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Regional Arts Commission gives $200,000 to St. Louis visual, performing and literary artists

This collage of new RAC Fellows includes, clockwise, Agnes Wilcox, Jess Dugan and Robert McDonald Jr. and Damon Davis.
Provided and file photos
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This collage of new RAC Fellows includes, clockwise, Agnes Wilcox, Jess Dugan and Robert McDonald Jr. and Damon Davis.

The Regional Arts Commission has chosen its 2016 Artists Fellows, who will each receive $20,000 checks to help with their work.

This is the fourth year RAC has presented the awards. Winning artists do not have to designate a specific project; they may use the money in any way that helps make their work possible.

The new group of 10 features literary, visual and performing artists, including a local performer who wants to spread his love of opera.

Robert McNichols Jr., whose booming voice has sung dozens of operatic classics, was speechless when he found out he’d won a Fellowship.

Robert McDonald Jr. plays Peter, the broomaker father in the opera "Hansel & Gretel" at the New Eutin Opera Festival in Germany in 2011.
Credit Provided | Robert McNichols Jr.
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Robert McDonald Jr. plays Peter, the broomaker father in the opera "Hansel & Gretel" at the New Eutin Opera Festival in Germany in 2011.

“I had to sit down,” he said. “I was completely surprised.”

McNichols plans to use some of his award to create new programming for people who receive services from the United Cerebral Palsy organization, and to bring operas with African-American themes to the stage.

“[I want to] take classical operatic repertoire out of that image of being for ‘them’ versus for ‘us,’" he said. "This is me; this is my story.”

‘Every small town and rural location’

Photographer Jess Dugan also is among the winners. She’ll use the money to travel to New Mexico, Idaho, Nebraska and other locations for an ongoing book project called “To Survive on This Shore.” The book features transgender people over the age of 50, including several from St. Louis.

Photographer Jess Dugan takes photos of Steph James for her book featuring transgender people over 50 as her partner Vanessa Fabbre looks on, in this January 2014 photo.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio
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Photographer Jess Dugan takes photos of Steph James for her book featuring transgender people over 50 as her partner Vanessa Fabbre looks on, in this January 2014 photo.

“From the very beginning, I was committed to not just going to New York and San Francisco,” Dugan said. “It’s really important to include voices from other places and absolutely there are transgender people in every small town and rural location that you can imagine.”

Dugan, who has worked in Chicago and Boston, said the $20,000 awards are unusual for a place like St. Louis.

“Given the size of our city, I think this is a huge benefit to artists and a very significant fellowship,” Dugan said.

The annual awards are an integral part of growing and sustaining the arts in St. Louis, according to RAC executive director Felicia Shaw.

“We recognize their individual artistic accomplishments, provide significant financial support to further their careers, and develop a cohort of artist fellows that will continue to directly impact and build St. Louis into a more creative and economically thriving community,” Shaw said in a news release.

Here’s a full list of awardees:

  • Ron Austin – Literature
  • Terry Barber – Music
  • Damon Davis – Media Arts
  • Jess Dugan – Visual Art
  • Ted Mathys – Literature
  • Robert McNichols Jr. – Music
  • Richard O’Donnell – Music
  • Ruth Reese – Craft/Traditional Arts
  • Mariah Richardson – Theater
  • Agnes Wilcox – Theater

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

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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