As Florida dramatically slashes arts funding, theaters and museums scramble

American Stage actors Dequan Mitchell and Matthew McGee rehearse for upcoming American Stage in the Park performances of The Producers. Director Rye Mullis, right, watches. The State of Florida's new budget contains drastic cuts in funding to the arts nonprofits, including American Stage. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
American Stage actors Dequan Mitchell and Matthew McGee rehearse for upcoming American Stage in the Park performances of The Producers. Director Rye Mullis, right, watches. The State of Florida's new budget contains drastic cuts in funding to the arts nonprofits, including American Stage. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published April 9
Updated April 9

ST. PETERSBURG — The state of Florida and its arts programs have a complicated relationship.

They fight and get back together. They correspond only by email and then only about money. They depend on each other. That, at least, was a plausible description for this oddly suited couple — until March. That’s when Gov. Rick Scott unrolled his $88.7 billion budget for 2018-2019.

Those in the arts expected things to be bad, but not this breathtakingly bad. In 2017, the state allowed $25 million for arts projects. This year, it dropped to $2.6 million — nearly 90 percent less. Those funds will be split among 489 organizations approved through the state’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

It’s a blow to already struggling arts organizations. While some blame the state, or point to larger issues eating away at dollars, some artists blame themselves and each other, for not organizing better.

Arts funding has grown smaller by the year, from $43 million in 2014 to $35 million in 2015. Two years later, the contribution slid by an additional 30 percent. This year’s budget cuts drop Florida’s ranking in per capita appropriations from 10th in the country to 48th, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

Zev Buffman, Ruth Eckerd Hall’s CEO, called the cuts "a kick to the groin."

"It’s utterly decimating," said Michael Pastreich, the president and CEO of the Florida Orchestra, which was eligible for $150,000 and will receive about $10,000. The cuts threaten the orchestra’s mini-concerts in schools and airports and hospitals.

"It’s not like we’re telling kids, ‘Pay $50 in order to come to a youth concert,’" Pastreich said. "That is us providing it to the schools because the schools need it. And that costs money."

Among those getting zero money are the Tampa Bay History Center, the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg and ZooTampa at Lowry Park.

Scott’s office portrays him as a strong arts supporter.

"Preserving the arts in Florida is critical," McKinley Lewis, a spokesman for the governor, told the Times in an email. "Since taking office, Governor Scott has signed into law more than $200 million for Florida’s cultural, museum and art grants."

A letter accompanying the budget cites unanticipated expenses in addressing damage from Hurricane Irma ($1.7 billion), opioid abuse ($65 million) and the Parkland school shootings ($375 million).

"It was a perfect storm this year," said Sherron Long, a former Hillsborough County drama teacher who heads the Florida Cultural Alliance. "The tragedy in Parkland took resources to make schools safer, and it all kind of happened at one time."

Those calamities, laden with death, contrast with the tugs arts venues experience year round. But survival depends on how they handle challenges.

"In the nonprofit business, raising money is like breathing," said Buffman. "If you stop breathing, you die. If you stop raising money, you are dead."

Nonprofits bear some responsibility, Long told Pinellas and Hillsborough arts leaders in a recent email.

"With only 35- to 40 percent of all DCA grant applicants paying attention and following through on advocacy alerts and engaging with their local legislators, it hurts our chances," Long wrote.

When Scott released the drastically reduced budget, shock gave way to uncertainty.

"I think people were a little stunned and it took a while for it to sink in," said John Collins, who heads up the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, which received no money from the state this year.

The state awarded $92,000 to St. Petersburg’s American Stage in 2016, and $48,000 in 2017. This year the theater will have to make do with less than $10,000.

"It directly affects what I do," Gularte said. "The question I have right now in this season is, can I do it all now?"

At Jobsite Theater, producing artistic director David Jenkins has already trimmed a special matinee performance for students of George Orwell’s 1984. The nearly $7,000 the theater got from the state last year is now $2,000.

"I cannot afford to run at a deficit to Hillsborough County Public Schools," Jenkins said. "My board is not going to let me. And I can’t ask the actors to work for free."

The Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts, on the other hand, comes away with a cool $750,000. Based at the Mahaffey, the foundation offers arts education, entertainment and cultural experiences for school-aged children. That foundation made a direct appeal the to legislature, as opposed to going through the grants process, something critics cite as a disparity in power that leads to an imbalance of funding.

The David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts stuck to general programs grant system. One of Florida’s largest performing arts venues, the Straz Center has seen its grant amount plummet, from $200,000 in 2007 to nearly $48,000 in 2017. This year, the Straz will receive less than $4,000, said president and chief executive officer Judith Lisi.

"I’m flummoxed," Lisi said. Outreach programs the venue now sponsors through its Patel Conservatory, offering master classes, workshops or free show tickets will likely be hit the hardest, Lisi said.

She does not believe Irma, opioids or Parkland forced the cuts.

"They just use that as an excuse," she said.

Across Tampa Bay, Buffman, 87, said he won’t rely on a single funding source.

"We march on because we just keep finding things."

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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