Paying the piper
Published: Monday, January 9, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 9, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
One Dance Alive performer crashed into a wall. Others were bumping into each other. And this wasn't the Cracked Nut, the company's annual goofball performance fund-raiser.
The problem wasn't the ability of the dancers, said Dance Alive financial director Judy Skinner. It was the smallness of the stage at the P.K. Yonge Performing Arts Center.
But the larger problem comes down to money. Renting big venues such as the University of Florida's Phillips Center is pricey. So are overall costs of staging a performance.
With troupes both professional and amateur having to scrape for every cent, local arts advocates are increasingly pushing for changes in the way organizations are funded.
"This is a very difficult town for the arts because we don't have a big corporate base. The giving that occurs - though people are extremely generous - is really just from a certain group of people," said Norma Homan, executive director of the Gainesville Association for the Creative Arts. "The local arts are so underfunded in this town but they are what really make the quality of life in this town go. We can't do what we could do, yet so many groups work so hard to keep the vitality of our artistic community."
Alachua County arts groups and the way they are funded are as varied as the colors in Claude Monet's Champ d'avoine in UF's Harn Museum of Art.
Three professional organizations exist - The Hippodrome State Theatre, Dance Alive and the Gainesville Chamber Orchestra.
A slew of amateur groups add to the cultural pallet - Gainesville Ballet Theater, the Alachua County Youth Orchestra, the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre, Gainesville Community Playhouse and many more.
Money is earned through ticket sales, donations, dues and fund-raisers.
Government also chips in: Gainesville's money is from the general fund, which is from property taxes; county money is from a tax on customers of lodging, commonly called the bed tax. Some also tap federal and state sources.
Bed tax money has strings - an organization must be able to draw visitors and use the money for advertising or marketing. Some groups get money from both pools, some from one and some don't get any at all. The groups say they could do so much more if they had more money.
Skinner said Dance Alive, which has a $400,000 budget this year, would be able to spend more time in schools and stage more performances.
"There is no question we can't do a lot of the productions we would like to do because we can't afford the costumes or the sets," she said. "We can't afford to purchase choreography that we would like. We'd like to do more things with live music, but we can't afford that. We would like to do a performance more than one time, but we can't."
Particularly irksome to some groups is the county's funding of arts through the bed tax. The county used to give general fund money, but switched to the bed tax five years ago. That system is up for review this year.
Robert Gibson, a director of the Alachua County Youth Orchestra, said it quit trying to get bed tax money because of the need to show the performances would lure tourists.
Gibson said that has made it more difficult for some amateur groups to get money.
"The funds became increasingly related not to the fact that you were an arts organization and could use additional funding, but to the heads-in-beds response to the bed tax," he said. "It is very, very difficult for amateur organizations to be able to access those funds. Ultimately the youth orchestra has stopped trying because we can't meet the requirements of being able to document that our three or four concerts a year bring people to town."
Some advocates have asked county commissioners to return to funding arts through the general fund.
But others say the bed tax is a stable source of money. Some want a penny added to the bed tax to build a cultural arts center.
Hippodrome Producing Director Mary Hausch said she would love to get cash that has no restrictions but added that general fund money can be blown away with shifting political winds.
Stable local funding is crucial to getting state and federal money, she said, adding this year's total Hippodrome budget is about $2.5 million.
"I'm always afraid to get in there and start trying to change things because, yes, it would be great to have a line item in the county budget, but at the same time . . . it's important for us to have some type of fiscal stability," Hausch said. "If it were a line item it would probably be something that would depend on the commission's disposition at the time."
Taking money from the general fund for arts could be politically risky for commissioners.
Other needs compete for general fund money. Giving more to the arts could mean less for roads, parks, economic development.
The county sets aside money for social service agencies that could be opened to include the arts, but that would mean greater competition among those groups.
Commissioners have differing opinions on whether general fund money should be used for the arts.
"I think we have a pretty good system. It's equitable and something that people can rely on. I think it is sustainable," Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut said. "We are doing the best we can with the funds that we have. It doesn't address all of the needs but it provides some funding. You have other competing interests - roads, health care, economic development. Then the competition becomes quite stiff."
Commissioner Paula DeLaney said she favors a mix - most arts money would come from the bed tax but some general fund cash would also be set aside.
DeLaney said the general fund money should come with the restriction that it be used to make performances available to people who could not ordinarily afford a trip to the symphony or theater.
"I keep coming back to how do we make the arts affordable, and part of the way we do it is to fund it," DeLaney said. "I know it would be taking money away from other things but when you look at a budget of a couple of hundred million dollars, we ought to be able to carve out several thousand for the arts."
Cindy Swirko can be reached at (352) 374-5024 or swirkoc@ gvillesun.com.
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