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St. Louis County leaders urged to use ARPA funds to boost regional arts programs

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Stages St. Louis
Stages St. Louis holds a production of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Catholic Church and School in Ferguson, MO in Nov. 2021. The theater company holds community outreach programming that enhances school arts programs.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s office is recommending that the county dedicate $1.6 million of its federal coronavirus relief funds to regional arts programming.

The recommendation follows community surveys and town halls with county residents and leaders on how the remaining funds should be distributed.

Regional arts leaders said the past two years have been a difficult time for arts organizations, artists and arts teachers. Many have been sidelined and lost income during the coronavirus pandemic

“When we had to close our doors during the pandemic, not only was that significantly impactful to our organization's revenue, it was [to] our children,” said Vanessa Cooksey, president and CEO of the Regional Arts Commission. “We're still in this slow recovery."

The recommendation goes to the county council, which will determine how to allocate the American Rescue Plan funds.

Last year, more than 100 arts leaders called on St. Louis County and St. Louis leaders to allocate 5% of its federal relief funds for arts institutions and programs. Art organizations were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic since a majority of the commission’s funding comes from the hotel-motel sales tax, which was depleted during the public health crisis.

The pandemic caused schools to cancel in-person classes.

That kept students away from arts programs enhanced by Stages St. Louis, a St. Louis County-based musical theater organization that also helps school arts programs in the St. Louis area. The organization lost a lot of funding during the pandemic, limiting the arts programming at St. Louis area schools, said Crissy Nordin, its education and outreach director.

“A lot of our outreach programming really is centered on funding based programming for students in schools that do not have the staff and the resources to provide a performing arts program,” Nordin said. “We're still continuing to see that with recent funding that either has not come back or that we've not been able to secure.”

Nordin said Stages St. Louis worked with at least 35 schools across the St. Louis area before the pandemic, but that number has dropped to about 20. There has been renewed interest from students and families over the past few months as the organization’s summer camp programs are sold out, but more resources are still needed to fund teaching artists to visit schools.

Nordin said it’s especially critical to continue funding arts education programs.

“The arts are what makes us human, all the aspects of it,” Nordin said. “To remove that in any way, for me, is a tragedy in any educational setting. What happens to students when they go through an arts program, in my experience, is just incomparable.”

But some arts education funding has been announced. The Arts and Education Council, which supports arts education programs in the St. Louis area and the metro-east, announced Monday that $40,000 of grant funding would go toward 11 organizations.

Cooksey said it’s vital to support education initiatives. She said the $1.6 million will help, but more funding would ensure arts programming is sustainable. She said 5% of the county’s ARPA funding amounts to about $9.3 million, but the arts are vital to the region’s economy.

“Whether it's in an after-school program, during school, on the weekends, with parents, it's the human connection that people experience in the arts,” Cooksey said. “Artists and arts and culture organizations help us to remember the beauty in life. And so we want to be able to give grants and provide financial support to the artists and arts organizations that make that happen for our young people.“

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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