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

Actress Vickie Daignault prepares to do her makeup backstage prior to the curtain call of the play, "Between Riverside & Crazy" at American Stage in St. Petersburg, Oct. 10, 2018. MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times
Published Oct. 17, 2018

In March, the state slashed funding for hundreds of Florida's arts and cultural programs by 90 percent. The dropoff came as a blow to the gut, like downsizing from two loaves of bread to one piece.

After three straight years of cuts, arts nonprofit organizations — theaters, museums, zoos, orchestras and more — are still coping with a state budget that divides $2.6 million among 489 groups. That's down from $25 million the year before. Gov. Rick Scott cited Hurricane Irma, the Parkland school shootings and other expenses for the cuts, some of them last-minute.

But the state hasn't fully funded arts grants since 2014, an election year. With another election weeks away, arts advocates are paying more attention and organizing a plan.

A year ago, leaders thought that applying to the state's Department of Cultural Affairs and cooperating with months of vetting would be enough. But even groups that followed all protocols got shortchanged or left out. That meant less money for producing plays, bringing arts programs into schools or reaching young musicians around the state.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: As Florida dramatically slashes arts funding, theaters and museums scramble

"I'm not sure people understand what a cut of this magnitude does to an organization, especially the smaller organizations," said Martine Meredith Collier, who heads the Arts Council of Hillsborough County. "This was devastating."

The one bright spot? The slashing spurred some philanthropists to step up.

The Gobioff Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation started the Tampa Bay Arts Bridge Fund in 2018 with $100,000 each. The fund will match contributions up to its goal of nearly $2.5 million to help 32 organizations in Hillsborough and Pinellas.

But even that has been slow-going. The Bridge Fund, which bills itself as "disaster relief for the arts," recently delayed plans to distribute the funds in this month, after reaching only 8 percent of its goal. The new distribution date is Nov. 27.

Local governments and umbrella foundations continue to chip in, some significantly. It's a stopgap at best. Funded largely by $1 million from the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners, the Arts Council of Hillsborough County runs its own grants. This year, the council gave $300,000 to 17 local groups.

"Thank goodness we have a strong interest from the county, and the county is able to do what the state used to do," said Jerry Bickel of Bits 'n Pieces Puppet Theatre, which received nearly $18,956 from the council and $2,274 from the state. But the 46-year-old company, which puts on shows like Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk at elementary schools, has cut its full-time staff from five to two and cannot afford to produce new work.

Jobsite, Stageworks and Carrollwood theaters also landed Arts Council grants of around $19,000 each, a short-term lifesaver.

Public money does not flow as freely in Pinellas County, which defunded its arts council in 2010 in a round of budget cuts. The count joined forces with Creative Pinellas in 2015, and accounts for much of that nonprofit's budget of around $550,000 a year. Creative Pinellas offers a range of grants to artists, but not enough to keep struggling organizations afloat.

Even in the windfall year 2014, when arts groups reaped more than $43 million from the state, the arts put nearly 10 times that amount into the community via jobs, tourism and tax money.

But numbers can only convey so much.

Without state funds, the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance had to cancel bookings for the National Theatre of the Deaf and a dance troupe from Tennessee.

"When we talk about dollars and impact value, people's eyes tend to glaze over," said John Collins, the alliance's executive director. "The money aside, there's a human cost."

The challenge centers on how to boil a blizzard of statistics down to a few selling points, and getting lawmakers to notice. Creative Pinellas held a forum in August on state funding. The non-profit's goal — to come up with a plan to sell the arts to the legislature. Plans include developing an arts and culture database, a social media campaign, consulting a lobbyist and sending bite-sized summaries to legislators on why grants are important and what organizations do with the money.

For now, arts-related groups are hanging on. Jobsite Theater, the resident company of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, has raised ticket prices, reduced the number of special matinee performances for Hillsborough County school students, and launched a fund-raising campaign. Stageworks Theatre, also in Tampa, is accepting smaller gigs such as private parties.

American Stage in St. Petersburg has avoided cutting staff, as leaders had feared, thanks in part to an uptick in private donations. The St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, which got shut out by the state, secured a $35,000 grant from the city to market the St. Petersburg Festival of the Arts, which runs Friday through Oct. 28.

As arts advocates bring a renewed focus to the next budget, some wonder whether the best news to come out of the last one — public generosity — could somehow backfire. Do these efforts mean the arts can survive without the state, just as the townspeople saved George from Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life?

"That is a challenge," said Meredith Collier, who heads the Arts Council of Hillsborough County. "You have to commend them for trying to assist these organizations in these crisis times. But it's not a fix going forward."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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