Related: Palm Beach County arts cuts

By Sharon Geltner

On June 3, Bill Hayes, producing artistic director of Palm Beach Dramaworks, was ecstatic.

That was the day the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce honored his West Palm beach-based theater company as Nonprofit of the Year.

“That was a nice lead-in to our 25th anniversary,” Hayes said.

But within 10 days, his joy turned to shock.

On June 12, for the first time in state history, arts and culture funding in Florida’s budget was zeroed out. Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed not only the theater’s expected $70,500, but the entire $3.1 million in grants to support 51 Palm Beach County entities.

Statewide, $32 million in grants, in support of 610 arts and culture organizations statewide, disappeared in a literal stroke of a pen.

“We moved to the bottom of the national list of funding by states,” said Dave Lawrence, president and CEO of the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County. Less than 10 years ago,

Florida ranked third in the country.

The industry’s top advocate in the state, the Florida Cultural Alliance, saw danger signs in December, but misinterpreted the line-item vetoes, said CEO Jennifer Jones. The sole employee of the alliance, she works with an eight-person board of directors and a lobbying firm on annual retainer, she said.

“The governor recommended $0 for the arts in December 2023 when he released the budget,” Jones said. “I’m not saying I didn’t take it seriously, but I had a lot of faith the process would work, because these organizations are so well-vetted, with transparency and accountability. It was a little bit surprising.”

Jones assumed that when legislators debated and reduced the $77 million to $32 million last spring, that was the final number. “That is the area where we have the most influence.”

12684861294?profile=RESIZE_180x180Longtime arts advocate and West Palm Beach gallery owner Rolando Chang Barrero had a different interpretation.

“The key individuals who saw this happening (in Tallahassee) are not fools. They look at everything going on. But they are in no position to call out the governor. They still need to work with him. Direct confrontation never works because these organizations can’t work without the state,” said Barrero, president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida.

“The long game is to get rid of all publicly funded programs, such as grants to bus kids to museums,” Barrero said. “They are trying to derail any culture [initiatives] because it is inclusive of anything that is not white supremacist. …They can’t get these groups to erase DEI clauses, so they stop funding.”

He added, “DeSantis is laying the groundwork to be worshipped by (former President Donald) Trump in case he wins.”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said there is only one explanation for the unexpected cut in arts funding.

“The only reason is politics. It’s absolutely devastating. … The return on investment for arts and culture is that for every $1 spent, $9 is generated,” Eskamani said.

Calls and emails to Jeremy Redfern, Gov. DeSantis’ press secretary, were unreturned.

But in an appearance in Polk County on June 27, DeSantis said he zeroed out all arts funding because some of the money would have gone to several “Fringe Festivals,” which he said contained sexual content.

“We didn’t have control over how it was being given. So you’re having your tax dollars being given in grants to things like the Fringe Festival, which is like a sexual festival where they’re doing all this stuff,” DeSantis said, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

Jeff Perlman, former mayor of Delray Beach, described the local implications.

“Now, we’re ‘Wall Street South’… and bringing in companies which expect us to have world-class culture. It’s enormously shortsighted,” Perlman said.

He believes Delray may feel the brunt.

“Our economic revitalization was led by arts and festivals,” he said. With the Arts Garage’s decreased funding and “Old School Square being wounded because of politics, sophisticated donors may not write checks. It is a perfect storm.”

Marjorie Waldo, CEO of the Arts Garage, said “it’s very late in the game” to receive the news.

“While grant funding is unpredictable, and we never take it for granted, when you are steadily receiving funding for eight years, you assume it will continue at a similar amount,” she said.

Jill Brown, CEO at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, noted that one in three cultural organizations closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, “and even more closed post-COVID.”

“Our cultural sector has been through so much in the last five years,” she said. “Arts and culture represents 3.1% of the state’s GDP, or $39 billion. That’s above and beyond tourism.”

Lawrence pointed out that 4 million people attended arts and culture events in Palm Beach County last year.

