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Regional Arts Commission awards $3.8 million in grants, but cuts many groups

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

The Regional Arts Commission will award $3.8 million in grants to 125 arts organizations in St. Louis, the organization announced Wednesday.

But a shift in the commission’s priorities means many established groups are now shut out. The commission, which receives a portion of the city’s occupancy tax on visitors to hotels and motels, will not fund 40 arts organizations that received RAC grants in 2017.

That's not the result of a big cut in funding; this year, fewer groups will share a pot that is just $155,904 less than last year's awards.

RAC Executive Director Felicia Shaw said she has been tightening the grant process since taking over the job from the organization’s founder, Jill McGuire, in 2015. It was time to make sure organizations looking for grants truly met all the criteria stipulated in application materials, she said.

“It’s just being accountable," Shaw said, "and saying that when you receive public funds, which is the people’s funds, what are you going to do with it? Do you have a strong organizational management? Do you have a board? Do you have a budget that’s balanced? Are you making a difference in the community that matters to St. Louisans?”

The funding changes don't sit well with Scott Miller, founder and artistic director of New Line Theatre, a small troupe that presents musicals with a political edge. It received a $12,000 grant from RAC last year  —  a big deal to an organization with an annual budget of about $100,000, Miller said.

It has received an annual RAC grant for nearly three decades, since before the company staged its first show.

For Miller, the group's rejected grant application this year came as a shock.

“We were obviously worthy of funding for the past 27 years, but suddenly not this year," he said. "It’s going to make it extremely tough."

Miller said the message from RAC was simple: When the commission sized up New Line’s application and considered its onstage work, the troupe simply didn’t make the cut.

Shaw said that beyond looking at organizational health, the Regional Arts Commision now puts greater emphasis on its assessment of the quality of a group’s artistic output, and its ability to document its creative success.

“Most of all,” she said, “what is the artistic quality of your work? Can you demonstrate that your work is growing in quality? Are you winning awards? Are you being recognized for the work that you do? Are your audiences growing? Are you competitive with other organizations like yours?”

The commission, she said, aims to help the most deserving organizations thrive, rather than spread around its funding so that “everybody gets a dollar.”

Each applicant is scored on a scale of 1 to 4 by a volunteer committee. The grants announced this week complement other monies distributed directly to artists.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter:@JeremyDGoodwin

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