About a year ago, the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners, struggling with huge deficits, decided to eliminate arts programs from the county budget. The Pinellas Cultural Affairs office was essentially shut down in October (a part-time employee remains), but the county did commit to providing as much as $300,000 for a transition to some kind of successor as a local arts agency.
Now the commission is poised to approve a new group, called Creative Pinellas, as the advocate for the arts in the county. People accustomed to the conventional services of an arts agency are bound to be disappointed.
"Times have changed," says Susan Latvala, chairwoman of the commission, who pushed to form the group. "We've got to do things differently. There's not the money there was in the past. We have to think differently because public financing is gone."
Creative Pinellas appears mainly to be a marketing and promotional effort, with few of the functions of a traditional arts agency. According to a presentation made to commissioners, it won't give out grants to artists or cultural institutions, or provide educational programs.
Funded by Pinellas' share of revenue from Florida license plates for the arts, about $30,000 a year, and the county seed money, the agency will have a part-time director and two part-time "buzz officers." They will send out posts on arts and culture happenings on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
"Instead of having a full-time director and staff, which costs a lot of money, these buzz officers will be paid a token amount, $8,000 to $10,000 apiece," Latvala says. "We will get them passes to events in the county, and they'll buzz about it on social media and raise awareness. You know: 'Oh, my God, you need to be here tonight!' And we'll have a part-time director who will orchestrate things." The director would be paid $25,000 a year under the proposal.
Needless to say, the concept of spending public money on a few arts bloggers has been dismissed as ludicrous by many people in the field.
"No grants, no workshops, no bylaws. Well, that's not a local arts agency," says Art Keeble, executive director of the Hillsborough County Arts Council. "Pinellas has too much going on to be the only major county in Florida not to have a real arts council."
Latvala has heard the criticism. "There was lots of whining in the beginning," she says. "A lot of people, especially people who were involved before, wanted to keep doing the same old thing. The money's gone. That is no longer a viable option."
Latvala, a Republican, is on the board of Creative Pinellas but would step down if the group is designated as the local arts agency. She wants it to be involved with an arts festival in 2012 to coincide with the county's centennial celebration. She says there are plans to have artist Christopher Still create a poster for the event.
A chunk of the county's $300,000 in seed money for an arts agency would likely go to promoting the centennial celebration. "We would like to use some of that money to make that happen," Latvala says. "Here's a way to help with that."
Creative Pinellas is to be designated as a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization, which means it can seek donations, but for the most part it will probably not be tax-deductible. "Fundraising is not going to be a big part of what we do," Latvala says.
Judith Powers, former executive director of Pinellas Cultural Affairs, has a vested interest in the issue. She was in line to head a successor group proposed by the Pinellas Cultural Foundation, an organization chaired by Bill Heller, the former state representative from St. Petersburg, a Democrat swept out of office in last fall's Republican wave. The foundation's plan for an arts agency was more along traditional lines.
Powers headed the Pinellas arts agency, both as a nonprofit entity and then as a county department, for decades. She wonders how Creative Pinellas is supposed to sustain itself once the seed funding is gone, saying, "$300,000 is a lot of money. I would have very hard questions about exactly what this new nonprofit with no track record is going to do for its money."
On June 14, there will be a public hearing as part of the commission's regular meeting. Information: pinellascounty.org.
Conference highlights Hildegard's history
For classical music fans, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) became widely known when popular groups like Anonymous 4 and Sequentia put out recordings of her chant. One of the rare women, outside of royalty and mythical figures, who made a mark on the history of the Middle Ages, Hildegard was an ecstatic mystic in Germany (known as the "Sybil of the Rhine") who composed liturgical songs that she gathered into a collection called the Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations).
Hildegard has been an inspiration for Kathy Luethje, who organized a conference to be held Saturday in St. Petersburg, "Hildegard and the Arts." It will include sessions on her music, her paintings, and her natural and herbal remedies.
"Hildegard was prolific in all the arts," says Luethje, a Quaker pastor and former chaplain at Bayfront Medical Center who lives in Largo. "She not only wrote music, which was very out of the box for her day, but she was also an herbalist, a healer. She championed women and did a lot of work on women's personalities."
The all-day conference, held at Unity Church and the nearby FreeFall Theatre in west St. Petersburg, will include a keynote speech by Melinda Gardiner, "The Therapeutic Aspects of Hildegard's Music." Gardiner is executive director of the International Music for Healing and Transition Program, which trains and certifies musicians to serve the ill and dying with bedside music.
For a good introduction to Hildegard, Luethje recommends Linn Maxwell's one-woman show on the mystic and her music at 4 p.m. Saturday.
There is a staged reading of Luethje's musical on Hildegarde, A Brightness in Bingen, at 7:30 p.m. at FreeFall.
"There's something about Hildegard's spirit that moves me," Luethje says. "She wanted to be a person who loved God but also loved the world and embraced the things of the world that many people back then didn't consider a part of God, like women's sexuality. She spans religions, even though she was very much a Roman Catholic. A person who likes Zen would find her very compatible."
The cost to attend the conference is $100. Information: hildegard-arts.com; (727) 595-3622.
FreeFall lists schedule for 2011-12 season
The musical Grey Gardens will open FreeFall Theatre's 2011-12 season on Sept. 15. The company has kept up a busy pace of productions since inaugurating its new home at 6099 Central Ave. in a former Christian Science church complex with a production of Stephen Sondheim's The Frogs in February.
Other shows on the Free- Fall agenda are The Comedy of Errors (Oct. 27-Nov. 13); A Christmas Carol: The Musical, with a score by Alan Menken (Dec. 15-Jan. 1); Becky Shaw, a dark comedy about dating by Gina Gionfriddo (Feb. 2-19); the premiere of Rip. Tied by bay area playwright Aleshea Harris (March 15-April 1); In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl (May 3-20); and Cabaret (June 21-July 15).
The company has one more show to go in its current season, Man of La Mancha, which opens June 24. freefalltheatre.com; (727) 498-5205.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.