Bradenton-area arts groups celebrate state funding

mclear@bradenton.comJune 8, 2014 

MANATEE -- It "felt like a holiday," Rick Kerby says. But it doesn't happen every year.

Last week, Florida art groups across the state, including many in the Bradenton area, found out they were getting much more money from the state than they had realistically hoped for.

"I've never known this to happen," said Kerby, the producing director of the Manatee Players. "Last year I think we got a little bit of money, but for several years before that we didn't get anything at all."

Manatee Players received $26,700 last year. In the coming fiscal year, Manatee Players will receive $108,000.

Other arts nonprofits will receive as much as $150,000.

The way the money is allocated is complex and takes months, and local arts officials say they didn't get their hopes up until last week, when they learned for sure how much money they'd be getting after Gov. Rick Scott signed the state budget.

Here's how it works: Each organization develops grants and asks for a certain amount of money from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. The amount they can seek is based on each organization's budget. For Manatee Players, the maximum is $108,000. For the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the Sarasota Opera, the maximum is $150,000.

Panels of arts experts evaluate each grant and recommend whether it should be funded fully, partially or not at all.

Then the state Legislature decides how much money to give the Division of Cultural Affairs. If the Legislature gives the division half of what it has asked for, the amount of each grant is cut

in half.

Finally, the governor has a line-item veto and can eliminate any of the grants for any group.

That's a lot of barriers that have to be cleared before nonprofits can get grant money. Usually they don't clear them all. They've learned to expect, at best, a fraction of what they request.

It's much more common, Kerby said, for groups to get zero-funded than for them to get fully funded.

"It's a difficult process and a lot of groups have completely given up trying," said Kerby, who's also president of the Florida Theatre Conference.

Richard Russell, the executive director of the Sarasota Opera, seemed even more surprised than Kerby that his organization will get the full amount it asked for. During the funding process, he said, lobbyists and arts advocacy groups that were keeping an eye on legislative developments had not been encouraging.

"It would have been just as easy for them to say, 'We're not going to give you anything' as 'We're going to give you everything'," he said.

Last year, Sarasota Opera received less than $35,000. This year, the opera did even better than most area arts groups. Besides the $150,000 in grant money, Russell said, the opera received $240,000 in matching funds through another program. The opera had held money in reserve for eight years until the state had money for the matching funds program.

Mary Bensel, the executive director of Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, said she was similarly surprised that her facility is receiving the $150,000 maximum. Like Russell, she is thrilled that the Legislature recognized that the arts are essential to the economy to the Bradenton-Sarasota area.

But State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said it was just a matter of money. The desire to fund the arts has always been there.

"I've always recognized that the arts were an important economic driver, as important as anything else," he said. "We finally have a strong enough economy that we could take care of the essentials of life and keep our reserves and have enough that we could give funding to the arts."

Only one nonprofit group in the Bradenton-Sarasota are didn't get the funding it asked for. Gov. Rick Scott used his line-item veto to take away money that had been budgeted for Circus Sarasota for air-conditioning, climate control and a fire suppression system.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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