click to enlarge cover_horizontal.jpg

With funding from the state dramatically slashed, how will Orlando arts groups keep going? 

Don't stop the music

“Now?” Jim Helsinger asks, leaning forward over his office desk. “When the state of Florida is becoming more and more known for its arts? When Central Florida in particular is becoming more and more known for its arts?”

Helsinger, the artistic director of Orlando Shakespeare Theater, stops himself, as if to articulate his next thought. He leans his chin into the propped-up palm of his hand and fixes his eyes on the cluttered bookshelf perpendicular to the desk. He's quiet now, but visibly frustrated. Like many of us, he's worried about money.

It's not like the rent is overdue or the utilities company is threatening to shut the power off, at least not yet. Nor is it a problem that arose out of the blue. For years, his and other cultural organizations across Florida have watched their funding dry up as the state slashed its arts and culture grants year after year. But this coming fiscal year, which kicks off July 1, will prove to be especially trying: Local arts groups will take their most intense hits in a decade, only this time there's not even a recession to blame.

In March, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed an $88.7 billion budget, the largest in Florida's 173-year history. But only $2.7 million of that was set aside for the arts and cultural grants program in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, a depressingly small sum that then must be split among the 489 organizations approved by the state's Department of Cultural Affairs.

For those of us who can't do the math in our heads, that means that arts and culture grants make up 0.003 percent of the budget – three thousandths of a percent.

It's a far cry from the more than $25 million that was divvied up last year for theaters, museums, science centers and more.

As a result, Orlando Shakes will receive 6 percent of the $150,000 it requested – a meager $9,606. Cuts are sure to come, and whether they'll be deepest to the group's programming or staff remains to be seen, Helsinger says – not just for his group, but for almost every organization that has previously relied on grant funding.

It's a similar story for other local cultural organizations as well: The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center requested $90,000 but will receive $5,892. The Orlando Ballet requested $150,000 but will receive $9,575. The Winter Park Playhouse requested $25,000 but will receive $1,644. The United Arts of Central Florida requested $150,000 but will receive $9,798. The depressing list goes on.

Meanwhile, the budget sets aside $1.7 billion to assess damage caused by Hurricane Irma, $65 million to combat the state's opioid epidemic and $375 million to invest in school security in light of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland earlier this year. There's also $76 million for Florida's tourism industry. But for the arts? They get breadcrumbs – less than $3 million.

So what gives? It's not like the arts are pure spending with no return on investment.

click to enlarge fundingcomparison.jpg

Just last year, the Department of State highlighted their Arts and Economic Prosperity report, which bragged that Florida's creative industry has generated almost $4.7 billion in total economic activity in the state, supported 132,366 full-time jobs, and delivered more than $492 million in local and state revenue – hotel rooms, restaurant meals and other directly related associated profits.

In Central Florida, the report found that the arts and culture sector has generated nearly $400 million of total economic activity, created 13,764 full-time jobs and contributed almost $40 million to state and local government. In Orange County alone, the sector has generated almost $265 million of total economic activity and created 9,630 full-time jobs.

Those numbers would seem like an incentive to keep a good thing going, right?

"The state was funding the arts four years ago," Helsinger says. In 2015, he points out, arts funding stood at $43 million; in 2016, $35 million; in 2017, $33 million; in 2018, $25 million. In July, when the budget takes effect, it falls off a cliff.

"What giant change happened in the state?" he asks. "And you can't say it was Parkland, because it wasn't four years ago. You can't say it was Irma, because it wasn't four years ago. So what is the legitimate reason besides the fact that you think the arts should not be supported in the state of Florida, period?"

Why are these funding cuts a big deal for these groups, some of whom raise almost all of their funds from private donors and ticket sales?

The vast majority of grant-based funding in the nonprofit world is "restricted," meaning project-based. That type of grant will fund a specific program, but it's more difficult to find someone to underwrite an organization's operating or administrative expenses, says Vicki Landon, the development director at the Orlando Repertory Theatre.

"The state of Florida is one of just a handful of funders that actually offers general operating support for unrestricted funding, where these dollars granted can be used on our utility bill, they can be used on staff salaries, computers or administrative work, insurance," Landon says. "There's a lot of funders out there who like to fund our programs, but we need to have that base-level administrative operational person in place or else those programs don't exist."

And these cuts could erode Central Florida's rise as a cultural crossroads in the long-term. This region sees roughly 72 million individuals pass through annually, according to Visit Orlando, and not just for the theme parks, says Terry Olson, who heads Orange County's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. It's for cultural tourism, too.

"We're in a place to be a world cultural capital, to have things that people from all over the world will want to come see," Olson says. "[Funding cuts] make it harder to do that. If we want to keep up with the status of, you know, a world cultural capital, we can't put on little ditties. We have to be excellent in what we do."

Olson adds: "I mean $2 million – it's 13 cents per citizen, I think, for the state of Florida."

Olson points out that the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra booked Yo-Yo Ma – arguably the greatest living classical musician – for its 25th anniversary concert in early May, and says a city like Orlando needs such culturally significant performances to bolster its reputation within the creative world.

