped it would help."

For RAC's still-newish director, the big changes ahead aren't just about making the grant process more transparent, and they aren't just about the ambitious new project about to get underway in Gravois Park. They are also about continuing to build an organization that can sustain the arts in St. Louis — and do it in a way that acknowledges the community's diversity and struggles. "Equity" is a key phrase.

One path to that, Shaw says, is examining the balance of the organization's giving. To some extent, RAC considers the area's big organizations to be feeders. They're both a source of employment for young artists and a host organism that later launches dozens of offspring into the area's ecosystem. Shaw is quick to acknowledge the importance of that role.

And yet Shaw says she'd like to see less well-off organizations see a bigger piece of the pie. "The majority our funding was going to a few large organizations, and then a smattering of small groups got what was left. I reviewed our portfolio and tried to balance it so that the money went out in a more equitable manner. Because I was new I was in a unique position to review everybody with fresh eyes."

Armed with its Evoke findings, RAC is in a position to make a holistic assessment of all its programs, processes and policies and then implement change. What the people of St Louis, artists and arts organizations say they want and believe RAC should care about will inform its work in the near future.

To that end, the commission won a major grant from the Gateway Foundation that will help fund students who want to go into arts administration.

"The grant will go to pay for fellowships for ten people of color who will be embedded within local nonprofits for a year, in the hopes they'll want to work in the field and stay here to do so," Shaw explains. In addition, a $1 million grant from Wells Fargo will help "develop a new curriculum based on the Lincoln Center plan to help young people understand who they are through the arts," Shaw says with obvious pride. Armed with knowledge about the arts and how it can help them make sense of the world, these local kids will be tomorrow's audiences and arts supporters.

That's something that's hugely important to Shaw. She still remembers being that little girl growing up on the north side — and being blown away by seeing Robert Goulet starring in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever at the Muny. She wants other little girls to experience that same magic.

Yet her goals are bigger than just putting audience members of color into theater seats. It's worth remembering that Ferguson was a major catalyst for her homecoming in 2015. She understands the arts don't exist in a vacuum.

"This new era moves away from RAC as just a grant maker to RAC as a force of community change," she says. "We'll open ourselves up to the public as a servant."

See also: 11 Fantastic Arts Events Not to Miss in St. Louis This Fall

Editor's note: A previous version of this story wrongly described one local arts entity as a Regional Arts Commission grantee. The St. Louis Art Museum does not receive funding from the commission. We regret the error.

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