Art Keeble bangs the drum daily for the arts, seeking a steady flow of support in an unsteady economy. The grant-giving director of the Hillsborough County Arts Council for 27 years has seen his budget shrink from $819,500 in 2006 to $235,000 this year.
That led Keeble and the council's board of directors, all appointed by the County Commission, to create a nonprofit arm called Hillsborough Arts that can accept tax-deductible donations. The first fundraiser, set for Nov. 3, scored renowned artist James Rosenquist as guest speaker. Keeble is also excited to present the first Heart of the Arts award at the luncheon to a person who exhibits hands-on dedication to an arts endeavor.
Aptly named for his career (really for his grandfather), Art Keeble, 67, eschews electronics (especially cell phones), devours crossword puzzles (but finds Sudoku inscrutable), and despairs when artists are asked to donate their work for free. Arts organizations are all about jobs, jobs, jobs to make a community flourish, said the intermediary between commissioners and starving artists when he talked recently with Times reporter Amy Scherzer.
Born and raised in Tennessee and a journalism graduate of the University of Tennessee, how did you became an arts advocate in Tampa?
Someone I knew saw a notice for the vacancy (at the arts council) and called me in Nashville. I grew up pushing needles at my grandma's quilting bees. My first job was working for the Tennessee state crafts division developing markets for toymakers, basket weavers, potters. For some people, it was their first paid livelihood.
How does the cultural industry stack up as a revenue generator, reportedly $300 million in 2008, compared to, say, our three major sports franchises?
You can't say we aren't an economic engine since 95 percent of the money we grant is for jobs. Our biggest recipients have been Tampa Museum of Art, the Florida Aquarium, the Straz Center and USF Contemporary Art Museum. They use that money to pay artists, designers, administrators. It's all jobs.
Overall, more than 8,000 people are employed due to the cultural industry in Hillsborough County. I doubt that our three sports teams employ that number of people.
You say fundraising for the arts is especially challenging. Do you attribute that to local demographics, national hardships or lack of cultural awareness?
We have no facility, so there's no naming rights. People die of cancer and heart disease and leave money for a cure, but no one is dying from the arts. That's why we created Hillsborough Arts, a 501C-3 support group, to supplement our budget, similar to Friends of the Library.
We created the Heart of the Arts award to honor one person each year who has made a significant change to the landscape. That doesn't mean just writing a check, but breathing life into an organization. It will be a surprise — the winner knows, but no one else does.
Why are the arts in some other communities better funded?
In Broward County, sales tax in three categories generated by the entertainment industry is given back to the county cultural council — from music stores, admissions and video rentals, for example. In Hillsborough, that would generate about $5 million that could fund the arts that now goes into general revenue. Some commissioners have taken note and would like to look into it, but this is not a good time to talk about new money.
For 2012, commissioners will not assess county-funded projects a percentage of construction costs for public art, in light of budgetary challenges. Is that frustrating?
It's all politics. Some developers always looked at ways to avoid the assessment, and those compelled to install public art asked for incentives, height or density, and provided minimal art, if at all.
The so-called Exploding Chicken (sculpture by George Sugarman) is in storage. It ought to be in Curtis Hixon Park where it's just the right scale, but it's supposed to be crammed into a small space in front of the aquarium.
For whatever reason, the city has said no sculpture in the park.