People walking by on the Delmar sidewalk stare curiously through the window of the Regional Arts Commission (RAC) at a bright Carnaval costume topped with a hat of feathers, plastic fruit, and sequins. “I really believe that people will always seek out cultural or art experiences,” Executive Director Jill McGuire says. Since McGuire founded RAC in 1985, the organization has brought together a wide variety of people within its walls, funding arts organizations and artists in St. Louis City and County. “I believe that people will run out of their houses to find human beings to interact with.” She walks past a wall of horned masks, which were made by students of Fabio Rodriguez, an educator at De Soto High School. She stops at the head of a fearsome mythical creature, covered in feathers made from neon paper, and reaches out to touch it.
As she sits in front of the camera to tell RAC’s story, her energy becomes focused, practiced from speaking for RAC since its establishment in 1985. At the time, she was working as an executive assistant for the mayor, Vince Schoemehl. Local cultural institutions were calling his office looking for public funding, and Mayor Schoemehl asked McGuire to find a creative way to raise money for the arts in St. Louis City and County. It was one of the first times both municipalities worked together on a major project. Inspired by a similar policy in San Francisco, McGuire and her collaborators proposed a bill for a hotel tax to generate revenue for a regional arts commission, as well as a regional convention and visitors bureau.
McGuire ran the campaign to pass the tax. “That’s what I had been doing for years: running different kinds of campaigns,” she says. She had also been in charge of Vince Schoemehl’s first bid for mayor, in 1980. “It is a very different kind of job, because you have a goal, and that’s to win, and you have to win on a certain day. You don’t get redos.” She describes the long days, sometimes 24 hours at a time, wrangling the messy operations behind the scenes of a campaign into a smooth public front: managing volunteers, counting votes, and watching the polls. “It’s making sure you don’t overlook one thing. Your biggest nightmare is, ‘What if we lose by 10 votes, and those are the 10 phone calls I didn’t get to make?’”
Starting at the age of 12, she would walk through her neighborhood before elections, knocking on doors and passing out information on the candidates. “I grew up in a very political family,” she says. However, as an undergraduate at Mizzou she pursued painting, until changing her major to art history and English literature. “My degree was going to be in art, but I realized I would starve. I was not a great artist.” She continued to explore her interest in politics, founding a grassroots political party on campus called ‘Entente’–the French word for a new beginning, or a peaceful agreement. The party’s symbol was a peace sign. “I’m a product of the 60’s,” she says. “We ran four candidates for student body president, treasurer, etcetera, against the big machine of the student body,” she says, her voice dropping with mock theatricality. Even though McGuire’s own roommate didn’t cast a ballot, one of Entente’s candidates managed to win–by three votes.
In 1985, after the hotel tax bill passed, RAC’s new board of directors asked McGuire to leave her supporting role in Mayor Schoemehl’s administration and take charge of the organization. Although she had a long history of working in politics, she had never run a nonprofit organization before. “Nor had I ever worked for a board of directors. So there was a huge learning curve–and that this board of directors could actually tell me what to do. I mean, we all have bosses and we know what the goals are, but working for 15 different people was–I had to figure that out,” she says.
As the leader of RAC, she found herself responsible for making subjective decisions about the quality of creative expression. “Is it your own lens, that you can’t help but look through, that begins to judge? And clearly we all have different opinions–that’s why we wear different color clothes … Because what I may like, you’re not going to be caught dead in,” McGuire says. As a government agency, RAC is covered by the Sunshine Law, which means their budget must be transparent. Their records are open, and their meetings are public. Whenever RAC spends money, McGuire is accountable to both the board of directors and the people of St. Louis. “The Regional Arts Commission is a government agency–and we try not to act like it. But we really belong to the citizens of St. Louis City and County,” she says.
Over the years, RAC has undertaken a variety of initiatives to strengthen the cultural fabric of St. Louis–from a variety of grant programs to the “Artists Count” survey in 2012, which asked over 3,000 local creatives about their artistic practices and financial situations. It was one of the largest surveys of its kind in the country. Recently, McGuire had been collaborating with a man from Austin, Texas, and she invited him to St. Louis. He spent three days in meetings and exploring the city. On his last day, he confronted her. McGuire imitates a Texan drawl as she impersonates him. “You have an amazing, amazing city and nobody–who knew? You know, in Texas, we have things that are great, but we tell you. What I don’t understand about St. Louis is you don’t have any swagger,” he told her. “And it’s so true!” she says now. “We’re very Midwestern. ‘Oh yeah, it’s nice. St. Louis is great. Yeah, we love it.’ But we don’t have that swagger. And I really see that developing.”
In her past work with the city, McGuire saw that community revitalization had to be specific to be successful. “When you’re involved in local politics, it’s always about better streets, we need more lights, we need more parks,” she says. City officials would draft a one-size-fits-all map of new streetlights and roads, then paste it onto a struggling neighborhood. “We approached community development as kind of a cookie cutter. ‘Well, here’s what they need. They need x here and y here’ … so if you do this in neighborhoods they will thrive. That’s redevelopment.” Instead, McGuire says, focus on creating cultural institutions that residents want to use: a dance studio on the corner, or a gallery across the street where parents can attend shows displaying their children’s artwork. “The people who live there really own that neighborhood and they have ideas, and they know what it takes to make their neighborhood thrive,” she says.
Since 1997, RAC has sponsored a program called the Community Arts Training (CAT) Institute, which brings together eight artists and eight non-artists with backgrounds in social work or community services every year. “I think art is probably one of our most powerful tools in understanding each other, understanding our communities, and in community-building,” McGuire says. Over five intensive months, artists learn how to work with community institutions, and social service workers learn about the creative process.
RAC will also begin holding neighborhood-specific CAT Institutes, and will invite neighbors and business owners to participate. Together, they can look at a community and share their different perspectives–a painter might see the beauty of the buildings’ historic green tile, a public health official might notice the lack of vegetables in grocery stores nearby, and a neighbor might volunteer the best location for a new corner market. “That’s going to make our neighborhoods really interesting,” McGuire says.
McGuire’s office overlooks the Delmar Loop, which is bustling with people walking to restaurants and galleries. A corner of the room is dominated by an unruly plant, which has grown so high that it has pushed up a ceiling tile, creeping into the empty space above. “When you think about the future, you want to invite the public in. And it was hard to reach them, and hard to make everybody feel welcome,” McGuire says. What RAC will be in 15 years depends on the citizens of St. Louis. “Are people going to pay to sit in the Symphony Hall and listen to this amazing symphony orchestra? Are they going to walk through the halls of an art museum? Or do they want art across the street?”
For more information about Jill McGuire and the Regional Arts Commission, visit here.