Felicia Shaw never considered that she would return to St. Louis for any reason — not even as the leader of an organization that would change the community.
"I'm a little black girl from the north side," she explains. "I went to Beaumont High School, and as early as I can remember I said, 'I'm leaving here.'"
After graduation, Shaw headed to Chicago for Northwestern University and was faced with a decision when she'd completed her degree. Would she enter the Peace Corps, or would she marry her boyfriend, who had been drafted by the San Diego Chargers? She chose the latter and headed to the West Coast, where she spent the next 35 years and lived the life of an NFL wife (and at some point, ex-wife).
"I never thought I would come back to stay, and then Ferguson happened," Shaw says. "Something was calling me back. I thought, 'If I could get back there, I'd go.' And then a headhunter I know called me about something and mentioned this job in passing: 'You're from St. Louis; I'm looking for a new executive director for the Regional Arts Commission. Do you know anybody?'"
At the time Shaw was the director of arts and culture strategy and analysis at the San Diego Foundation, a civic-engagement program that supported fellowships for creative entrepreneurs and neighborhood revitalization. Before that she'd held the position of program director for San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture, which implemented a grants program to maintain the city's standing as a cultural-tourism destination. She was pretty much exactly the person that the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission, or RAC, was looking for.
"Six months later I handed over the keys to my house and the Prius to my son, and came home," Shaw says.
- COURTESY OF THE REGIONAL ARTS COMMISSION
- Felicia Shaw.
Once Shaw had RAC's keys in hand instead of that Prius, she took stock of what she had to work with. RAC is the largest funder of the arts in the St. Louis area. Founded in 1985 — two years after Shaw left town for college — its mission is to grow, sustain and promote St. Louis' cultural identity, using funds levied by the area's hotel/motel tax. The organization has awarded 7,000 grants totaling more than $300 million since it began, funding everything from Opera Theatre St. Louis to, in one recent example, a one-off gallery show featuring local artists in a series of trading cards.
In 2018 alone, the commission received $6.4 million in tax money. Of that, $3.8 million has been awarded through a grants process to organizations and individuals working within the arts community. The next largest portion is used for the Community Arts Training Institute, which teaches individuals how to use the arts in a collaborative way to change their community. Funds are also used to support local workshops and conferences that fit RAC's mission. Remaining funds go to things like support, salaries and building maintenance for the organization's three-story building on the eastern edge of the Delmar Loop.
It can be tempting for anyone starting a new job to downplay the accomplishments of their predecessors. How better to show how hard you're working than to suggest you were handed a mess? But Shaw is a professional. She asks as many questions as she answers, and it's clear her goal is finding positives and trumpeting St. Louis' successes. She's quick to credit the people who came before her 2015 entrance.
"The first 30 years of this organization has been extraordinary," she says. "I didn't inherit a dump; look at what's already here." In that, she's referring both to RAC's headquarters and the thriving local arts community that surrounds it in all four directions.
But Shaw didn't move back to St. Louis to take it easy. On her watch, RAC has been exploring some significant changes — and what's arguably its most ambitious project yet.
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