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Two Florida lawmakers push to end public funding of art

As budgets are wrenched by shortfalls, publicly funded art is paying the price.

Pinellas County has frozen its program and may eliminate it altogether, a $550,000 savings. Hillsborough County is proposing slashing its program in half, requiring big projects to devote only a half-percent of their costs to art.

And if two lawmakers from Hillsborough County have their way, state-funded public art could be outlawed until the economy recovers.

Lawmakers said supporting art — envisioned to spruce up staid government buildings — is no longer an option, despite pleas by some in the arts community.

"Do I pay for art instead of paying for care for an abused kid?" asked Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, author of the repeal, who said artists have ripped her as a "Philistine" and worse. "This is an example of fat. This is a luxury."

Florida law requires that a fraction of the cost of every new state-funded building go toward art, a half-percent up to $100,000.

Since 1979, the state has spent more than $11.5 million for 1,448 pieces of art. Over the next two years, $665,000 worth of art was planned.

But the Legislature has to mend a $3 billion shortage, and cuts for health care, seniors and schools are being debated this spring.

So art is losing its luster.

A year ago, Storms proposed the repeal only to watch the bill die in committee. With three weeks of session left this year, however, her bill needs only one more committee's approval before a full vote by lawmakers. House panels also have moved ahead a similar bill by Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City.

Storms' bill was recently amended to allow art funding to return in 2011, but with another stickler: no state money for art without lawmakers' approval. The change allowed the bill to pass a committee, but Storms said she would like to remove the sunset clause, too.

"While this particular bill deals with a subject that's near and dear to many of us' hearts, it's a just a realization of the cold, hard reality of what must be done," Rep. Alan Hayes, R-Umatilla, said before his appropriations panel unanimously passed the bill in fewer than five minutes.

However, Bill Iverson, public art program manager for Hillsborough, said the state program provides an economic benefit by providing work for artists.

Judith Powers, Pinellas director of cultural affairs, called the state program "fabulous."

"I certainly hope the state program remains," Iverson said.

Cities and counties have steadily increased art funding, though not universally. Pasco County has no program, for example. Projects have often sparked debate over their seemliness.

"I think the people … who work in the arts are sort of used to cycles. Certainly, this is like no cycle we've seen," Powers said. "We would hope the work could cycle back."

This isn't the first arts program under critique by Storms, whose Senate Web site lists local art as one of her passions. As Hillsborough County commissioner in 2006, she said artwork wasn't a good use of public money given rising building costs.

Now, Hillsborough officials are drafting proposed revisions to the county program created in 1989. Instead of allotting 1 percent of each building project, a half-percent would be set aside. The ceiling would be lowered to $150,000 from $200,000, and some buildings would be exempt, such as jails. The county faces a $100 million budget shortfall.

The proposed cuts are deeper in Pinellas, which faces an $85 million budget shortfall. Pinellas has generally set aside 1 percent from each construction project.

But county officials put the brakes on the program this spring after spending $940,000 since 2001, including $100,000 for a long-term plan for the program.

The freeze means $550,000 in art projects are left undone at Fort De Soto and John Chesnut parks, beach access points, viewing towers and the Progress Energy Trail. Undoing it will be difficult for advocates.

Artist Chris Fennell, who relies on public art funding, said the downturn has meant two of his five expected projects have been waylaid this year.

That includes a $90,000 sculpture planned at Wall Springs Park in Pinellas, though he did recently ink a deal with Clearwater for a sculpture near a fire station.

"How do I feel? Probably like everyone else — the economy's slide is scary," said Fennell, 43, a Largo native living in Birmingham, Ala.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Two Florida lawmakers push to end public funding of art 04/12/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 1:56pm]

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