When Felicia Shaw left St. Louis, she never expected to return. Now, 38 years later, she’s back — and, as the new executive director at the Regional Arts Commission, she’s in a position to make a difference in the area.
“When I left, at the age of 21 — and of course I knew everything at the age of 21 — I said, ‘Good riddance, St. Louis.’ But as life has it, things happen; things change. Sometimes you come back.”
A graduate of Beaumont High School, she went to Northwestern University, and considered the Peace Corps. Instead, she followed her fiancé, drafted by the San Diego Chargers, married, had three sons, divorced and built a career in San Diego. “And then I got the call to return to St. Louis.”
It was more than the recruiter’s call that spurred it. “It was Ferguson that got me back here,” she said, “that made me think that I could and should come back.” Shaw had been an arts administrator for the San Diego Arts Commission for 17 years, followed by eight years at a philanthropic community foundation. “I was wondering about what would be next for me in my career.”
Then, she recalls, “Ferguson happened.” Last August, Shaw, now 59, sat at her computer, emotions churning as she watched. “Despite the fact that I had left St. Louis, I was still emotionally tied to this place that had given me so much. I am eternally grateful for the wonderful upbringing that I had, the warm embrace, and the values I gained here. To see people who looked like me rioting in the streets, so angry and so sad about what had happened, affected me to the core.”
The last of those emotions was guilt, she says. “I left for what I thought were greener pastures — but perhaps if I had stayed, and people like me had stayed and changed things, it would be a different place.”
Then the recruiter called. Shaw, with now-grown sons and three grandchildren, decided that she just might be ready to come back. She succeeds Jill McGuire, who was RAC’s first and only executive director for 30 years.
For now, Shaw is living in the century house where she grew up, across from O’Fallon Park. “I have the greatest job in the world,” she said. “The Regional Arts Commission is a fabulous organization, 30 years old, well-established, well-respected.” She wants to take it to the next level.
There’s a lot going on, she says, but still room for improvement. She calls the local arts community “incredible, the best-kept secret. The quality and the quantity of what’s here is amazing. Music is strong here; theater is not as strong, but we have this fantastic poetry community. People here patronize the arts at a higher degree than I’ve ever seen. The philanthropic community supports the arts. But why are we not one of the great arts destinations in the country? Is it because St. Louisans don’t brag unless it’s about the Cardinals? We need to brag.”
When it comes to possible changes, Shaw notes that RAC funds broadly, with money going to 230 different organizations and 50 grants programs. “You can fund everybody, and you can make a lot of organizations happy, because everyone will get a little bit. But if you get a little more strategic in your funding approach, a little more focused, you might be able to build the capacity of those organizations that are doing the best work.”
She also wants to “rebalance our portfolio” to fund organizations that help “the underserved, the more marginalized communities. If they received more attention, more investment, I think they could grow and serve the needs of those communities even better.”
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