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3 trends that are shaping the future of arts in St. Louis in 2023 and beyond

As the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, Jarrett Porter is dressed in a brown suit coat and looks to Susanna Phillips, who sings the role of the patient Rose in the opera “Awakenings." Phillips is wearing a hospital gown and is looking distantly while in a wheelchair.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
As the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, Jarrett Porter looks to Susanna Phillips, who sings the role of the patient Rose in the opera “Awakenings," produced by Opera Theatre St. Louis. The company's general director, Andrew Jorgensen said the show brought in younger audiences, a trend seen by arts organizations throughout the year.

St. Louis artists and arts organizations saw 2022 as the beginning of the new normal after the coronavirus pandemic upended life and leisure.

Indoor concerts resumed in force, and music festivals expanded to larger outdoor spaces. Local artists spun fresh creative takes on old classics. Others found inspiration for new works in moments of St. Louis history

As the last of the 2022 performances and exhibitions wrap up, a handful of trends and takeaways have crystallized over the past year and lay a path forward for where the St. Louis arts scene is headed.

1. Young audiences have new power to shape arts programming

Many theaters and concert series ran full seasons of productions in 2022, making slight adjustments and cancellations when cast members or staff called in sick.

Opera Theatre St. Louis ran its season inside the Loretto-Hilton Center in Webster Groves after it produced its slate of 2021 shows in the theater’s parking lot. This year, the theater staged the world premiere of “Awakenings,” adapted from Oliver Sacks’ book of the same name.

The theater expected a boost in ticket sales after many people spent more than a year away from live events, but sales fell short of those hopes, said Andrew Jorgensen, Opera Theatre St. Louis general director.

“The pandemic accelerated a lot of different trends,” Jorgensen said. Among those, many longtime season ticket holders never returned. The theater may have seen a couple of years’ worth of audience attrition all at once, Jorgensen said.

"The African Company Presents Richard III," will kick off The Black Rep's 46th season. The play focuses on the life of William Henry Brown, a freed slave who became America's first Black playwright.
Phillip Hamer
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The Black Rep
"The African Company Presents Richard III," kicked off the Black Rep's 46th season. The play focuses on the life of William Henry Brown, a freed slave who became America's first Black playwright.

But Opera Theatre did see increased attendance among newer, younger and more diverse audiences, Jorgenson said. “So we're doubling down on things that will attract more new audiences and make us sticky and get them coming back,” he said.

Other theaters saw similar upticks in engagement among young audiences. The Black Rep closed out its 45th season this year with productions of “Jitney” and “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” which saw a younger audience than usual in attendance. That continued into its 46th season with a production of “The African Company Presents Richard III.” The Black Rep is making a concerted effort to draw young theatergoers.

“Anybody 21 to 35 years old is only paying $35 for a ticket,” said Ron Himes, founder and producing director of the Black Rep. “We’re hoping that that will appeal to people in that age bracket.”

2. Tourism dollars can’t alone fund a thriving arts commission

While there were critical successes from the St. Louis art scene this year, many arts organizations are still recovering from the pandemic’s financial toll. Organizations have seen less revenue from the Regional Arts Commission, which relies on hotel and motel sales tax revenue for 98% of its funding. RAC uses that money for millions of dollars in grant opportunities for local artists and arts organizations.

rac-arpa-2.jpg
Jeremy D. Goodwin
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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.

Travel and tourism is still down from pre-pandemic levels, and large conferences and commercial travel are unlikely to fully recover in the near future, RAC President and CEO Vanessa Cooksey said earlier this year.

“I personally think that it is permanent, which is why RAC has to diversify our revenue,” Cooksey said.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed a bill this fall to allocate $10.6 million of coronavirus relief funds to RAC. Mayor Tishaura Jones said then that the approved funding is the third-highest amount of American Rescue Plan funds allocated by a U.S. city to the arts.

Cooksey said that money will go to arts organizations, and RAC will look for large gifts and donations to make up revenue lost from the hotel and motel sales tax.

“This allocation of ARPA funds will help us to start to be able to focus on other sources of revenue,” Cooksey said.

3. Pandemic-era tech is here to stay

Digital tools that arts organizations leaned on during the pandemic haven’t gone away.

When the Whitaker Music Festival returned over the summer, organizers of the free outdoor concert series at the Missouri Botanical Garden relied on online ticket reservation services to keep audiences safe. It’s a tool that the festival will likely use for years to come, said Abbie Driver, public events coordinator for the garden.

“It actually turned out really well,” Driver said. “What was really great for us truthfully was it helped us further our mission, because when we have thousands and thousands and thousands of people at the garden at once, that can actually hurt some of our conservation efforts.”

Video call apps, such as Zoom, continue to shape how artists connect and teach. Those tools will probably be used indefinitely as a safe and accessible alternative to in-person activities, said Kirven Douthit-Boyd, artistic director of Big Muddy Dance Company and associate director of dance productions at COCA.

Susana Gonzalo, center, of Tower Grove, listens to instruction as teacher Carmen Guyenn demonstrates while dancing with Maureen Ruiz del Arbol, of Ballwin, on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, during a mambo class in “The Gate” neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri. Guyenn has been a lifelong dancer and has a special appreciate for Latin styles of the art, so much that she has been teaching them  for the last 23 years. “I just salsa being dances and wanted to lean into more Latin and Afro-Latin styles,” she said.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Susana Gonzalo, center, of Tower Grove, listens to instruction as teacher Carmen Guyenn demonstrates while dancing with Maureen Ruiz del Arbol, of Ballwin, in February during a mambo class in The Gate neighborhood.

“Students can be here in St. Louis and take a master class from somebody in New York or L.A. or overseas,” Douthit-Boyd said.

Carmen Guynn, founder of Almas Del Ritmo Dance Company, a Latin dance studio in St. Louis, has been teaching in-person and online dance classes over the past few years. She said the hybrid model has allowed her to stay connected to her students.

“COVID, it’s still here. It's not going anywhere,” Guynn said. “We still have to have some precautions in place and just have people be aware that we are out, but we're not.”

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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