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

Don't stop the music

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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.

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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."

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