Felicia Shaw has a history of setting the stage for something unusual.

Years ago, she convinced her then-husband, Chargers football player Pete Shaw, to perform in a ballet production with a couple of his teammates. It was a nerve-wracking moment for the men on stage, but they survived and were thrilled to see the athleticism of the ballet artists at work, Felicia Shaw recalls.

Pete Shaw was so stunned that he pondered their power afterward: “With all they can do with their bodies, could you imagine what they could do on the field?”

Felicia Shaw has done more than just introduce a few brawny guys to tutus and pirouettes. She’s spent much of her career bringing the arts to the general public.

After a 17-year stint at San Diego’s city arts agency, she now oversees the San Diego Foundation’s art programs. Once again, Shaw is setting a new stage: she’s getting ready to hand out $250,000 to artists in an unusual collaboration with local art organizations.

In an interview this week, the St. Louis native talked about her passion for the arts, the new fellowship project and why she likes to work behind the scenes.

How did you become interested in the arts?

It’s kind of in my DNA. My parents were very committed to making sure everyone in our family had arts in their lives — classical music, dance, painting, it was just all around us.

It wasn’t like we had a lot of money. But my parents believed in things like good literature. We’d go to book fairs and we’d buy all these books, and my father read poetry to me. I kind of didn’t have a choice, and I loved it.

Here’s the deal. I don’t really have any talent myself. I always say someone has to work the curtains, there has to be someone behind the scenes who has to sell the tickets, make sure the artists get paid. I always considered myself to be that person who makes sure that those who really have talent get to shine.

Why did you move over here in 2007 from the San Diego’s arts commission, where you oversaw the spending of millions of dollars on the arts?

I wanted to work in an organization that wasn’t limited by politics. That’s what you find at the San Diego Foundation: I found its neutrality to be refreshing.

How do arts fit into the foundation’s vision?

It’s a huge priority right now. We see the connection with our quality of life in every way. It’s right up there with the quality of our beaches, affordable housing, a high-quality education.

It gives me some assurance that I’m doing the right thing, that I’m not over in the fringe in an area where people are saying, “That’s good, after we get everything else taken care of, we’ll get to that stuff.” That’s not what we’re hearing. We’re hearing that arts and culture are at the table of their most important priorities.

How does this new $250,000 program of fellowship grants for artists work?

First, I went to the arts and culture community and said basically “We’re not funding you directly anymore.” We’re saying to the Old Globe, the La Jolla Playhouse and the symphony: “Our donors support you. We don’t need to do that, too. What if we shifted our focus away to individual artists?”

There was grumbling. But if we don’t support individual artists to do what they want to — not what you want them to do — they’ll move away to New York and Los Angeles, and our community will suffer. We have to do something directly for them.

I said: “What if I ask you to provide a platform for these artists to do their work? What if you become mentors?” I got players (nonprofit arts organizations), 19 of them, to step forward and say they’ll do that.

And they didn’t know what they were going to get?

They just agreed to play. And then I asked artists what they’d do if they had the money and to then write a proposal. Then I wanted them to look at the list of these 19 organizations. Which one of them would you like to work with to see your idea fulfilled?

These artists applied and would name up to three of the organizations. The organizations were able to look at all of these artists who said, “Here’s my idea, do you want to sponsor it to bring it through fruition?”

We had 175 artists who stepped forward.

In a way, it has gone beyond my initial dreams. Those 19 nonprofits are finding tremendous opportunities to expand what they would ever have thought of. We have literary artists, music, film, dance.

What’s happening now?

Of the 175 artists, the nonprofits are choosing 19 artists. Friday (today) is the deadline for the applications.

How will this promote innovation considering that the involvement of institutions could potentially stifle cutting-edge work?

The artists are in the driving seat for a change. They’re not at the beck and call of the nonprofit. The artist says, “This is my vision, are you interested?”

Part of the idea is to financially support artists. What about the idea that artists shouldn’t be comfortable members of society?

That era has run its course — the idea of the crazy starving artist who doesn’t own anything and drives a car that’s smoking down the freeway. I’m not convinced that makes great art.

We want to elevate their worth and value as contributing members of our society. And we want to inspire creativity so they can influence innovation.

I hope that we’ll rebrand what it means to be an artist, kind of the way they rebranded what it means to be a nerd or a geek. Could we make it really cool — a wannabe profession — to be an artist because an artist does things for our society and they contribute?

Why not give money directly to the artists and leave the arts organizations out of the picture? I’m guessing it’s because there’s no place to put the art.

That’s the challenge. The art has to come outside of your studio: You have to get some play in the community.

Artists bemoan that they’re producing work but they haven’t had a show. If they had a show, they can’t get people there because their network is so small because they only know other artists.

The nonprofit provides the platform. For artists, this is like “Score!” The La Jolla Playhouse is going to help me realize something I want to do?

Do you think any of the art will be controversial?

I hope people will talk about it, let’s leave it at that.

The fellowship projects will be approved later this year and are scheduled to debut in 2012.

Full disclosure: The San Diego Foundation is VOSD’s landlord and a founding supporter. Our editorial decisions are made independent from those considerations.

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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