For the most part, it'll be the larger groups within the local arts and culture sector that take the hardest hit. The Orlando Museum of Art, for example, requested $150,000, but will only receive $9,582; last year, OMA received $48,692. That's a big gap to fill with donor contributions.

For smaller groups, that gulf in funding might be a bit easier to handle, especially for those that concentrate on grass-roots funding in the first place.

The Winter Park Playhouse is a good example: It will receive $6,483 less in 2018-2019 than it did this year. But as Playhouse co-founder and executive director Heather Alexander explains, that's manageable.

"The Playhouse was not reliant on that," she says. "We're not going to fire anyone or cut our programming. Everything's going to continue as planned."

Alexander says that if anything must go, it'll be some of Playhouse's outreach programming for senior citizens and children.

"And that's not something we're selling tickets to, right? Unfortunately, if I can't find any extra money to make up for the cuts, we would just have to take some of those performances away," Alexander says. "Which is sad."

As of July 1, when this year's budget kicks in, the Sunshine State is set to drop from 10th to 48th in the nation in arts funding.

That worries Shannon Fitzgerald, director of the Mennello Museum of American Art. Cuts of this nature, she says, make it more difficult to get arts and culture in front of youth.

"What is being cut is producing new knowledge and the value of new knowledge," Fitzgerald says. "We're producing culture for our culture. So if you take that away, I think we're just less evolved. And then it trickles down, and then you don't know what you're missing. Losing something and getting it back is harder than maintaining."

The same could be said for the economic enticement of the arts: According to the state's Division of Cultural Affairs and regional arts organizations, for every $1 invested, the arts return between $5 to $11 to communities.

click to enlarge fundinggraph.jpg

Despite those numbers, 95 members of the state House and 31 members of the state Senate voted in favor of the 2018-2019 budget on a bipartisan line.

"When you look at the budget, it's an up or down vote. It's not any gray area; you don't get to vote on these issues separately," says Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, who voted no on the budget. He cites the cuts to the arts and culture sector as one of his driving reasons for doing so. "And from my point of view, the budget is a values document. If you want to see the values of your politicians and their priorities, just look at their budget."

Smith points out that the Scott administration bragged about the economic impact the creative industry has on Florida, and then adds: "I mean, that's the perfect example of talking the talk but not walking the walk. Words are meaningless when your actions suggest otherwise."

Orlando Weekly also reached out repeatedly to Rep. Mike Miller, R-Winter Park, and Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, two of Florida's elected leaders who voted yes for the budget, but did not receive comment by press time.

For the arts community, there is a silver lining. Although the state has given the arts and culture sector the cold shoulder, Orange County is providing nearly twice what the state is in grant-based funding for the coming fiscal year – just over $6 million, Olson, of Orange County's Office of Art and Cultural Affairs, says. He adds that that number has been steadily growing over the last five years because the Tourist Development Tax has grown, as have the number of citizens and visitors the arts organizations are serving.

The advocacy on the part of both the community and cultural leaders can't stop there, says Flora Maria Garcia, president and CEO of United Arts of Central Florida, which raises funds for and awards grants to regional arts groups.

According to Garcia, the local arts community has to do a better job of connecting the dots for politicians and business leaders if there's to be a bright future for arts funding in Florida.

"[Legislators] see other issues as a higher priority," Garcia says. "But if you make the connection about how the arts touch every part of our lives and what a great effect it has on our children if you just look at the statistics, then you can make those connections."

The social impacts are evident. A study by the Center for Fine Arts Education, which used data from the Florida Department of Education, notes that students who have four years of art education score an average of 60 points better on the English sections of SAT tests and 40 points better on math. The study also found that theater students are 40 percent less likely to employ racial or bigoted language or behavior and are 40 percent more likely to have friends of a different social class.

Simply put, the arts act as a form of social cohesion.

"I think if you want to create less violence in society, as in [the] Parkland [shooting], investing in culture is a good way to do that," Helsinger says. "Culture is how people come together. When people come together, we learn our differences. When we become isolated and we treat people as the other, that's how things like Parkland take place."

Sitting behind his computer, Helsinger runs down a list of what the cuts could mean for Orlando Shakes: He says $140,000 – close to the amount his group requested from the state – is the cost of the group's Christmas show. That's also the cost of half of the Shakes' repertoire of two Shakespeare shows in the spring, so the ax could come down on those. That same amount is also almost the cost of what it takes to run the building for a year, so, he says, they could always run the building with the lights off. (As Helsinger says the latter, he raises an eyebrow sarcastically.)

"I'm super thankful to the donor base that we have. I'm super thankful to the city and the county. And I'm very frustrated with the state," Helsinger says. "I don't understand, and I know we have state legislators who come and attend our shows."

He refuses to name names, but lays down a challenge to those who voted for this budget: "Is the real reason we do not believe that the state should support the arts in Florida because arts are unimportant? Then say it – put it on your bumper sticker. Say it flat out."

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Orlando Weekly works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Central Florida.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Orlando’s true free press free.


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Read the Digital Print Issue

April 7, 2021

View more issues


© 2021 Orlando Weekly

Website powered by Foundation