The New Regional Arts Commission

To our great surprise and horror, after 27 years of funding New Line Theatre, the Regional Arts Commission (RAC) decided not to fund us this season. We were truly baffled by the decision -- we get rave reviews for every show we produce, we have a national profile for both excellence and risk-taking, and Broadway writers periodically come see our productions of their shows, particularly when those shows were destroyed on Broadway, but brought back to life by New Line.

One article about RAC's new direction said, "Among the plan’s recommendations is that arts groups work with local organizations to help solve community problems. Arts groups can play a role with efforts to build affordable housing, improve public safety and other civic initiatives, RAC executive director Felicia Shaw said."

I think this is seriously misguided. You don't drive a nail with a pair of scissors. Same principle here.

Theatre and other art forms often address social and political issues (at New Line, almost always), but it is not the job of an arts organization to build housing or make neighborhoods safe. We are storytellers, not the police and not construction workers. We make our communities better places already by telling important, relevant stories that make people think. Does she not understand that?

Felicia is essentially telling us, though she may not realize it, that if we want to be funded by RAC again, we have to change the nature of what we do, change our mission statement (which does not currently mention affordable housing or neighborhood safety), etc.

In another interview, she said, "The focus of the report is how can the arts play a larger role in making St. Louis a better place to live."

The arts already do that in spades. In every city that creates an arts district, neighborhoods around that district thrive, because the arts automatically make an area a better place to live.

One person commented about all this in a St. Louis Theatre group on Facebook, "I believe though that sometimes we have to go beyond our comfort zone for what the community needs. I think that’s what RAC is trying to accomplish."

But it's not about comfort zones; it's about mission statement. People don't donate money to New Line to build affordable housing; they donate to us to tell them interesting, thought-provoking stories that intersect/interact with the issues surrounding us in the real world.

There's also something much more, much bigger going on here. Felicia's comments reveal something far more concerning, an underlying assumption that the arts are not "enough," that creating art and sharing it with the community, the entire point of a nonprofit arts organization, isn't sufficiently valuable in her eyes; that feeding the soul and the brain and the heart are less worthy endeavors than feeding the stomach.

All this despite the fact that storytelling is one of the most basic, most necessary of human functions. It's how we learn, how we connect, how we cooperate, how we govern, how we record our history and our culture, how we work through problems, how we grow collectively and individually. Storytelling is one of the most basic of human needs, going back to the first pictographs on cave walls.

To disrespect that long, proud, noble history, by telling us we only have value when that storytelling is augmented with "real world" service, is truly disappointing. Felicia obviously doesn't understand that, as important as building houses will always be, just as important is building empathy and understanding and connection, through the very real magic of storytelling. We shouldn't have to help build housing to prove our worth.

Let's look at the IRS and nonprofit status...

1894 – The Tariff Act of 1894 provided the first statutory Federal income tax exemption for charitable organizations: “nothing herein contained shall apply to … corporations, companies, or associations organized and conducted solely for charitable, religious, or educational purposes.”

1909 – The Payne Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909 exempted from a general corporate excise tax “any corporation or association organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, or educational purposes, no part of the net income of which inures to the benefit of any private stockholder or individual.”

But what counts as educational...?

1973 – Revised Ruling 73-45, 1973-1 C.B. 220, holds that an organization formed to develop a community appreciation for drama and musical arts by sponsoring professional presentations such as plays, musicals and concerts qualified for exemption under IRC 501(c)(3).

In other words, the arts are inherently educational. They teach us about life, about our world, about each other, and about ourselves. Even without the express "educational programs" that funders love, the arts are inherently educational. They don't need to add activities in order to serve their communities.

One of Felicia's other focuses is talking about how the arts generate economic activity. That's great, but it also buys into the notion that what we do is not sufficiently worthwhile. We also have to prove that we generate money. Again, how terribly misguided. By accepting that premise, she normalizes the idea that we should measure the arts in dollars.

We shouldn't.

The title of her new plan is chilling:

Arts &
A Creative Vision for St. Louis

The title tells us all we need to know -- that the arts by themselves aren't enough. We have to create "art and..." Also, I love that the "creative vision" is that the creative arts aren't worthy unless they're combined with something else. I love irony.

