Photo by David Lancaster

St. Louis may be known as a sports town, but Jill McGuire says that the Gateway City should be thought of as something else—an "arts town."

McGuire, Regional Arts Commission (RAC) founder and executive director, says that the lack of a large source of consistent arts funding is what drove her to create the organization. Now, McGuire says that RAC is the largest arts funder in the region. In its 29 years, RAC has awarded $85 million in grants to artists and organizations, including Circus Flora, Prison Performing Arts, the Center of Creative Arts, MADCO, the Sheldon Arts Foundation and more. The organizations and artists are varied: RAC supports "written word, spoken word, poetry, dance, theater, music, opera, circus—anything that is considered [a] creative endeavor," notes McGuire. But all maintain the St. Louis City or County connection.

"It's very simple: The mission is to support, encourage and foster the arts in the region," says McGuire. This includes multiple areas of development, including: artists and institutions; community aesthetics; funding; cultural diversity, planning and equal access.

Outside of grants, RAC also provides a comprehensive arts calendar, in addition to its recently-expanded Community Arts Training (CAT) Institute. CAT works with those involved in the arts and the community, such as activists and educators, throughout a five-month fellowship to create community-driven programming.

RAC is supported by part of St. Louis' hotel tax, says McGuire, which accounts for approximately $5.5 million annually. For special projects, McGuire says that RAC fundraises at a nation level, which includes grants from The Kresge Foundation which supported the CAT expansion.

The impact of area arts extends past cultural awareness and into economics. McGuire explains that nonprofit Americans for the Arts releases an expansive study every five years, and in "every study that has come out, St. Louis has increased in economic impact; and, we rank among the highest." This economic impact includes not just ticket sales, but factors like dinner before the show or hiring a babysitter. "In St. Louis, it's well over half a billion dollars in economic impact," McGuire says, noting that the arts directly provide more than 10,000 jobs. "We are truly important to the economy in this region."

The purposes behind RAC have materialized in the RAC Strategic Vision Plan 2012-2015, a document that was created after extensive interviews of business leaders, artists, educators and others. Four goals are outlined in the document regarding vitality, value, visibility and sustainability; each goal includes a strategic list outlining the steps needed for achievement. As part of this plan, McGuire notes the organization recently redesigned its website and launched an arts and cultural events calendar mobile application for both iPhone and Android.

McGuire will retire at the end of the year, but she hopes new leadership could produce some new exciting directions. "I know the Commission will remain committed to supporting the arts through our annual grants, innovative grants, and particularly our individual artists and artist fellowships." A search committee currently is looking for her replacement.

'Sports town' St. Louis brings in less than 5 million visits annually for Cardinals, Rams and Blues games, according to McGuire—but there 11 million visits to local arts institutions, exhibits and events. "We're really an arts town," she says.

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