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RAC to direct $10.6 million in ARPA funds to St. Louis artists and groups

Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Mayor Tishaura Jones makes an arts funding announcement Tuesday outside the Luminary art gallery on Cherokee Street. Joining her were James MacAnally of the Luminary, Alderwoman Shameem Clark Hubbard, Alderman Dan Guenther and RAC President and CEO Vanessa Cooksey.

The Regional Arts Commission will distribute $10.6 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to artists and arts organizations in St. Louis.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted unanimously last week to approve the funding. It is the third-highest amount of ARPA funds allocated by a U.S. city to the arts, Mayor Tishaura Jones said.

The funding will be a boost to arts organizations that have struggled financially during the coronavirus pandemic. Although many have resumed partial or full program calendars after prolonged shutdowns, they report that audiences typically are smaller than they were before the pandemic.

“This is historic for our organization,” RAC President and CEO Vanessa Cooksey said in an interview.

RAC is primarily funded by a hotel/motel sales tax. Much of that money dried up when the region saw fewer overnight visitors during the pandemic.

The commission allocated $1.1 million in grants this year, down from about twice that in 2021, Cooksey said.

Before the pandemic, RAC dispersed between $3.5 million and $4.5 million each year. Its leaders intend to award about 80% of the new federal funds in 2023. Federal guidelines require recipients to use and report all ARPA funds by the end of 2026.

“I don't think we talk about this enough, but St. Louis is an arts city through and through, and it's the cultural heart of our region,” Jones told reporters Tuesday outside the Luminary art gallery on Cherokee Street.

“We can propel our arts community forward so they can continue to beautify our neighborhoods, support the growth and development of our youth and bring that sense of belonging back to the neighborhoods, where the work is most impactful,” Jones said.

RAC arpa 2.jpg
Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Regional Arts Commission President and CEO Vanessa Cooksey said the $10.6 million in federal relief marked a historic moment for the organization.

A ‘timely’ pot of money arrives, but it’s not for everyone

Funding for earlier federal pandemic relief efforts like the shuttered venue grant program and paycheck protection loans have run out, leaving arts organizations struggling to get back on their feet even as legal restrictions on audience size have been lifted and many Americans are taking fewer precautions to slow the spread of the virus.

“We've heard from our grantees that their financial situation this year is actually going to be worse than even in 2020,” Cooksey said. “That’s why this is so timely.”

The St. Louis County Council last week rejected a proposal to devote $1.6 million in ARPA funds to RAC. Arts advocates believed they had enough support to pass the measure and were surprised by the vote, Cooksey said.

Although RAC funds arts groups throughout the region, the $10.6 million in ARPA funds allocated by the City of St. Louis may only go to artists and organizations based there.

This leaves many active organizations that typically receive RAC grants — including Opera Theatre of St. Louis in Webster Groves, CoCa in University City and the St. Louis Ballet in Chesterfield — ineligible for any share of the additional funding.

But for St. Louis organizations that receive additional grants, the ARPA money will be a boost as they work to rebound from the pandemic slowdown.

RAC will direct $4 million to grants supporting art organizations’ general operating expenses, $3.3 million to fund specific programs and $3.3 million to individual artists.

“We've witnessed down here what arts can really do to bring neighborhoods together, to transform communities and to reach our youth, which is really important," said Alderman Dan Guenther, who sponsored the funding bill.

Democrats in Congress passed ARPA in March 2021 over unanimous opposition from Republicans.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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