ST. PETERSBURG — Hundreds of families cheered from their blankets and lawn chairs after a recent performance of the American Stage Theatre's Pirates of Penzance at Demens Landing Park.
But when the cast took a final bow, the crew did not angle a spotlight to single out any of the actors. After citywide cuts to arts funding this year, American Stage decided the extra lighting was too expensive.
The missing spotlight is a small but recent sign that a city whose mayor bills it as a center of the arts is struggling to keep its arts organizations viable.
St. Petersburg cut more than $2-million in cultural and nonprofit subsidies this year — most of it for the arts — and city leaders warn there will be even less money for these organizations next year.
Mayor Rick Baker's solution: He will continue to support the arts by lobbying state leaders for cash and encouraging community partnerships.
For the arts community, however, the budget crunch comes at a critical crossroads. Local museums, theaters and galleries have been forced to eliminate discounts, spend less on marketing, cut staff and reduce programming in recent months, even as they debate future expansion.
"What it means overall is the community has less cultural opportunity," said Deborah Kelley, executive director of the St. Petersburg Little Theater. "We are going back 20 years. It's a very bleak time."
The financial squeeze has hit organizations both small and large.
• The Florida Orchestra has downsized from 80 contracted musicians to 75 and laid off staff members.
• The Arts Center reduced its gallery hours from seven to five days a week and eliminated pay increases for staffers. It also cut several classes, including a training program that benefited Academy Prep Center, a private school for low-income children.
• Creative Clay Cultural Arts Center eliminated one of its summer classes for disabled artists.
• The St. Petersburg Little Theater canceled all Saturday matinee shows and will host fewer performances this year.
• American Stage Theatre raised admission fees and hired fewer actors for its performance in the park.
More cuts could be in the works. In a recent workshop conducted by the city, 17 of 20 local cultural organizations said they will offer fewer new programs and cut existing programs because of recent budget cuts.
"We hope people don't notice," said Todd Olson, artistic director at American Stage. "We hope we still make exceptional art ... but I don't see anyone coming out of this unscathed."
City leaders said they are troubled by these changes and that in these tight economic times, beating the drum for the arts is just as important as doling out cash.
"I see the arts community as both a major catalyst of both the quality of life and economic development of the city," Baker said. "It is a very high priority."
Baker said he regularly writes letters in support of various arts organizations seeking grants.
Baker also encouraged a $25-million deal between St. Petersburg College and the Florida Orchestra, Palladium Theater and American Stage in 2007. Consequently, the college took over the Palladium's operations, American Stage is preparing to move to a new 150- to 200-seat theater on land owned by the college, and the orchestra moved its headquarters from Tampa to the college's downtown center.
Baker traveled to Seattle with staff members from the Arts Center in March for a contract-signing ceremony that will bring the Dale Chihuly Collection, the first museum of its kind in the world, to St. Petersburg.
"It's a big deal for him to commit that kind of time," said Evelyn Craft, executive director of the Arts Center. "Being an advocate is a huge thing. It creates opportunities for more dollars than just handing over money."
But some arts organizations have begun to question the city's commitment.
"St. Petersburg is supposed to be the city of the arts, but when it comes time for cutting, we are in the pile of nonessentials," said Olson, who is considering ending American Stage's annual spring performances at Demens Landing Park to save money.
If arts organizations want to survive, they will have to be flexible, said Grace-Anne Alfiero, executive director of Creative Clay, which especially serves adults with developmental, physical or mental health challenges. The nonprofit group has started looking into investment opportunities, a risky move she hopes will pay off.
"We are going to see some Darwinism," Alfiero said. "Strong agencies will survive, and those will be the ones who thought out of the box."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.