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Indigo K. Sams, veteran of St. Louis nonprofits, will take the reins at COCA

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Carly Vanderheyden
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Center of Creative Arts
Students participate in a dance class at the Center for Creative arts in University City. The organization will get a new leader in February: Indigo K. Sams, a veteran of St. Louis nonprofits.

Indigo K. Sams, a veteran of St. Louis nonprofits, will become president and CEO of the Center of Creative Arts in University City next month.

Sams will be just the third leader of the organization, which includes an art gallery, professional performance space and extensive programming for young people interested in the arts.

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Center of Creative Arts
Indigo K. Sams started at COCA as a college intern in 1999. She returns next month as just the third leader in the history of the organization, which was founded in 1986.

“One of the great things I believe in is that the arts build community,” Sams said. “And showing up for that community, and working together to make a better community that we can all live and support each other in, is the place where I want COCA to continue to stand in.”

Sams started at COCA as an intern in 1999 while attending Harris-Stowe State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in urban education. She became COCA’s director of community service before moving to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis, where she has held three vice president positions during a 17-year tenure and is now vice president for programs and club services.

That deep experience with arts administration and connections in the St. Louis community made Sams an attractive candidate to lead COCA, said Bill Carson, president of its board of directors.

“Indigo is deeply thoughtful. She's confident. She listens to a wide variety of voices, both inside the organization and regionally and nationally,” Carson said. “She has deep trust among the people that work for her, and she's very widely known within the St. Louis community as a leader in arts and youth spaces.”

COCA runs many arts education programs for students but also features art exhibitions, performances and studio spaces for professional artists.

“It’s a place for everyone,” Sams said. “My priority is to amplify the fact that COCA is a place to develop and encourage people of all ages to dance more, to sing more, to act more, to draw and design more. It’s a real place to communicate, especially during these times. We’re all coming out of a pandemic of isolation.”

Sams’ roots in the St. Louis arts world run deep: Her father is jazz trumpeter George Sams, a St. Louis native whose resume includes work with the city’s Black Artists Group, curation of various performance series and stewardship of the Metropolitan Gallery in Midtown.

COCA has an annual budget of more than $8 million, according to tax documents. Its leaders describe the organization as the fourth-largest multidisciplinary community arts center in the U.S. In 2020, COCA completed a $49 million capital campaign, which funded a 52,000-square-foot expansion to its University City building. The new wing includes the 450-seat Catherine B. Berges Theatre.

As leader of COCA, Sams will follow founding director Stephanie Riven and Kelly Pollock, who left the organization in July 2022. Last year, COCA introduced Orlando Graves Bolaños as its new senior director of arts programming.

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

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