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Retiring RAC co-founder Jill McGuire looks at history, future of the arts in St. Louis

Alex Heuer
St. Louis Public Radio
Jill McGuire, executive director of the Regional Arts Commission (RAC) joined "St. Louis on the Air" host Don Marsh on April 6, 2015.

After three decades, Jill McGuire of St. Louis’ Regional Arts Commission will leave her post as executive director on Friday, April 10.

McGuire co-founded RAC in 1985 to help fund and support the arts in St. Louis. Since then, the nonprofit has awarded $90 million to artists and institutions, according to McGuire.

McGuire told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Monday that she’s ready to retire. “Thirty years, it’s time,” she laughed.

Even so, creating and leading the organization has been the ride of a lifetime.

“I have loved probably every day of my time at RAC. It’s one of the best jobs in St. Louis,” McGuire said.

St. Louis is ‘second to none’

In the early 1980s, McGuire was working as executive assistant to St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl when some of the area’s major arts institutions came to his office looking for help. At the time, with the exception of the Zoo Museum District, most art groups were not publicly funded.

“We needed another source to fund the rest of the culture in St. Louis,” McGuire said.

Their request was a seed that eventually grew to create RAC, which would fund the arts by distributing a hotel/motel tax to organizations in the city and county.

By 2012, a study revealed the arts had become a nearly $600-million-dollar-a-year industry. The research also showed that 11.3 million people attended arts events, a figure that exceeded the combined number of people who went to see the Cardinals, Blues and Rams.

“We are second to none in the breadth, depth and quality of the arts … for our per capita, we are the best,” McGuire said.

The hard figures are the result of a more heartfelt connection.

“(The arts) provide a human part of ‘that’s where I want to live,’” McGuire said. “It is that richness of the cultural fabric that is so important to a city, to attract new residents and to retain current residents.”

In recent years, RAC has begun earmarking more money for individual artists. For the past two years, 10 arts fellows have each received $20,000. Other, smaller grants have addressed specific needs. The oddest among them? A new camper shell for an artist who used an aging one for transport.

“Because … it leaked and ruined the art,” McGuire said.

The nonprofit has also supported a number of other smaller-scale artistic responses to the August shooting death of Michael Brown: “Poetry, spoken word, library programs,” McGuire said. “To not duplicate efforts but work in a collaborative way.”

RAC also created a new set of grants, giving between $2,500 and $3,000 to artists whose work stemmed from the Ferguson tragedy.

"[We needed this] to address not just Ferguson but issues in the forefront of our minds by the events that happened in Ferguson,” McGuire said.

Challenges for McGuire’s successor

McGuire announced her retirement last May. It took the organization 10 months and the help of a professional, nationwide search organization to find her replacement.

On May 11, Felicia Shaw will become RAC’s new executive director. Shaw is a St. Louis native who’s been working in arts administration in San Diego for the past two decades.

Shaw’s biggest challenges will include getting to know the hundreds of local arts organizations and artists, according to McGuire. Shaw will also have to figure out, as McGuire did, how to keep increasing the amount of money RAC has to give.

“RAC’s revenues are about $6.1 million … to (support the arts properly) we’d need about double that,” McGuire said.

As a going-away present, RAC created a new namesake grant for its outgoing executive director, who once aspired to become a performer. The grant will provide $5,000 to dancers or dance organizations. The first recipient(s) will be announced this summer.

Fowler Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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