BROOKSVILLE — Nearly three decades ago, the Hernando County Arts Council was named as the area's umbrella fine arts organization, with the intent of fostering support for the county's artistic communities.
For the most part, the organization lived up to those intentions by sponsoring art festivals and handing out money to aspiring artists, musicians and small groups that promoted public music, dance and the visual arts.
But tough economic times and dwindling public support have taken their toll in recent years. A year ago, the council was facing dire financial straits. Nearly bankrupt and with a board of directors that had shrunk to just four members, it laid off its executive director, saving the organization $14,000 in salary. Its annual signature event, Art in the Park, was nearly canceled due to a lack of participants and volunteers.
Since then, however, the council has endeavored to bounce back. A new board headed up by chairman Roger Carlton Sherman took charge in December with a focus of getting the organization's fiscal house in order, while gradually reclaiming its lost territory.
"We've taken some pretty big hits, but we're still here," Sherman said last week. "Finding strong support for the arts is tough these days, no matter where you live. But I think there's a lot of enthusiasm and support for it in Hernando County. It may take some time, but it will get better."
Sherman is no stranger to a build-from-the-bottom approach. A retired interior designer who moved to Hernando County three years ago, he served as chairman of the Plant Museum in Tampa during its renaissance in the 1970s, helped launch the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa and was the founder of the Order of Salvador, a civic group that helped back the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg.
But Hernando County is far different from the heavily populated Tampa Bay area, Sherman said. Public and private support for nonprofit organizations — especially arts groups — is hard to come by, especially in a county where unemployment still hovers around 11 percent.
Sherman's plan is to re-establish a grass roots effort that includes seeking grants, holding more fundraising events and encouraging area arts groups to become more engaged in the organization. Last week, the council took an important step toward that goal by leasing permanent office space at Nicholson Engineering Associates on Horse Lake Road in Brooksville.
"Having a visible presence is a huge step in the right direction," Sherman said. "If we're going to be a communitywide organization, people have to know where to find us."
With newly appointed volunteer executive director Jan Knowles at the helm, Sherman is also hoping to fill at least 12 board slots in the coming months.
"We're looking to broaden the base with individuals from all walks of life," he said. "Whether they are retired business executives, or painters or just people who love the arts, we have a place for their expertise."
The next meeting of the arts council will be at 4 p.m. June 14 at its headquarters at 7468 Horse Lake Road, Brooksville. For information about the council, visit hernandoarts.org.
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]