October 19, 2018; St. Pete Catalyst and the Tampa Bay Times

Funding for the arts in this country has been a strange game for a very long time. These days, with President Trump continuing to call for the end of federal funding through the National Endowment for the Arts, the game remains as ridiculous as ever, if not more so. Of course, this call to end NEA funding has been a clarion call for conservatives for a long time and we are used to it. The good news recently, as reported by NPQ’s Eileen Cunniffe, is that despite this call, NEA’s allocation has gone up! On the other hand, Cunniffe also recently summarized a report that has mixed news about arts funding in the past 40 years.

In the past week, three separate reports have given us a snapshot of just how weird the arts funding game remains. One report is about support for the arts in Florida, another is specifically about the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, and the third explores impact investment in the arts.

In last week’s Tampa Bay Times, Andrew Meecham covers the fallout from a massive cut in state funding for the arts. In 2014, an election year, the arts received $43 million in support from the state. By 2017, that had been reduced to $25 million after a series of cuts every year. But this year, funding was cut by about 90 percent to $2.6 million. Governor Rick Scott has said that costs incurred from recent disasters like Hurricane Irma and the Parkland shootings are the reason for the cuts, but cuts made like this are seldom simply a temporary measure.

There have been some positive responses to this crisis, with a limited number of philanthropists and foundations increasing their support for the arts. But, as Meecham says, this is a stopgap and is likely unsustainable.

So, we turn to the fact that this is another election year and the race for governor of the state appears to be wide open. Scott is not running again, so there is no incumbent. Andrew Gillum is running against Ron DeSantis. DeSantis, a congressman, has received the endorsement of President Trump and is calling for increased cuts in taxes, which would not bode well for arts funding. Gillum is the mayor of Tallahassee, where the Community Redevelopment Agency, headed by Gillum, offered $3 million to arts and humanities organizations in a program called Call2 Arts.

On the local level, St. Petersburg saw the reverse situation. A report by Bill DeYoung at the St. Pete Catalyst shares the good news that the City Council voted last Thursday to increase funding to the arts. The amount is relatively small, with a $50,000 increase to a total of $355,000, but following the massive cut in the state allocation, this offers a ray of sunshine. The venerable American Stage Company and the Salvador Dali Museum each received slightly more than $15,000, so the grants are indeed small, but as Wayne Atherholt, director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs is quoted as saying, “It’s a good, happy thing that we’re doing.”

But calculations like these are frightening and probably leave many arts administrators unhappy as they do the very real math in their heads again and again. It’s just another argument for nonprofits to understand how critical it is to get out the vote. Without being at all partisan, choices must be made in terms of tax expenditures— among many other things—and those choices have great consequences for all kinds of fields, including the arts in Florida.—Rob Meiksins