Tampa and Hillsborough County cultural programs face potential budget cuts

Who says it's all work and worry in this summer of our suffering economy? Beatriz Cost's main concern, as she swirls a glass of Michael Schafer kerner between cherry-tipped fingernails, is that she really does not like white wine.

"What are we tasting?" asks Charles Visalli, who teaches the class with his wife, Cheryl. "What are we smelling, and what kind of grape do you think it is?"

Your tax dollars at work, right?

To be fair, you did not pony up for the pinot noir. Participants in this wine tasting class at the Carrollwood Cultural Center pay $20 or $25, depending on if they are center members.

But the building cost $8 million in tax funds and gets more each year from the county — close to $400,000 last year. Your child might take his first piano lesson there. Your mother might sketch a still-life. Cost, 49, has learned that ice wine is sweet, and all wine must be stored in a cool place. "I like wine, and I wanted to know about it," she said. "I've learned so much."

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From home decorating at the New Tampa Regional Library to ballroom dancing in Apollo Beach, leisure and cultural pursuits are alive and well in Hillsborough's tax-funded centers.

Which ones are vital and which are frivolous is a matter of opinion, and administrators acknowledge that these days none are entirely safe. Arguing this spring against money for art in public buildings, Republican Sen. Ronda Storms of Valrico asked, "Do I pay for art instead of paying for care for an abused kid?" It's a question raised often as deep cuts threaten government programs from animal rescue to child care licensing.

Arts instructors, administrators and students are aware of the debate, but determined to protect their programs.

"We, being in the arts, are almost always prepared for funding cuts," said Paul Berg, executive director of the Carrollwood Cultural Center. "Because quite often the first place that, when cuts need to happen, they happen in the arts and culture.''

Better citizens

In a building shared with the Brandon Regional Library, school-aged children sit shoulder to shoulder on a summer day. Each has a pile of Popsicle sticks on top of a sheet or two of newspaper. Instructor Greg Manley distributes bottles of glue. The rest is up to the kids.

Will they line the sticks up side by side like a picket fence? Or will they fan them out to make flowers? Manley, 50, will introduce more materials over the course of the week. "Usually by Friday, they get it," he says.

Recycled Art Fantasy Sculpture is just one of several classes Manley teaches at Center Place, a venue he calls the best-kept secret in Brandon.

Manley, who's also on the faculty of Armwood High School, believes organizations such as Center Place are important, now more than ever. He sees arts funding and curriculum shrinking in the public schools, to the detriment of his students.

"Whether it is music, the visual arts or theater and drama, it helps students test out higher and it makes for better citizens," he says. "A civilization is judged not on its war machines, but on its culture."

Nothing from the state

Statewide, the outlook is grim. This year the Legislature slashed arts and cultural funding to about 10 percent of what it was four years ago.

"We're budgeting nothing from the state for next year," said Art Keeble, executive director of the Hillsborough County Arts Council, which awards grants to local programs. "We're trying to figure out a way to negotiate our rent in this building."

Nonprofit organizations, akin to library "friends" groups, raise money for cultural centers in good times. "For arts organizations, it's building up the endowment and reserve fund that are important to carry you through those years," said Berg, of the Carrollwood center.

But, as new as the Carrollwood center is, that effort has been slow, he said.

Berg sees some of the more offbeat offerings, such as wine tasting or playing the bagpipes, as necessary to complement the more traditional courses.

"We were reaching out to a different demographic and it really is an attempt to get a different type of patron to come in who may not be interested in throwing pottery or playing piano, but they may want something fairly easy where they can just learn a little," he said.

He maintains that, in difficult times, it is important to give people affordable entertainment close to home.

Keeble agrees. "When people are in trying times, they sing. They dance," he said. "After Sept. 11, how many times did we sing God Bless America? It made us feel good."

'Highlight of my week'

At a studio in Ybor City, Linda Chirikos and Joan Nagy sit side by side, paintbrushes in hand.

Nagy, 60, is an accomplished artist. Chirikos, 70, a retired physical education teacher, is here largely for enjoyment.

The two have taken classes together for 15 years through the city of Tampa's Parks and Recreation department

When the budget grew tight years ago, the department raised fees to cover the cost of materials and instructors. Nagy says she paid $117 for 11 weeks of instruction, and did not mind at all. "It's the highlight of my week," said Nagy, a massage therapist. "It adds so much to my life."

Instructor Sean Fitzgerald, like the others, is always aware of the program's vulnerability.

"Being the 'city of the arts' was one of the mayor's keystones, so she has tried to keep us going," he said.

Still, at 35, he has lived through budget cuts and a program that was eliminated at the University of South Florida. "Here I am, cutting up scrap paper to make Post-it notes, because you never know," he said. "All of our paints are recycled house paints."

As he prepares to fire up a kiln, student Teresa Hoover works on a set of coffee mugs. She's a strong believer that if children are not exposed to creative arts, they will not learn how to interpret the world around them.

As for Hoover? At 45, she just enjoys pottery. "It keeps you young," she said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Tampa and Hillsborough County cultural programs face potential budget cuts 07/23/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 5:30am]

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