As the theater of politics unfolded in the state capital, players in Tampa Bay's arts community watched for their own happy ending.
They got it when Gov. Rick Scott approved $53.6 million in grants for Florida arts and culture Monday, part of a budget that endured very few vetoes in an election year. It sent the biggest state infusion of cash into the arts in more than a decade, with more than $5 million spread across Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Last year, the same grants budget from the Florida Department of State's Division of Cultural Affairs totaled $12.7 million. The year before, $9.8 million. The last time it reached anything close to this was in the 2006-07 fiscal year, when the grants budget was $39.5 million.
Florida playhouses, museums and performance groups have spent years grasping for cash, the dry economic climate felt not only at ticket windows but also at the state funding level. Relief came as part of Scott's $77 billion state budget, the largest in Florida history.
"When you're in the arts, you get used to being the stepchild, the also-ran," said Judith Lisi, president of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. "When something like this happens, you go, 'Oh, you do know we exist!' It's just fantastic. We're very happy."
The state's cultural affairs division takes requests from cultural outfits ranging from the Miami City Ballet to the Steinway Society of Central Florida. Before making a larger plea to the state, peer review panels rank grant requests on a scoring system. The grants are competitive, and for categories like renovations, venues need to specify exactly where the money will go.
Windfalls this year ranged from modest to major.
The Straz came away with three times more money than last year. It will get $500,000 for renovations, plus $150,000 for general operations. Along with other organizations that had been on a waiting list for years, including the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, the Straz will also get a $240,000 state matching share as a part of the division's Cultural Endowment Program.
The renovation funds will upgrade the Straz's sound and projection systems.
"Everything is digital now, so we have to change our systems out," said Lisi. "They were just getting pretty archaic. These might not be things that people actually see, but we need to have these to stay in business. What they will see here are our speaker systems, which we rely on a lot in all five of our theaters, will all have new technology. So the quality of the sound will be much better."
American Stage Theatre Company in St. Petersburg will get $150,000 for general operations. Last year, the theater got about $35,000, said board of trustees chair Matthew Conigliaro. The money helps with anything from producing plays to furthering educational programs.
"Until it happened, we didn't want to count on that money being there," said Conigliaro. "It gives us a great opportunity to look back at the areas where the economic challenges of the past few years have caused us to tighten things and allow us to correct that and focus on bringing top quality theater to St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay area."
Some impacts to the arts happened outside the umbrella of the Division of Cultural Affairs, including $500,000 for upgrades to St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater, run by Scott supporter and philanthropist Bill Edwards. And Scott vetoed $500,000 for the Largo Cultural Center to build a new roof, among other things.
Almost every corner of the arts was covered in the cultural affairs grants, from the Florida Orchestra ($150,000) to the Dunedin Fine Arts Center ($132,724) to the St. Petersburg Opera ($58,423) to the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin ($3,178). Even puppetry made the cut. Bits 'N Pieces Puppet Theatre will get $17,000 toward its puppet show programming in elementary schools and theaters.
"I think that we are just like the big groups," said Jerry Bickel, director of the theater in Dover now in its 43rd season. "I think we just happen not to be one of the normal big groups. Puppetry is an international art form. It's in every single country in the world. Every child sees some form of puppets."
For Bickel, who is getting ready to send his 9-foot-tall singing and dancing puppets on tour with Washington Irving's folk tale Rip Van Winkle, $17,000 will go a long way.
"We'll use it every way that we can," he said. "I'm sure it makes much more difference to my company that it does to some of the bigger groups."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.