Floral arrangement 

Veteran arts administrator Flora Maria Garcia prepares to take the helm at United Arts of Central Florida in the middle of an economic crisis. Can she make a difference?

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It may seem like only yesterday, but former president and CEO of United Arts of Central Florida Margot Knight has been gone for nearly seven months, leaving the region's largest arts-supporting organization without a leader (two leading board members stepped in during the absence of leadership). Even before Knight's departure, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners began questioning its own contributions to the agency, while the local television media – always hot for some slack-jawed outrage – wondered whether United Arts should be handling the $3.2 million the county receives from the tourist tax or the $668,000 it gets in county funding. Arts funding has always been low-hanging fruit for politicians, and that's especially the case here in Orange County.

For Flora Maria Garcia – who spent the last five years as CEO of the Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition (that organization was abruptly dissolved on May 24; Garcia was one of its only two employees), following gigs in similar posts in Fort Worth and Missouri – it's a familiar challenge. She's been facing it for nearly 30 years.

“With such a large creative sector and so many incredible cultural offerings, the region is well underway in leveraging the arts as economic drivers,” she said in an April 23 press release announcing her new leadership role with United Arts.

Garcia joins the agency this week with a lot on her plate: The ever-shifting divisions within the arts community loom large beneath the shadow of an expensive – and culturally incomplete – performing arts center in progress. She also arrives just as United Arts is launching its grass-roots fundraising campaign, the Art of Giving, via QR codes and social media (June 1–17; theartsmatter.com). The times are clearly changing, so we reached Garcia by phone to ask her what she's going to bring to the table.

“Cultural communities are pretty much the same everywhere,” she says. “Everybody needs more money. Everybody's in desperate straits. The artists feel they're not getting paid enough attention. I want to learn all about the artist community.” That she will.

OW: Your history seems to be one of working with government agencies, both in Atlanta and Fort Worth, to increase public-sector funding. From what I understand about United Arts here, a lot of the concern is with private-sector funding.

Garcia: It's a mixed bag, because they get money from the city and the county. A portfolio of funding is more diversified and I think it's smarter. In Fort Worth, the portfolio was diversified just like United Arts: private sector, city and county – so it's very similar. The agencies that are most comparable are the Fort Worth county arts council – that was a United Arts fund, and the goal there was to increase public-sector funding because a majority there was private-sector funding, and the public sector wasn't doing its fair share. The goal there was to inform and to educate so that the public sector would be equal to the private sector. That's what happened.

You can make the argument that arts attract new businesses, but to a lot of lazier public officials, as you likely know, the arts are the first thing they go after. Are you the type of advocate that is going to be able to come in here and speak truth to power like that?

Absolutely! That's what I've been doing for the last 30 years, and the reason the arguments have been successful is that they're based on good data, good research, and they speak to things that are important to elected officials: the economic impact of the arts. Here, the film industry has been huge. Just seeing what that return on investment is, it gets them to pay attention. You have to really be savvy with your facts. People don't go to great cities because they don't have good roads and they have potholes. They go to great cities because they have great art.

What was the interview process like for this position?

There were two times that I came down. The first was quick; it was about an hour-long interview at a hotel at the airport. Then they brought me back for about four days, and I suggested that they schedule me like crazy, because I was really interested in getting a flavor.

I met the chairmen of the symphony and the art museum. They were trying to keep my candidacy quiet because I was still employed, and so I didn't get to meet arts leaders; I met their board members. Because, you know, the world is small and everyone knows everybody. I met with the mayor and his chief of staff and some other staff and that was really interesting. What I was impressed with at City Hall, there's really good art in it. And the mayor is really big into the arts. And then I met with the folks that are developing the performing arts center. I met with a number of the board members for United Arts, some of the staff. It was intense! But it gave me a really good sense of the community.

There are a lot of people who say the arts community is somewhat fractious right now.

It's not as fractured as Atlanta is! Are you kidding? This place is very fractionalized in the sense that you have 10 different governments that are counties and you have city and everybody has a different point of view. I didn't get so much of that sense in Orlando. In fact, one of the questions that I asked was, “How do you all work together and collaborate and cooperate with each other?” The takeaway for me was that the leadership that I met was really excited about being there. They felt that it was a community that works well together, that diversity is important, and really that people just work together for the greater good. That reminded me a lot of Fort Worth.

Your predecessor, Margot Knight, was somewhat demonized by the leadership, at least behind the scenes. The advent of the performing arts center was part of that. Did you get a sense in meeting with DPAC leadership that there's a way for United Arts and the center to collaborate?

I definitely think so. I never think of situations as an either-or situation. I think of situations as “in addition to.” I think having a major hall downtown is really important for the community. It's going to be really important for the cultural organizations. It's going to bring a ton more people downtown. There's a huge revitalizing factor, if revitalization is needed downtown – I don't think it is. But it's going to bring a lot of people to the downtown area. It's going to bring new art forms to the community. I think it's going to be good for everybody.

Well, that depends on whether DPAC actually moves forward with phase two, which would include the local arts groups in the equation, right?

My sense from talking to the leadership involved in that project is that they want the same thing that the cultural community wants. Everybody wants the same thing; it's just a matter of how you get the funds. … But I do believe that the venue, first of all, is important to have because the current venue [the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre] really is not a suitable place for the cultural groups. I actually went to see the symphony there, and I thought it was pretty decent. It worked. From what I had heard, I had expectations of it being horrible. It was fine. I do believe having a major new hall downtown is important, and I believe it's all going to work out. There's always a dynamic tension about scheduling and who gets the best dates, but that is the devil you have to deal with.

Without a figurehead leading United Arts for so long, there has been some question as to whether the organization is necessary. Why not just donate directly to the individual arts groups?

I think it's super important and I think for a lot of businesses, a lot of individuals, having United Arts is like having one-stop shopping that also does a thorough review process of cultural organizations and it holds the groups accountable and it makes sure that the contributed dollars are spent wisely and distributed appropriately among the broadest range of cultural organizations. I think it's really important to give to a broad range of organizations, because that's sort of how you feed your infrastructure. The whole cultural fiber of a community is lots of organizations and individual artists doing lots of interesting things.

What's your fundraising pitch?

I think you have to make a compelling argument as to why it's important to give through United Arts, and it's really important to make it easy for corporations to give – it's one-stop shopping.

The education program that they support about getting the arts into the schools, especially now, in the last 20 years, where there have been significant cutbacks to education, and the arts are the first to go. This is one way to make sure that children get access and exposure to live arts events. I do believe that a community has a responsibility to support these kinds of initiatives. And it also provides access to people who normally would not have access. So it really democratizes the arts as opposed to keeping the arts only for the people who can afford to pay the ticket prices.

Are you prepared to be completely transparent on the financial side?

Yeah! Why not? To me the more transparent you are – you have to be ethical, you have to be transparent, you have to be above-board – to me, that just creates the credibility that you need for people to believe in the work you're doing.

Last question. Are you excited?

I'm excited! I love coming into a new community and learning about it and seeing what the opportunities are and identifying the true challenges. I like challenges. That's what gets me excited about going to a place: trying to solve the puzzle, figure out where the issues are, and what are the paths to find answers.

Some things are going to be really quick and clear, and other things are going to take longer. But I'm big on consensus-building. I'm big on making no assumptions about a place that I move to. I'm going to take a few months to learn as much as I can. You know, I've done this before.

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