Strengthening the Arts

The Rome Group Insights

April 2016 Edition

One year ago, Felicia Shaw returned to her hometown of St. Louis to head up the Regional Arts Commission (RAC). In the ensuing months, she has engaged in numerous dialogues, made subtle changes in RAC’s grants priorities, and is working to make the funding process simpler and more transparent. She recently shared some thoughts with Insights.

After 34 years working with the arts in San Diego, why did you decide to come back to St. Louis?
“I was excited to come home. Having grown up in North City, the situation in Ferguson really touched me in a way I never thought possible. I realized how much St. Louis had given me. The opening at RAC came at the perfect time.”

How do you see the arts helping to address the issues that led to Ferguson?
“It’s all about racial equality and social change. How can we enjoy the arts for arts sake if we’re all hurting each other? I’m hoping RAC can provide leadership in this area. We’ve already made a start with our Community Arts Leadership Training. But we can do even more.”

Let’s talk about RAC’s funding support. What’s changed?
“RAC’s strategy has traditionally been to spread the money around, so that as many as 250 arts groups have received support. The problem is that too many of these groups are living hand to mouth and have few reserves or endowments. They’re terribly undercapitalized.

“We’re trying to shift more of our dollars away from program support and toward general operating support. Our goal is to help arts groups become much more secure and stable. I expect we’ll see fewer organizations in our funding pool over time, but they’ll be stronger.

“We’re also trying to use technology to make our funding process more transparent. Before, a grant request had to go through four different layers of review. Now, we have one review by a citizen panel, which makes funding recommendations to our Commission. This is public money we’re dealing with, so there should never be any secrets.”
What’s your sense of the arts community in St. Louis right now?
“Many groups appear to be right sizing after the recession and they’re focusing on what a sustainable future looks like. A big issue is their ability to attract the best and brightest staff. They need to be able to provide better benefits and look at them as key resources and not as paid volunteers.”

“The good news is that the arts have great standing in St. Louis. Philanthropy for the arts is impressive. The quality of the work is outstanding, whether it’s our world-class symphony or a small theater group. There’s a very sophisticated understanding of the arts in St. Louis, and my job is to help ensure that we can continue to build on this great legacy.”


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