It has been five years since Pinellas County allocated general revenue money to support the arts. Now the economic recession has passed, tax revenue is up, and it is time to start investing again in one of the county's best features, a vibrant arts scene that stretches from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs. As county commissioners meet today to listen to budget proposals for 2015-16, they should pay particular attention to a modest proposal to resume investing in the arts.
Creative Pinellas, the nonprofit founded five years ago that is the county's designated local arts agency, will pitch a plan to invest $300,000 a year for the next three years to improve marketing efforts and provide small direct grants to artists and education programs. The organization has just one full-time employee, executive director Mitzi Gordon, and it needs to grow into a more vigorous operation that is comparable to its peers in other metro regions. Half of the money, $150,000, would be used to help pay for such basics as hiring a full-time media manager and improving the organization's website. A marketing package also would be created for artists and organizations to use, and a comprehensive events calendar would be added.
Portions of the other half of the money Creative Pinellas is seeking would go to modest grants of up to $3,500 to individual artists and organizations. There are many worthy efforts to support, but commissioners should demand a thorough grant screening process and appropriate oversight. As in any direct grants of public money, there is the potential for waste and abuse that could tarnish an otherwise laudable effort.
The Pinellas arts community has flourished, particularly as the economy has come back. The offerings and opportunities vary from well-established museums and the Florida Orchestra to popular art walks and theater productions, from the growing Warehouse Arts District in St. Petersburg to individual studios throughout Pinellas. In St. Petersburg alone, a recent study found the city's nonprofit arts and cultural organizations brought a direct and indirect economic impact of $212 million last year and sustained more than 800 jobs.
But like the tourism industry and other segments of the local economy, the arts should be nurtured and promoted. The Creative Pinellas proposal for $300,000 next year from the county is modest compared to the public tax money flowing to local arts agencies in Jacksonville, Miami-Dade County and Hillsborough County. St. Petersburg began restoring arts money in its city budget this year, with $200,000, and Mayor Rick Kriseman hired a veteran arts leader to upgrade the city's cultural affairs office. Pinellas should start reinvesting in the arts as well, and today's County Commission workshop is an excellent opportunity to begin the conversation about how and how much.