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Officials: State cuts could hinder Ringling

SARASOTA — As the Florida Legislature hammers out a slimmer budget for next year, it holds in its hands the fate of the Florida State University-run John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and the FSU Center for the Performing Arts.

According to earlier proposals before the House and the Senate, the institution could lose between $33.7 million and $77 million. Such a cut would devastate university operations, campus officials said.

The cuts could result in major faculty, program, salary and student reductions, according to the university’s Budget Crisis Committee. It could also suspend operations at Ringling and the FSU Center for the Performing Arts indefinitely.

But those are only scenarios. The proposals may change as the Legislature continues drafting a final state budget for 2009-10. The session is slated to adjourn May 1.

With major cuts threatening the area’s two major art institutions, concern has spread to Bradenton.

When asked about funding for the Ringling, state Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, noted how desperate the situation is this year, with the recession draining away the normal sources of money for the state’s $65 billion budget.

“Those type of allocations, those type of budget items, are in the greatest peril,” Galvano said.

“We’re focusing on making sure kids have health care, making sure schools don’t shut down,” he said. “Funds for non-critical programs are very difficult to get into this budget.

“Non-critical is not ‘not important,’ but whether you’re deciding whether people stop breathing or an arts program, the former is more important,” he said.

Until the Legislature reaches a decision, Ringling plans for another “magnificent” year, said museum executive director John Wetenhall.

Memberships, visitors and educational programs have been on the rise. Yet the museum budget is gradually shrinking.

Wetenhall said the museum has already cut 10 percent from next year’s budget. Last year, it cut roughly 5 percent. Cuts include the loss of 10 positions through attrition. Other cost-cutting initiatives involved creating art exhibitions in-house instead of using outside touring exhibits.

There are no plans to hike admission prices, which have risen twice in the past three years. Museum membership fees, which many area residents have taken advantage of, have remained steady since 2001, Wetenhall said.

At FSU’s Sarasota campus, staff members are hopeful for a good outcome — one that will let its art programs thrive.

Greg Leaming, director of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory, can’t imagine Sarasota without its two prized jewels — the museum, one of the largest complexes of its kind in the nation, and the performing arts center, which houses the Asolo Repertory Theatre, conservatory and the Sarasota Ballet.

He believes residents will rally for the local arts if they fear they are in danger.

Herald staff writer Sara Kennedy contributed to this report.