In this tough economic time, government and private grants for the arts are drying up, and their absence is being felt at the community level by groups that reach out to youngsters in hopes of creating a lifelong interest. Several worthy St. Petersburg organizations are on the precipice, and when government has shrunk to the point that it cannot provide a little help, the community needs to step up.
It is easier to keep valuable arts groups going than it is to try to restart them when times improve. In fact, once they are gone, they might not come back. And these small arts groups in their own way matter to a community's well-being just as much as roads, sewers and parks.
Just this month, hard financial questions have endangered three St. Petersburg mainstays:
• Black Nativity, the Langston Hughes interpretation of the Christmas story, has spent the past five years at St. Petersburg's Palladium Theater, playing to a full house every year. It drew a diverse audience from across the city — rich and poor, young and old — and introduced many youngsters, both in the audience and on stage, to the performing arts. It didn't receive grants this year, and its future hangs in the balance. Because admission was free, many could attend who could not normally afford a night at the theater.
• Soulful Arts Dance Academy, which provided many of the dancers for Black Nativity, has money woes of its own. The nonprofit studio, which served poor and well-off students, is now fighting for its future. In debt, it closed this month but is expected to reopen Monday. Its future is tentative, though there are talks of a partnership with St. Petersburg College.
• St. Petersburg Little Theatre has received grants of only about $11,000 this year from the city of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County; last year the grants totaled more than $50,000. The theater estimates that it needs $15,000 to keep going until January, when business usually improves. SPLT (known as "Split") has many children's programs and an educational mission. But like many other small arts groups, without government and grant help, it is hard to keep going.
Some will argue that letting these groups and others like them fend for themselves, and perhaps die off, is an appropriate response in tight times when government cannot do everything and that essential services must come first. But the recession illustrates that those cuts come at a very human cost on the neighborhood level.
It does not take huge infusions of government money to sustain these small arts groups, and the payoff is worth every penny. The arts should not be the sole province of those wealthy enough to afford it on their own. Community arts play a big role in making St. Petersburg a livable city and, in the most literal sense of the word, enhancing the city's culture. Arts are part of what make a city live and breathe, and they are worthy of taxpayer support. When that support fails to come through, it is up to the community to make the investment directly.