“That’s a staggering figure. We have a $335 million economic impact,” he said.

The industry lacks representation that others have as a matter of course. The late Bob Montgomery founded the Florida PAC for Art & Culture in the 1990s and asked Richard Rampell, a prominent CPA and philanthropist with homes in Palm Beach and West Palm Beach, to volunteer as treasurer.

In 2013, Sherron Long, a West Palm Beach resident with several decades of art advocacy experience, became chair of the PAC. In the next six years, it raised a total of just $51,177 and disbanded in 2019.

Rampell said what the county’s arts and culture organizations are missing are towering, powerhouse figures such as Montgomery and the late Alex Dreyfoos, who led the effort to create the Cultural Council and the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.

“The PAC started with a meeting in Fort Lauderdale with 20 wealthy guys, people who run companies and are interested in arts and arts education in schools. Bob was very generous to a lot of people and when he needed a favor and asked for money in return, they said yes,” Rampell said.

“We need someone like that with a big following. Bob could ask 100 people to give $5,000 and he would raise it right away. What the arts in Palm Beach County needs is someone who gets a group of people together to lead, go out and ask for money. Bob was never bashful.

“You can’t raise a ton of money in $25 increments,” Rampell concluded.

Similarly, there are no Palm Beach County advocates on the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, which advises Secretary of State Cord Byrd on grant funding. Broward has one, and Miami-Dade has two.

12684861498?profile=RESIZE_180x180“This feels like spite. It’s anti-woke, anti-gay, anti-anything that seems affiliated with a certain group of people often associated with theater groups. I’m a straight man in the theater and I’m saying it,” said Hayes, of Palm Beach Dramaworks.

“I wish I had the words to articulate the disappointment and shock throughout the arts community,” Hayes said. “The loss of funding is a tremendous blow to every organization, and Palm Beach Dramaworks is no exception.

“But we will prevail despite the obstacles. We have a history of strong fiscal stewardship, which will allow us to remain steadfast in our mission to enrich lives through the transformative power of theater. We will find a way; we have no other choice.”

Joe Gillie, a board member of the nonprofit Old School Square Center for the Arts group, said the cuts will really hurt “small grass-roots groups, many of which are ethnically based. That’s sad.”

On June 27, the Florida Division of Arts and Culture met to discuss replacing the lobbyists who represent the Florida Cultural Alliance. According to the state’s lobbyist directory, Anthony P. “Tony” Carvalho and Megan Fay at Capital City Consulting and Capitol Hill Group are FCA’s registered lobbyists. Carvalho and Fay could not be reached for comment.

A week before the vetoes, DeSantis renewed the term of Lisa Burgess, owner of New River Fine Art Gallery in Fort Lauderdale, to the Florida Council on Arts and Culture.

“I’m a supporter of Gov. DeSantis. I’m not a supporter of what happened with arts funding,” Burgess said. “A lot of people put a lot of effort talking to legislators, convincing them there should be more money for the arts, especially when Florida is operating on a surplus right now. I am extremely disappointed.”

She added that “Florida Council members need to do a better job.”

“We all need to work much harder,” she said. “We know that arts and culture are not the top priority at the highest levels of government. The state of Florida needs to do better.”
The youngest person interviewed for this story was the least surprised by the stunning turn of events.

“Honestly, this is exactly like what we went through here,” said rising Florida Atlantic University senior Trevian Javier Briskey, who has worked on DEI initiatives.

In May 2023, Briskey renamed the annual campus drag show “Owl Manor,” after Wilton Manors, because there would be no state funding if he used the word “drag,” he said.

“When it comes to multiculturalism, there are very strict restrictions,” he said.

Jones at the Florida Cultural Alliance said the “tradeoff” to getting grants might be “content.”

“In December, when I saw the $0 in the budget, I assumed it was a placeholder and not a priority. That was disappointing news,” she said.
“Now it is devastating news.”

Sharon Geltner is the author of Charity Bashed, a Palm Beach mystery and social satire, available on Amazon.

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