On the first page of the Plan, it says, "That’s why we are pursuing a cultural vision to benefit and elevate not only the arts and culture in St. Louis but also to benefit and elevate St. Louis." So the art will be elevated by having to take on non-arts projects...?

The Plan summary also says, "But if all people in St. Louis have access to create and engage in the arts, and if the arts are understood and assumed to be for all, not just for some, then the arts can be not only an equalizer but also a ladder to opportunity, a job creator, a bridge between communities, an educational asset, a source of civic pride, an attractor of visitors, a draw for transplants, and a true economic engine."

The arts are already all those things in St. Louis, and have been for quite some time. 

One "Community Leader" is quoted in the report, saying "What is new [in St. Louis] is that if you want to be the creator -- a program, an event -- people aren’t asking for permission as much, they are just making it happen."

That's not new. That's been happening in St. Louis for decades. Anybody remember Theatre Project Company at New City School, the very "alternative" work at the St. Marcus Theatre and the ArtLoft Theatre, City Players at the shut-down Coronado Hotel, the Black Rep at the 23rd Street Theatre...?

Nobody asked permission to start New Line 28 years ago.

At one point, the report says, "Many artists said that they see and experience the same disparities of race, gender, and ability that are pervasive in society in both the nonprofit and commercial arts sectors. Barriers raised by racism and segregation add to the challenges they already face as working artists, further hindering their careers."

That is a real problem. But it's worth noting that New Line regularly has some of the most diverse casts on St. Louis stages, and that's been true for a decade or more. It's extremely rare for a New Line show to have an all-white cast.

But New Line got zero-funded by RAC.

Felicia wants arts organizations to tackle important issues. New Line has been doing that for 28 years. Felicia wants young people and people of color to have the chance to shine. New Line has been doing that for decades. In our last show the actors playing our "royal family" were white, black, and Asian. Felicia wants local ogrniazations to hire local artists. New Line has hired only local artists for 28 years.

But New Line got zero-funded by RAC.

The report says, "The arts are already working at the intersection of health, community and economic development, transportation, tourism, faith, education, and other sectors. But what we heard from participants is that they want to see even more connections between the arts and other nonprofit and social sectors, because they see this as a key way that the arts can help advance positive social change."

You know how the arts can best help advance positive social change, RAC? Changing the way people think, through the most powerful persuader known to humans -- storytelling.

Take for example, the very silly Zombies of Penzance, which we're about to open. I'm sure Felicia would not find our production particularly worthwhile in terms of social service. But if you look closely, Zombies is not just a silly romp; like all of Gilbert & Sullivan's shows, it's a satire. In its original form, as The Pirates of Penzance, it was about the absurdity of class distinctions. Now as The Zombies of Penzance, it's about the "Othering" of people not like us, the way we become "Us" and "Them," the way we see the Scary Other (Mexicans, Muslims, Gays, Transgender Americans, etc.) as less than human, so we can hate and even oppress them without any guilt.

We are in a particularly dangerous time of "Othering" right now, and this story will be particularly potent right now. But it won't help with affordable housing.

In the conclusion of the report, it says, "This process made clear that the time is right for RAC to expand its capacities beyond its role as grantmaker and consider ways to fulfill a bolder mission." RAC has always been much more than just a grantmaker. Under Jill McGuire's decades of leadership, RAC supported the arts community in so many ways, some of which Felicia has already ended.

Why do new people always feel the need to trash those who've gone before? Why did this report need to imply falsely -- and classlessly -- that in the past RAC has done nothing more than disburse grants?

It seems likely that New Line will never again get RAC grants, but we will apply again next year. In the meantime, please support small arts organizations in our area, particularly those several dozen that got cut off by RAC this year.

We will keep soldiering on, and somehow we will make up for the $12,000 per year RAC took away from us. If you think New Line's work is already worthwhile, help us make up for the indignity of this loss by making a contribution to New Line whenever you can.

New Line will continue to tackle the issues of our world, through provocative, intense, and yes, sometimes silly, adult musical theatre. The incredible praise for our work over the years, the rave reviews, the contributions that increase every year, are all the proof we need that we're on the right track.

We open Zombies of Penzance next week! Ticket sales are great! Get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!