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

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

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