Making the Arts in St. Louis a Main Attraction

Regional Arts Commission St. Louis

St. Louis has a rich and impressive cultural life. Over the past few decades, the region’s arts and cultural world has grown to include major cultural institutions, a thriving community of mid- and small-sized arts organizations, an expanding population of individual artists, and nationally recognized arts events.

Its many arts and entertainment districts include Downtown, Grand Center, and Forest Park; and emerging and established neighborhood arts and culture corridors like the Grove, Cherokee Street, South Grand, and 14th Street in Old North St. Louis. These emerging arts amenities support the vitality and energy of their respective neighborhoods, the region as a whole, and the regional economy.

“‘There’s so much to miss’ is an interesting way to think about it. There’s just so much out there to do, to see, to experience, and you don’t hear about it all.”
– Community Listening Session, West County

The local arts sector is given stability by several long-standing and progressive policies, such as those that established the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District (ZMD) and that designated a percent of hotel/motel taxes to support the arts (administered by RAC). This support in combination with a wide variety of access points allow arts and culture to happen everywhere in St. Louis, from the church to the concert hall and from the street to the museum. St. Louis also has philanthropic support and leadership, both public and private, that other cities envy. Yet even with this vibrant arts and culture scene, many St. Louisans told us through EVOKE conversations that the community suffers from an inferiority complex.

“St. Louis has a compelling fine arts scene, for a city of its size. Spectacular and hyper accessible. Like D.C., many things here are free. More people participate than in other cities I have lived in. But we beat ourselves up — we don’t appreciate what we have.”
– Community Leader Interview

Why is it important that our arts and cultural treasures be widely visible and acknowledged—both among our own citizens and by those outside of the region? Because when the arts are doing all they can for St. Louis, there are cascading benefits.

Patty Wente, CEO and president of the International Photography Hall of Fame, has seen how the arts draw people together in a way that transcends language, background, or shared experience. During a past exhibition entitled, “Nicholas Orzio’s Occupied Japan,” a Japanese family visited the museum with multiple generations in tow. “An elderly Japanese woman stood in front of a particular photograph and started crying,” recalls Wente. “I took her a tissue and put an arm around her. Even though I don’t speak her language, I could see that [the United States Occupation of Japan] was part of her family story, and that she was remembering someone she lost. I stood with her that afternoon and we experienced the exhibition together.

“The arts help us connect with each other, and in St. Louis, we need so much to understand each other,” says Wente.

Wente believes that the more accessible and inclusive arts become, the more we all benefit. If the arts are trapped with the few, the arts economy stagnates. But if more people have access to create and engage in the arts; if the arts are understood and assumed to be for all, not just for some; then the arts can be a bridge between communities, a source of civic pride, an attractor of visitors, and a true economic engine.

“St. Louis’s arts organizations draw a very diverse crowd from all over the world,” says Wente. “When [IPHF] showed Vivian Maier’s photography, we had a couple come in from the UK who had flown to St. Louis specifically to see her work. Our current exhibition of baseball photography has drawn a completely different demographic, people who classify themselves more as sports fans than art lovers. But they’re all coming here and experiencing something together.”

There are many ways that local organizations and civic leadership can further St. Louis as a cultural destination. By prioritizing the development of cultural districts in the city and county, and by utilizing the talents of local artists to create public art that is integrated into the infrastructure through parks, transportation and housing developments, our city’s cultural profile becomes more prolific.

“This city has so much to offer. Those outside don’t realize what is here. My friends from New York came to perform at the Muny, and they were amazed at what was here.”
– Community Leader Interview

Immediate visibility can be achieved through regional marketing and branding campaigns, which can then be spread geographically to increase promotion of St. Louis as a cultural tourism destination that is competitive with other mid-sized cities.

“People who come into the museum are all asking where to go and what to see,” says Wente. “They have calendars that include CAM and the St. Louis Art Museum, but they also want to know about the smaller places where they can see local art and theater. We need a way to publicize everything happening in St. Louis. We need the RAC calendar on steroids, and then we need to broadcast it widely.”

As we look to the future and ask the question, “How can art make St. Louis a better place to live?” what opportunities do you see to make our city a cultural destination?