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A STIMULUS FOR THE ARTS

Recession-busting money helps keep the area's art scene going.

Stimulus money.

Kind of dry, right? You might think of energy, road improvements, bridge construction, public safety.

You probably don't think of clay studios and performance spaces and happy people painting pictures.

But the Tampa Bay area's art scene just got an infusion of cash courtesy of the government's massive handout designed to juice the economy.

Here's how it breaks down:

Out of billions that went to bolster things you'd expect, almost $50 million was budgeted for the National Endowment for the Arts. From there, $390,000 came to Florida, distributed through the state's Division of Cultural Affairs.

Public or nonprofit organizations applied for the grant money via the Florida Arts Recovery Program, and 273 met eligibility requirements.

In the end, a panel chose 18.

Four were local.

St. Petersburg's Studio@620, a space for performing and visual arts, received $20,000. Creative Clay, an arts education center for the disabled, and Florida Craftsmen, a statewide fine art association based in St. Petersburg, each received $25,000. VSA arts of Florida, based in Hillsborough County, received $23,000.

The money was for salaries. To save jobs.

"We are lucky in that the Obama administration supports the arts, even though there was a lot of discussion that it shouldn't be included," said Marian Winters, executive director of VSA, which fosters art for people with disabilities. The money created a new part-time coordinator position filled by a college student.

Getting the money wasn't easy. Organizations had to prove their artistic excellence and impact to the community. They had to prove they really needed cash to carry out their missions.

Nobody who applied held their breath.

"I was very surprised," said Maria Emilia, the executive director of Florida Craftsmen who announced her resignation Saturday. The money, Emilia said, was for galleries manager Elizabeth Kozlowski. "It was extremely competitive. It was very hard to come by. You apply for these things, you put the best grant application you can together, and you hope that they're going to be able to understand what you're trying to say."

Florida Craftsmen operates with a staff of four, Emilia said. If the stimulus money hadn't come, they would have had to eliminate a position - a significant cut for such a small crew. The $25,000 stimulus money barely covers Kozlowski's salary, she said.

"These salaries are so tiny," she said. "It's critical."

The boost comes at a time when local arts are gasping for air. In St. Petersburg, government budget cuts and the recession have run deep. Positions have evaporated. Programs have diminished.

Creative Clay saw its state funding reduced this year by $50,000, on top of city and county cuts. The organization produces the annual Folkfest St. Pete street fair, which was in danger of operating with no musical acts this year until community donors intervened. Creative Clay also hosts partnership programs with schools and hospitals. And adults with disabilities regularly spend time at the Central Avenue Cultural Arts Center studio spinning pottery, painting and exhibiting their work.

The stimulus money helped save the jobs of Jenny Baxley Lee and Kim Dohrman, arts services directors at Creative Clay who make between $25,000 and $30,000 a year. They were thrilled, but it's still an uphill climb.

"It was a morale boost," said Baxley Lee. "But we continue to very proactively seek funding streams to continue some programs that we feel really dedicated to. ... My feeling is, if the cultural arts went dark for a day in any given community, we would see the rippling effects in all of the economy."

Artists are used to spreading it thin. At Studio@620, artistic director Bob Devin Jones is known for never turning anyone away.

"At the studio, the answer is always yes," he said. "We say yes to things we know we can't possibly make any revenue from. But when we say yes, there's something on the other side, and it's almost always very positive."

The stimulus money contributed to his $22,000 salary. He was scheduled for a $4,000 raise, but there were no funds for that this year.

He's grateful, and would even struggle in his position unpaid, he said. Bringing art, dance, theater and music to the community matters too much, he said.

Especially in hard times.

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

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