Every time the St. Petersburg City Council met in April, a stream of artists or arts advocates showed up in a well-orchestrated effort to lobby for more city funding for the arts. Their message: If St. Petersburg wants to continue to nurture its growing reputation as an arts destination, it should be investing more in its arts community. With the economy beginning to rebound and city budget discussions under way, city officials should examine how they can find more resources to nurture a sector that has played such a key role in reviving downtown and beyond.
St. Petersburg used to budget hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for support of the arts. But as the recession deepened, the line item in the budget shrank to its current $175,000 a year. The city has an arts manager, but she has no staff. At the same time St. Petersburg was making cuts, Pinellas County eliminated most of its grants for the arts.
Speakers at the April meetings said that although St. Petersburg's art scene appears to be thriving, private galleries are struggling or closing and even larger arts groups are finding it difficult to remain solvent as the low levels of government grant funding continue year after year. They reported that arts groups have made sacrifices to survive, including cutting salaries, canceling large exhibitions and exhausting their donors. Whether motivated by those struggles, by knowledge that the economy is improving or by the presence of a new mayor, arts groups are ramping up the pressure on City Hall to do its part.
There should be a way to find more funds. Council member Charlie Gerdes suggested the city dedicate a portion of its eastern Weeki Wachee reserve fund for support of the arts, and that idea was referred to a Council committee. The fund was created by the sale of hundreds of acres of city-owned land in Hernando County more than 20 years ago, but there are some restrictions on how the funds may be spent.
Gerdes isn't the first to seek a dedicated funding stream. In 2007, then-Council member Jeff Danner suggested the city seek private funding to create a $5 million arts reserve fund, the interest from which could be used for support of the arts. The idea died with the recession, but it is worth exploring again.
Council members Karl Nurse and Wengay Newton and Council chairman Bill Dudley have offered some other ideas for arts support, from using the city's website to promote activities to encouraging the city's largest museums and arts organizations to partner with smaller venues to market to visitors. Those are viable ideas, but they shouldn't be a substitute for a serious discussion about fiscal investment as well.
The fact is that the arts are growing here, from international tourists flocking to the Dalí Museum to locals showing up by the hundreds every month for ArtWalk's showcasing of small and mid-size galleries. That makes St. Petersburg a far nicer place to live and visit. Just as the city invests staff and dollars to recruit businesses, it should also invest in the growing economic engine that is the arts in St. Petersburg.