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Arts groups take money pleas to Legislature


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2003

If you try to call a local arts organization official today, chances are you'll get a voice mail message.

Arts officials from all over the state are taking buses to Tallahassee this morning in a last-minute effort to stave off budget cuts that they say could eliminate live performances, art shows, children's art classes and more.

"You know, it's devastating," said Art Keeble, executive director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County. "I'm sitting here looking at $6.8-million that has already been approved for Hillsborough County. That would all be gone. The only things that will survive will be the major institutions."

At a time when thousands of Floridians face losing vital medical treatment to budget cuts, arts officials know they face an uphill battle. But a major part of their argument for legislators is that the arts are vital to propping up the state's sagging economy.

"The arts are tourism, the arts are economic development," said Patricia Caswell, executive director of the Sarasota County Arts Council. "Every dollar that the state invests in the arts generates $41. It's an investment, not a handout."

Judith Powers-Jones, executive director of the Pinellas County Arts Council, said that her county could lose more than $2-million in state arts grants. "The point is to explain . . . what last year's budget looked like and why it's important that the state continue to support arts institutions and programs."

Under Gov. Jeb Bush's proposal, the state would spend about $12-million for arts programs in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The Senate proposal calls for no spending at all; the House comes down in the middle with about $6-million. Already gone from all the proposed budgets is money earmarked for bricks-and-mortar projects that had totaled $18-million for the budget year.

Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall was in the running for a $500,000 cultural facilities grant.

"And once we got that funding, it would be matched by 40 percent by a challenge grant that we got, so there's about another $200,000 that is dependent on that half a million dollars," said Robert Freedman, chief executive of the hall.

Also in jeopardy is $200,000 or so in programming dollars.

The cultural facilities grant was to buy new seats for the theater, which closes for renovation in May.

"Do we not do the seats and let the current ones fall apart?" Freedman said. "Do we not put the new sound system in and put the seats in? Those are the things we have to look at if this money goes away."

The long-term fear is that this year's budget cuts will continue to reverberate.

"The worry is that once the cultural trust fund goes away, we're not going to be able to get it back," said Judith Lisi, president of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. "It's going to go back to the old days when people tacked on turkeys by their local legislators. There's going to be no rhyme or reason to it."

Lisi blames some of the problem on term limits, which have diminished the Legislature's institutional memory. "This is what happens when you have new legislators," she said.

Already, organizations are planning to make do with less. At TBPAC, Lisi has cut back the number of productions by Opera Tampa, from two this season to one in 2003-04, and she eliminated a play series for next season.

At the Florida Orchestra, executive director Leonard Stone is bracing for the best-case scenario: losing half the orchestra's expected $115,000 annual grant.

Another hurdle is one of the arts groups' making.

"The art community has become complacent," Keeble said. "We've had crises before, but the money always appeared at the end of the session. It ain't gonna happen this time."

-- Times performing arts critic John Fleming contributed to this report.

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