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State Arts Budget Cut Impacts SWFL Centers

Rachel Iacovone
Part of the 32nd All Florida Juried Exhibit at the Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers

The Florida Legislature approved a new budget over the weekend that has disheartened arts advocates across the state, including some at a Southwest Florida arts center, who expressed their disappointment just after the news broke.

Walking into the Alliance for the Arts, you come face to face with two options. There’s the gift shop with local, handmade jewelry and prints – tempting – and there’s the sprawling gallery in front of you. Right now, it says 32nd All Florida Juried Exhibit in big, black, block letters above a large, geometric painting that’s a mix of red outlines and colorful squiggles that all meet in a rainbow crosshatch in the center.

Credit Rachel Iacovone / WGCU
The opening piece of the 32nd All Florida Juried Exhibit at the Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers

The piece shares the exhibit with a hyper realistic painting of water lilies, a surrealist mixed media portrayal of the Florida swamps and a shimmering photograph of the night sky, among many more.

The Fort Myers art center curates the annual exhibit largely through state funding in the form of Culture Builds grants.

Jessica Wisdom is the Alliance’s development director. She said these general grants act as a sort of safety net each year.

“It’s hard to raise just general program support for any organization because it’s not… it’s not… it’s not sexy. It’s not, you know?" Wisdom said. "You don’t get to see the money being spent. You don’t get to see it on stage.”

As of Sunday, the daunting task of raising general funds is the Alliance’s new reality – after the Florida Legislature approved the new $89 billion budget that would almost completely defund the Culture Builds grant program. Instead, Culture Builds itself will receive direct and complete funding for handpicked organizations in the state. Right now, that means nine museums and centers for sure with a recommended 14 altogether. That’s out of the 489 organizations across the state that were once eligible for these grants.

The Alliance for the Arts Executive Director Lydia Black said there are at least a few dozen Southwest Florida centers facing the budget cut.

“This affects wonderful organizations like the Florida Repertory Theatre, like Sidney & Berne Davis Arts Center, Ghostbird Theatre, Bonita Springs Center for the Arts, the United Arts Council of Collier County, so it goes far and wide," Black said. "It is not just here at the Alliance, so we are not advocating just for our own budget.”

The Alliance for the Arts was expecting more than $90,000 from a Culture Builds grant this year. Black said they’ll be lucky to get $2,000.

Credit Rachel Iacovone / WGCU
Part of the 32nd All Florida Juried Exhibit at the Alliance for the Arts in Fort Myers

“It’s sad that I think the arts and cultural community is looked at as an expense line only," Black said, "and it doesn’t realize that here in our community that every one dollar invested in the arts is almost an $11 return on the investment.”

Within the city limits of Fort Myers, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates nearly $50 million in annual economic activity — supporting more than a thousand full-time jobs and generating $6.7 million in local and state government revenue. That’s according to a 2015 Americans for the Arts study.

Expand that out to all of Lee County, and there’s a nearly $140 million impact and employment of some 4,000 people.

But, with the Alliance facing nearly $150,000 in losses between national and state level cuts this year, Black said they’re going to have to begin looking at which programs to cut out of the million-dollar organization. Right now, the Alliance offers programs such as audio descriptions for those who are visually impaired and improv and art classes for young artists and actors on the autism spectrum, which some students have been driving to from as far as Moore Haven – a more than two-hour trip in one direction.

Desiree DeMolina is the communications manager at the Alliance, which she said she never would have become had she not been enrolled in a similar acting class as a child.

“Being in front of people knowing that it was okay to play who I was truly impactful and really changed the way I looked at the world to have that opportunity to say, ‘Hey, you know, if a light’s on you, and you are who you are, that’s going to be okay because, you know...” DeMolina said, wiping tears from her eyes. “That’s going to be okay. That’s what makes the world great is different textures and different perspectives.’”

Beside DeMolina, Jessica Wisdom emphatically nodded, reaching over to comfort her coworker and friend. She said, for her, it was middle school band that did it.

“That’s the place I found where I could flourish. I’m not a professional trumpeter. I didn’t go on to play in concerts, you know? Some people do. But, it kept me out of trouble – gave me friends that I still have, that have lasted a lifetime," Wisdom said. "And, that’s the real impact of the arts. That’s what we’re talking about losing.”