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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Florida arts groups got more state money this year. Here are 5 takeaways.

Pritchard Photography Robert Richards, Jr. (Othello) and Tatiana Baccari (Desdemona) in Jobsite Theater’s production of Othello in January 2019.
Published May 13

Florida's arts and cultural organizations can exhale a bit. The state's funding faucet is once again flowing.

The Florida legislature last week approved a $91.1-billion state budget for 2019-20 that includes $21.25 million in arts grants through the Division of Cultural Affairs. That's well below the $62 million requested by arts groups statewide, and still less than half of what they got in 2014.

But if signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the budget would sharply reverse last year's steep slashes, which saw $2.65 million spread across nearly 500 applicants.

It's enough to be "warily optimistic" that "the cuts last year did not become the new normal," said David Jenkins, artistic director of Jobsite Theatre in Tampa.

"For as much to get restored as did in one calendar year, maybe some of us should be counting our blessings, considering the climate we're in," said Jenkins, whose organization received about $11,500, up from $2,448 last year.

RELATED: Florida's budget includes millions for Tampa Bay projects

The legislature's recommended budget includes $8.475 million for facility improvements and expansion, with more than $2.25 million for projects in Tampa Bay. And the state funded nearly $3 million in grants for specific projects through Culture Builds Florida, a campaign to highlight smaller community arts initiatives. In last year's budget, both of those grant categories were omitted outright.

Arts organizations generally don't rely wholly on state funding to stay afloat. But without it, they are forced to lean harder on donors and patrons, sometimes in the form of higher ticket prices. They might schedule fewer performances or nix certain philanthropic or educational efforts, like after-school programs. And they might hire fewer performers or cut staff.

Here are five takeaways on arts funding from the state's 2019-20 budget.

1. 'A step in the right direction.'

In the competitive cultural and museum funding grant category, organizations not only got more funding than last year, they received, on average, a greater percentage of their requests — approximately 29 percent, according to a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's office. That might not sound like a lot, but it's much higher than what many got in 2018.

"We are extremely pleased," said Donna McBride, director of grants and corporate relations at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, which received a $500,000 infrastructure grant in addition to about $46,000 in general funding — all up from less than $10,000 last year. "Overall, statewide, we made some headway in getting the grant programs restored."

Still, arts leaders aren't ready to call it a definitive victory.

"We have to make sure that our arts advocates don't get complacent," said Martine Meredith Collier, head of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County. "We have to keep fired up. We have to keep the message coming. The message needs to come 12 months out of the year, not just at the legislative session."

At Jobsite, last year's slashes meant, among other cuts, shrinking the cast of Othello and canceling several matinee performances for local high schoolers. The restored funding won't cover everything Jobsite hopes to do this year. But with continued arts advocacy and more dialogue with new legislators, Jenkins sees potential for an even greater comeback.

"It's not what we were hoping for, but it's definitely a step in the right direction," he said.

RELATED: Last year, the arts got little state money. This year, arts groups are watching.

2. Months of advocacy paid off.

Last year's devastating slashes had one positive impact: They unified and rallied arts advocates around the state.

Immediately after last year's elections, arts leaders from around the state convened in St. Petersburg to meet with legislators and other influential parties to try to impress upon them the importance of boosting arts funding. In years prior, those conversations might not have taken place until the legislature was already in session.

"You bake the cake at home and you ice it in Tallahassee," Collier said. "That was always an advocacy goal. But it took the devastation of the funding last year to really get advocates motivated in very new ways."

John Collins, executive director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, took Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, on a tour of local arts attractions, from Florida CraftArt to the Morean Center for Clay to Freefall Theatre.

"We have a mural book out, and Sen. Rouson saw it," Collins said. "He liked it so much he actually purchased 40 more, and took them to Tallahassee and gave one to every other senator. When we went up there with the Chamber to advocate for funding, they were on all their coffee tables."

3. Lobbying also worked — to an extent.

Among the few winners in last year's budgets were individual organizations that lobbied for line-item appropriations outside the grant process, such as the Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts ($750,000), American Craftsman Museum ($500,000) and Great Explorations Children's Museum ($200,000).

This year, such grants were allocated to Ruth Eckerd Hall ($500,000), the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum ($250,000) and the Florida Holocaust Museum, which requested, and received, a one-time allocation of $500,000 for security upgrades at its entrance, to safeguard against an uptick in violent threats.

"We're incredibly grateful to the legislature to understanding and realizing the importance of Holocaust education in our time," said executive director Elizabeth Gelman.

But the key to sustained funding increases like this year's, Collier said, is presenting a "united voice" across the board, from small groups to large performing arts halls.

"I guarantee you, every community has some elected official with a pet arts organization and can certainly get them on board for a line item for funding," she said. "But it dilutes the whole process, the integrity of the process. These are grants adjudicated by panels. Nobody's giving away money. These (funds) have been earned by good, quality applications."

4. Smaller organizations weren't forgotten.

Dozens of groups in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco received at least a portion of their requests. Freefall Theatre's grant of approximately $40,000 would be, by far, the most it's ever gotten from the state, said executive director Cheryl Forchilli.

"That's two-thirds of the budget for a single show," Forchilli said. "It's enough to add a staff position and a half, which is something that we desperately need."

That the state fully funded all 132 recommended Culture Builds Florida grants is a boon to smaller applicants like the Fine Arts of the Suncoast Inc., which runs the Suncoast Arts Fest in Wesley Chapel. A year after getting nothing, it'll receive $25,000, enabling it to restock its coffers and disperse its own grants to Pasco County students.

"They definitely need it," said Jennifer Douglas, who manages the festival's grant applications. "They were not able to give any grants away this past year because they did not have that additional funding. A hundred percent of earned income from the festival and sponsorships had to go toward expenses."

Not every organization got good news. Speak Up Tampa Bay, the nonprofit that operates the Tampa Bay Community Network public access channel, applied for $90,000 and got nothing.

"What do I do, shorten hours? I don't know what's next," said Louise Thompson, the channel's executive director. "We always hold out hope that the state will come through, the city will come through, the community will come through. Something will happen that will be good. I've been playing this for the last 15 years. Somebody usually comes through and helps us out. But as we are now, this is the worst shape we've been in."

RELATED: Can Hillsborough County's public access network, the last in Florida, find a way to survive?

5. We don't yet know the full impact of recent cuts. But we will.

A favorite stat bandied about by arts advocates in the past year: Before last year's cuts, Florida was 10th in the country in state arts appropriations. Afterward, it ranked 48th. (This year's restored funding, Collier said, should bump the state back up to around 20th.)

Every five years, the nonprofit Americans for the Arts conducts a study on the economic impact of the arts. The most recent, conducted during the 2014-15 fiscal year — when the state allocated a record $43 million in culture grants — estimated that the arts generated $4.68 billion in economic activity, and $492.3 million in state and local revenue.

The next study is slated to take place this next fiscal year. Will allocating only $21.25 million impact those broader numbers? We'll find out by 2021 or 2022.

Either way, arts officials hope that by that point, state funding will already be back close to its 2014 levels.

"My hope is that there's a little bit of an upswing, that people have been educated a lot more, that we would have a different outlook on the value of the arts," Collins said.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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