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  1. Pinellas

Legislature leaves Florida Humanities Council facing a 'funding crisis'

ST. PETERSBURG — Not a lot of people have heard of the Florida Humanities Council, says Frank Biafora, but many have benefited from it.

The most important thing the council does is "tell the stories of Florida," said Biafora, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor who sits on the organization's board.

Not every Floridian has access to cultural institutions and resources the way they do in cities like Miami, Orlando and St. Petersburg. So the council sends the culture to rural parts of the state, sponsoring lectures and cultural and historic exhibits.

"When you live in the center of the state or the Panhandle," Biafora said, "you don't have those urban resources where people coalesce in great levels of diversity."

Now the council faces what he calls a "funding crisis."

For the first time since at least 2004, the Florida Legislature decided not to fund the council, cutting the council's request for $500,000 from the state budget.

Most of the organization's funding comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, but the state has traditionally contributed about a quarter of its funding.

Now the nonprofit must let go of one of its 11 staffers and halt several cultural programs, said council spokesman Keith Simmons. Its magazine on Florida history and culture, Forum, reached 40,000 readers last year. But it will go from three issues a year down to two.

"This is all happening at a time when the humanities seem to be of less value," said the council's executive director Steve Seibert, a former Pinellas County commissioner. "That's crazy and that's nonsense. This is a time when it's pretty clear the humanities are indispensable to a free society and free enterprise."

In March, the council hosted the statewide Poetry Out Loud contest for high school students at USF St. Petersburg. Simmons said it is not in danger, but other programming could be.

The council has often partnered with the Smithsonian Institution to send traveling exhibitions to smaller communities, but now must find new funding to continue doing so. More than 160,000 people visited these "Museum on Main Street" exhibits between 2012 and 2018, the council said, with attendance growing every year on average.

Its current exhibit is titled "Hometown Teams" and focuses on the roles sports plays in society. In the past, it had hosted an exhibit on the importance of water "environmentally, culturally, and historically" to the state. That exhibit is scheduled to return to Florida in June 2021, and as of now is not in danger, according to Simmons.

The council's speaker program was also supported by state funding, so Simmons said it too may face "significant" cuts. Past speakers have delivered lectures in venues such as Tampa's Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center, which serves a small African-American community, Seibert said. A lecture was delivered last year at the museum by Gary Monroe, an author of several books on Florida's Highwaymen, black artists who started painting Florida landscapes in the 1950s to make a living and break free of the segregated art world.

The Florida Humanities Council has been a "lifeline" for "tiny, volunteer-driven entities" like the Sulphur Springs museum, said Liz Bird, an anthropology professor at USF's Tampa campus and member of the museum's board. The council's events have also drawn big crowds, especially in areas that need access to cultural and educational events.

"The Legislature's decision is a slap in the face for people who have worked hard to enrich the lives of their neighborhoods," Bird said.

The council will likely ask for state funding to be restored next year, Simmons said. This year's request was supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis' office and the House Transportation and Tourism Appropriations subcommittee, so it surprised the organization when it lost its state funding. In a statement, the governor's office said it supports such programs but did not comment directly on the council's funding.

"After a successful first legislative session, the Governor was able to work closely with the Florida Legislature to fund a number of important initiatives including the protection of our environment and education," spokesman David Vasquez said. "The Governor looks forward to working with the Legislature on even more issues in the years to come."

Biafora believes the state would have funded the council were it not for "enormous buckets of need" to fund other things, like the recovery efforts following Hurricane Michael.

But he also thinks legislators may not "truly have an appreciation for or an understanding of what" the organization does for Florida.

"What is inviting about Florida and why we continue to be a growth state in a nation where there are so many other states suffering population loss is not just the weather, it's the culture," Biafora said.

"The Florida Humanities Council has been at the center of that trying to tell the stories of Florida, helping us understand one another. The vibrancy of the culture. The writers and the art.

"What makes Florida, Florida."

Contact Ben Leonard at (727) 893-8421 or Follow Ben on Twitter @Ben___Leonard.