During the recession, as housing prices tumbled and tax revenue declined, Pinellas County cut hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for the arts. But as the economy improves, arts boosters countywide are beginning to coalesce around a common message: We'd like our money back, please.
It may appear on the surface that the arts are booming in Pinellas, particularly in St. Petersburg, which multiple publications have crowned as an arts destination. But leaders of some of the county's top performing arts venues, as well as existing arts organizations, say that the loss of funding has forced groups to get by on shoestring budgets, crippled any expansion plans they had, and led some to close.
"Many small organizations didn't last and the ones that have lasted, the little bit of money that's left is the difference between them closing their doors and not," said Deborah Kelley, executive director of the St. Petersburg City Theatre. "That's the real state of affairs."
Pinellas' arts boosters, Kelley included, have come together to form a group called PinArts to lobby county and tourism officials for roughly $1.5 million. The money would represent a modest increase from pre-recession levels, when the county commission distributed $600,000 in grants and the Tourist Development Council gave $750,000 to arts groups.
Those days of (relative) plenty ended abruptly in 2010, when the County Commission decided to shutter the Cultural Affairs Council, a department within county government that oversaw grant distribution. The grants ended as well. Instead, the council was replaced with a private nonprofit called Creative Pinellas, which depends on sales of arts-themed license plates for funding and is mainly tasked with bringing attention to local artists' work.
"We need more support," said John Collins, executive director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, which produced a report two years ago that studied 32 arts organizations and concluded that they had attracted 1.3 million visitors who spent $26 million in 2009.
Collins said he's beginning to see a disturbing trend in St. Petersburg of established galleries picking up and leaving for other cities. Four have done this in the last six months, he said, citing Mindy Solomon, who, after four years in St. Petersburg, recently moved her gallery to the Wynwood Art District in Miami in search of a bigger market.
St. Petersburg and the rest of Pinellas have plenty of buzz, Collins said, and he's noticed more artists are moving here.
"And yet, people are leaving," he said. "Everyone is buying into this dream that we're the arts capital, but the foundation isn't there."
Persuading county and tourism officials to increase funding could be a tough sell, despite slowly rebounding property tax revenues and a tourism tax on hotel and motel rooms that has climbed.
County Administrator Bob LaSala said Friday that there's no room in next year's budget to restore $600,000 without taking money from other priorities.
And D.T. Minich, chief executive officer of the Pinellas tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, said that even if he could set aside grant money, there's the problem of finding someone to read through the applications and select grantees. His agency used to rely on the county's now-defunct cultural affairs department to do that.
Still, by 2015, the county will be done paying off its debt on Tropicana Field, freeing up $6 million a year in bed tax revenues for other projects, which could include funding for the arts.
Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch said the arts request is perfectly timed.
"I think they have a valid point," he said. "It just seems to make sense that if we want to be a cultural center, we ought to support that."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.