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CULTURE CRISIS

As public purse strings tighten, purveyors of the arts - music and theater groups, performance halls - ask, "What's essential?"

Mention "government funding for the arts'' in some quarters, and you may get an earful about wasting tax dollars on aesthetic adventures few residents care about.

But in the Tampa Bay area, local government dollars spent on the arts support the kinds of things many consider part of the quality of life here. Programs such as the Florida Orchestra's hugely popular (and free) outdoor concerts on balmy spring evenings. Field trips that give children their first exposure to classical music at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, or to theater in a touring show by American Stage.

Government helps to pay for Ruth Eckerd Hall's classes and scholarships for young performers and even the New Year's Eve fireworks in St. Petersburg.

All these and many more arts-related activities could be trimmed and possibly even eliminated because of budget cuts due to the Legislature's recent property tax rollback. Things will get even tighter if voters approve changes to the state's homestead exemption law in January.

"I've never had this kind of challenge,'' said Leonard Stone, president of the Florida Orchestra, who has been in the business more than 40 years.

Public funding for the arts in the bay area doesn't match more culturally minded communities, but it has been growing and making a difference in the past few years. Downtown St. Petersburg's renaissance has been closely identified with the arts - in many cases government supported - and other cities have followed suit.

Largo, for example, has created an attractive town center with a new library and cultural center set in a park. Now the proposed cuts - estimated to bring the average homeowner an annual savings of $174 - could lead to reduced hours at the library and fewer performances at the center.

"The arts were just beginning to take off here,'' said Joan Byrne, Largo's director of parks, recreation and arts. "This is going to be a big setback. I don't think people will realize what they have given up for just a few dollars until it's gone.''

St. Petersburg last year allocated $2.7-million to nonprofit social service agencies and arts organization. That has been slashed to $500,000.

"We're giving out chump change here,'' councilman Bill Foster lamented during a workshop in which council members struggled to dole out what remained.

Orchestra pulls in its horns

The orchestra, with a budget of $10-million, is the hardest hit of the arts organizations. Because it gets money from so many public sources, all of which are cutting back, it has more to lose.

"The best-case scenario would see us losing 50 percent of our government funding, or about $400,000,'' Stone said. "The worst case would be about $550,000.''

First on the orchestra's chopping block are outreach and educational programs. Already, the yearly "Side by Side'' concerts that it does with the Pinellas and Hillsborough youth orchestras are off the schedule, costing the young musicians the chance to perform with and learn from professionals. The number of free park concerts and concerts for schoolchildren is likely to be reduced.

Last year, the orchestra played nine free concerts in parks, often drawing big, enthusiastic crowds. It was planning to give 24 concerts for schoolchildren next season.

"The biggest impact is going to be on those activities that were presented without charge,'' Stone said. "It might take park concerts to 50 percent of what they were. It might take youth concerts to 75 percent of what they were.''

Cutbacks require soul searching

Of course, people in the arts are also homeowners, so there's some ambivalence. Todd Olson, producing artistic director of American Stage in St. Petersburg, said his personal property taxes and insurance have skyrocketed in the past four years.

But Olson is not glad about the effect of the Legislature's action on the arts. St. Petersburg won't renew a $25,000 grant the director planned to use to pay the salary of a scenic painter. He chafes at the description of the arts as "nonessential.''

"There's something incongruous about being called nonessential,'' Olson said. "We don't have commercials saying 'Move to St. Pete. We have police and garbage pickup.' It's 'Move to St. Pete. We have great quality of life, and the arts are part of it.' ''

David Manson, director of the avant-garde Emit concert series, regards government funding as an insurance policy. "It gives us the ability to be more adventurous in our programming,'' said Manson, whose series was cited for excellence in jazz programming by Chamber Music America.

The Emit shows are always interesting, and often great, but the series, which received $9,000 last year from St. Petersburg and Pinellas County, can't rely on ticket sales. "If we lose money on a concert, the grant gives us a cushion,'' Manson said.

The orchestra has started changing its plans for the 2007-08 season. Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15, which calls for a dozen additional players, has been canceled. That's a bitter pill for music director Stefan Sanderling, who brings uncommon expertise to the Russian composer's symphonies. But the cost of about $12,000 for the extra musicians was too much.

More commercial fare also is being sacrificed: The orchestra has dropped the Gatlin Brothers from its pops series because of their high fee. Large works such as Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben and Bartok's ballet score The Wooden Prince also are in jeopardy. So is contemporary music, which though vital for an orchestra (and its audience) to grow artistically, is not always big at the box office.

In their place could come the warhorses, Stone said. "We did the Beethoven Ninth last year for the third year in a row. Dare we do it again? We did all the Rachmaninoffs (piano concertos) a few years ago. Dare we do them again?''

Those works may sell well now, but they do little to help draw new audiences to the orchestra.

'All in the same boat'

Adding to the arts funding crunch in St. Petersburg is a big commitment made when the city was flush. The city is spending more than $1-million this summer on new lighting, sound equipment and other upgrades to its Mahaffey Theater, mostly to accommodate a Broadway series that debuts in October with The Wedding Singer.

The city also is contractually obliged to subsidize the Broadway promoter, Live Nation, up to $250,000 a year for the series. That's on top of the $1.2-million the city spends annually to help operate Mahaffey under its new private management company.

Here's the irony: If groups such as the orchestra and Master Chorale of Tampa Bay use the Mahaffey less because of budget cuts, then the theater will lose rental income and may need still more city subsidies.

Bob Devin Jones, artistic director of the Studio@620, a gallery and performance space in St. Petersburg, hopes arts organizations can work together to weather the cuts.

"In the 10 years I've been here I've seen the arts explode,'' said Jones, who first arrived to direct Strindberg's Miss Julie at American Stage. "We're all in the same boat. There's strength in numbers.''

Ann Wykell, manager of cultural affairs for the city of St. Petersburg, has a more sobering assessment.

"Next year the landscape won't look very different, because everyone will patch something together to keep going,'' Wykell said. "The next two to four years will be telling. People may look around and see a lot of the events and organizations are gone.''

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com. Times art critic Lennie Bennett contributed to this report.

Fast Facts

Taking a hit

Many arts organizations in the Tampa Bay area are examining how they might fare under property tax reform. Here's a sampling:

- Creative Clay, which provides arts programs to the disabled, won't receive anything close to the $45,000 it got from St. Petersburg last year. "We are going to be seriously impacted and are really hustling to look at different funding sources,'' executive director Grace-Anne Alfiero said.

- Ruth Eckerd Hall president Robert Freedman is bracing for a $100,000 cut in education funding from the city of Clearwater. Programs such as the hall's arts partnerships with several elementary schools, scholarships for promising performing arts students, classes at the Hoffman Performing Arts Institute and weekend family theater productions all could be affected.

- First Night St. Petersburg, the New Year's Eve arts festival, can no longer count on a $35,000 grant and in-kind services of $8,000 from the city. "The board suggested we not do fireworks, but you just need fireworks for First Night," executive director Pat Mason said. "We're considering increasing the button prices, which are now $8 in advance and $10 night-of, but our mission is to make it accessible for families, and that gets expensive.''

- "Government funding is terrific until they all decide to cut their budgets simultaneously,'' said Tate Garrett, a board member with the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, which received $75,000 from Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. "The problem is that we don't know if this is a short-term blip that we can work through or if it's something permanent."

John Fleming, Times performing arts critic, and Lennie Bennett, Times art critic

Up next:DR.REMOTE

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