Pinellas County has had an arts council in one form or another since the bicentennial of 1976. With funding from the county, its mission has been to serve as an advocate for the arts, as well as a clearinghouse of information and a vehicle for financial support through grants to museums and galleries, theater and dance companies, musical organizations and other cultural and educational institutions. • In 2006, the council was transformed from a quasi-governmental organization with a degree of independence to become part of county government — it's now called the cultural affairs department. At the time, this looked like a valuable endorsement of the arts and a way to stabilize its funding. • "I was one who wanted the arts to become part of the county because they are so important to our quality of life,'' says Karen Seel, chairwoman of the Pinellas County Commission. "I thought it was a logical step forward.'' • But now that old adage about being careful what you wish for has come home to roost for the arts. Because of the financial crisis that has the county making draconian budget cuts to narrow an $80 million deficit in the next two years, it wants to eliminate the cultural affairs department.
Seel says a decision will not be reached until mid to late July when the commission finalizes its 2011 budget, which goes into effect Oct. 1. However, most people involved are assuming it's a done deal, though with some important elements yet to be worked out. The county's plan to stop funding the arts is creating a stir.
"We're very distressed, because it would be awful for Pinellas County to lose one of the best local arts agencies in the state of Florida,'' says Sherron Long, president of the Florida Cultural Alliance, a statewide advocate for arts and cultural organizations. "All local arts agencies are facing challenges right now. But this would be a huge loss. Pinellas County has always been a leader in that movement. It would be incredibly shortsighted of them to cut off support for the arts council.''
A look at beneficiaries
The list of organizations that have received financial assistance through the cultural affairs department covers the gamut in Pinellas County. Large institutions like Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Salvador Dali Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts each won grants of more than $50,000 to enhance cultural tourism in 2009-10. Smaller organizations such as Creative Clay, First Night St. Petersburg, the Francis Wilson Playhouse, the Dunedin Fine Art Center, the Pinellas Youth Symphony and others were awarded grants of several thousand dollars apiece.
"It's not just the grants themselves that are important, but with the seal of approval of the county, they can be leveraged for other kinds of support,'' says Kathleen Monahan, director of the Tarpon Springs cultural and civic services department. "The department keeps the arts in the forefront of the community and helps us all to find ways to maximize our dollars.''
To be sure, with the Florida economy in free fall, cultural affairs has been on the chopping block for several years, its staff reduced from a peak of 10 employees to three today. The 2010 budget, which includes grants, staff expenses and overhead, was $890,400 — cut from $2,230,290 the year before.
"The challenges we've seen since becoming part of the county pretty much coincided with all of the economic issues and property tax issues that really began to impact revenues at the county level,'' says Judith Powers, director of cultural affairs. "It's like the perfect storm.''
Being part of county government brought some obvious benefits to the arts council, such as giving the staff a decent level of pay and benefits as public employees. Powers, for example, is paid $97,988 a year (her county job is now in line to be eliminated). The downside was that the arts were buried in the bureau of culture, education and leisure, which also includes parks and the extension service.
"I didn't like the idea of joining the county. I didn't see any value in it,'' says Sallie Parks, the founding executive director of the Pinellas Arts Council, who went on to become a county commissioner from 1992 to 2000. "They were muzzled. Everything has to go through channels with the county, and they were lost in all the bureaucratic baloney.''
A return to the past?
Now arts supporters are hoping to persuade commissioners to transfer the authority of the cultural affairs department back to a reconstituted arts council, much like it used to be. "It's kind of a return to yesteryear,'' says Bill Heller, a state representative from St. Petersburg who is chairman of the Pinellas Cultural Foundation, which would be the new local arts agency for the county. "We'd go full circle.''
Heller met with Seel to propose an arrangement in which the county would provide funding of about $600,000 in the next two years to make the transition back to an independent arts council. At the very least, some kind of organization needs to be in place to receive the grant money generated by the sale of arts license plates, as much as $50,000 a year in Pinellas County.
"We've generally had good support from the commissioners,'' Heller says. "I think they have a desire to spin us off and not lose the focus on the arts. They just don't want to employ anyone from the arts council. We would like some kind of funding for two years out. After that, it might be renegotiated if the economy turns around, or maybe the council would secure funds from other sources.''
As a former commissioner, Parks recognizes that making the case for even a relatively small amount of funding for arts and culture can be tricky when governments are laying off workers. The county may be forced to let go law enforcement officers.
"But the fact is the arts are extremely important to this community,'' she says. "How many people come to Pinellas County or the Tampa Bay area to look at our fire department or our police department? Yes, they want to be safe, yes, they want emergency assistance when they need it. But that's not why they come here. They come here for the richness of the beaches and the cultural community. I think we can make a good case that it's all part of the package. The arts don't just stand alone. They're part of the important things in our lives here, in people choosing to live here and in attracting tourists to visit here.''
Other large Florida counties also have problems with arts funding, though none has yet broached the possibility of eliminating it entirely, as in Pinellas. "Duval County funding is status quo, but everyone else, Palm Beach County, Broward County, Miami-Dade, they have all been cut back drastically,'' Sherron Long says. "They're just trying to stay in the budget and sustain themselves until the economy turns around.''
An uncertain future
In Hillsborough County, the arts council's budget has been cut almost in half, from $809,227 this year to a proposed $487,227 for 2011. "The funding is dismal,'' says Art Keeble, the executive director. "There are going to be some hard years ahead.''
There are other public arts programs in the bay area. St. Petersburg, for example, allocates $175,000 a year for grants to support its arts scene. Elizabeth Brincklow, manager of the city's arts and international relations office, says that is likely to remain for 2011. But she worries about the county's wavering commitment to the arts.
"Not to have a local cultural affairs department on a county level would be stressful,'' Brincklow says. "We need that advocacy, we need that portal to the various arts organizations in the county.''
While Florida municipalities struggle to maintain some role in arts and culture, the state's program has been decimated. Once a national model for competitive, peer-reviewed screening of grant applications, the Division of Cultural Affairs is a shadow of its former self.
"Our state has just butchered us,'' Long says. "We're ranked now 49th in per-capita funding for arts and cultural resources, and for a state this large and diverse, that's embarrassing.''
In fiscal year 2006-07, state arts grants totaled $34.4 million; for 2010-11, which begins July 1, the appropriation has been slashed to $950,000. "That's about 5 cents per person, less than you'd find in the seat cushions of your car,'' Long says. "This is not acceptable. For what I thought was a visionary state, we're going in the wrong direction.''
Part of the problem this past session was the Legislature's penchant for earmarks. More than $2 million in arts funding was earmarked in lump sums for a handful of institutions. Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the $1 million appropriation to a Lauderhill performing arts center, but three others — $50,000 to the Appleton Museum in Ocala; $250,000 to the Florida African-American Heritage Preservation Network; and $1 million to the Museum of Science and Discovery in Fort Lauderdale — went through.
"Legislative earmarks hurt organizations that play by the rules,'' Long says. "They take money from a broad range of arts institutions that go through a system that has accountability and a review process and give it to a few. That's not the way to go.''
With so little state money available, a crucial source of financial leverage for county and city arts programs has dried up. "It's almost not worth applying for state grants at this point,'' says Keeble, who is considering a regional approach to try to keep public funding for the arts alive in the bay area.
"Judith (Powers) and I have talked about merging the Pinellas and Hillsborough arts councils,'' he says. "The politics could be interesting, but we already do a lot of things together anyway. Maybe it's time to kiss and make up and have a Tampa Bay arts council.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.