TALLAHASSEE -- Javien Lawson doesn’t understand why dollars are diminishing for the state’s museums. He just wants to see the alligators.
Javien and his kindergarten classmates recently visited the Tallahassee Museum, which includes an animal habitat, a restored 1800s-era farm and a playground.
The 6-year-old said he likes coming to see the wild animals: “And I would be sad if I couldn’t come back.”
Museums and other cultural institutions face a historic cut in funding as Florida lawmakers struggle to agree on a budget of between $66.5 billion and $70 billion.
Faced with competing needs, the Legislature steadily has been taking away money for the arts and culture. State funding for museums has dropped from $13.2 million five years ago to as low as $1 million in this upcoming year’s House proposed version of the budget.
The state once awarded extra “bricks and mortar” money for building new museum wings and other construction, but that’s no longer provided. About 30 million people visited Florida’s museums last year, records show.
Katherine Betta, spokeswoman for Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon, said the speaker has a “deep appreciation” for the arts, but also has to prioritize the state’s needs.
His “approach is consistent with his commitment to utilizing limited taxpayer dollars to fund people over things, and essentials over non-essentials during these difficult budget times,” she said.
But Russell Daws, director of the Tallahassee Museum for two decades, says lawmakers and others need to rethink their ideas of what museums are and why they need support.
“The old notion of a ‘museum’ being a stuffy, marbled preserve is really outdated,” Daws said. “Museums are not just paintings; we’re also science centers, zoos, botanical gardens.
“We get seniors out and provide them with mental and physical stimulation,” he added. “We give troubled teens something to do. We’re helping with social problems.”
While museum directors don’t expect wholesale closing of facilities, some have shut down. Facing declining support, the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo and the Gulf Breeze Zoo both shuttered in 2009. The zoo, though, has since reopened.
There is talk in museum circles of reduced hours, exhibits and programs. The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, which also offers classes for adults and children, reduced the number of its “Family Days” -- when families can come in for free -- from seven a year to one.
To be sure, museums get much of their income from an array of other sources, such as admissions fees, private donations, and corporate and foundation contributions.
And some museums have gotten craftier in raising revenue. The Orlando Science Center started its own preschool program.
In the end, museum heads say, every little bit helps -- including from the state.
“We would use state money as leverage,” said Melissa Kendrick, executive director of the Mel Fisher museum. “You go to a funder and say, ‘This is what we got from the state, can you match it?’”
Gwen Margolis, a Democratic state senator from Miami, sits on the Senate’s budget committee. She argued this session for funding; the Senate version of next year’s budget allots $2 million for museums and cultural institutions.
“People come to Florida not only for the sun and fun but also for the cultural treasures in our communities,” she said. “You can’t just rely on government handouts, but when we go into conference committee, I hope that people understand it’s important to fund them.”
What about museums in Manatee?
Although the South Florida Museum is a privately-funded nonprofit organization -- meaning it doesn’t receive direct funding from government agencies -- it does benefit from the ability to apply for grants, said Brynne Anne Besio, executive director of the South Florida Museum.
“With less and less funds available from the state, now more than ever, we continue to need the community’s support,” she said.
“Over the past few years, we have worked hard to diversify our revenue streams as we developed programming and exhibits to engage more visitors and supporters. However, we hope an ongoing investment in arts and culture remains a focus for the state,“ Besio added.
Officials at Sarasota’s Ringling Museum of Art could not be reached for comment.
There are 49 museums in Florida accredited by the American Association of Museums, and accreditation is required to get state money, according to Malinda Horton, director of the Florida Association of Museums.
Years ago, museums could count on money from corporate registration fees that was set aside in a trust fund, but lawmakers took that away in 2003, she said.
Now, museums and the arts have to fight for a piece of the general revenue pie. A museum that got $150,000 in state funding a few years ago now might get only $7,000 today, Horton said.
“You’re asked why you’re more essential than education, health care, everything in the budget,” she said. “And you just can’t compete.”
Some museum directors say that is why they have recast their institutions as active learning places, rather than as staid repositories of artifacts.
The Orlando Science Center’s preschool, for example, starts with the fundamentals. One project involves preschoolers planting seeds and watching them grow.
“What we do is excite and engage kids,” said JoAnn Newman, the center’s president. “We make them use critical thinking skills at the same time that they’re having fun.”
With more state money, “we could be reaching more kids with math and science,” she said.
Her center also has reduced the time it’s open, including evening hours. That means fewer visitors can enjoy the center’s refractor telescope, Newman said.
Moreover, state money assists with the more mundane necessities of upkeep. “It’s hard to get a (funding) partner excited about helping to pay the light bill,” Newman said.
Horton said that if state funding patterns continue, “I think you’re going to see some institutions not make it.”
Now, the mission for museums is to show not just how they’re relevant, but necessary.
“You don’t want to have to close a prison, or not be able to hire teachers,” Kendrick said. “But we have to make the case that we’re also important. We help build community.”
-- Herald staff writer Wade Tatangelo contributed to this report.