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More than $1.5 million in funding for Collier County arts organizations was slashed when Gov. Ron DeSantis summarily vetoed all arts funding requests coming from the Florida Division of Arts and Culture on June 12.   

It comes in a year when arts and culture spending overall for the state may be higher than last year.  

But the money coming to the arts is bypassing the Division of Arts and Culture and being funneled into other department budgets through a patronage system called “member projects.” Member projects are requests advocated by district legislators and may be added into any department’s budget.   

Within the 2024 member project list, two Collier County organizations received sizable construction grants:  

  • Gulfshore Playhouse, $2.5 million for completion of its new complex;  and
  • Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples, $1.5 million for construction of an early childhood learning center.

 Florida Tax Watch, a nonprofit group that analyzes the budget, said it finds an increasing number of funded projects being approved as member projects rather than through the departments in which they belong. Member projects don’t have the stringent reporting requirements that applications to the state’s own departments have. They do require having the approval of a legislator.   

The signal in DeSantis’ explanation for his veto was projects will fare better if funneled through legislators instead of through the state’s own grant mechanisms.     

No warning, just the veto  

But that signal was a punch in the solar plexus.  

It is the first time arts funding categories from the state of Florida hit bottom.  

The veto struck arts leaders as cavalier after two different groups had already approved a percentage of each organization’s request.  

The Florida Division of Arts and Culture had approved them for 100funding. The Legislature had whittled them down to slightly less than 50of their requests, but still recommended funding.   

“I think we applied for $96,000, so we would have gotten 47%,” said Hyla Crane, director of the Marco Island Center for the Arts. “We were probably looking at $44,000. It’s still a chunk.”  

She has already sent an e-blast to the center’s patrons and visitors: “I’m heartened by the fact we’re seeing people give a little more. And they’re not the big donors. We’re getting $50, $100, $200 but right away, going online and responding right away.  

“Right now, I’m writing my kids’ programs and I’m probably going to do the same messaging and send it directly to the kids’ parents.”  

The funding gap has hit Marco at a time when it is under four different pressure points. It is  rebuilding audiences after both a pandemic in 2020 and the island upheaval from Hurricane Ian in 2022. It’s maintaining the theater venue and production season it assumed after The Marco Players closed; and it is trying to continue its pledge to provide free children’s programming.   

“I believe we’re necessary, not nice. I believe that with all my heart,” she said of the arts. Crane said she would never consider reducing staff or reducing the quality of programming“I’d walk out first”but she may have to eliminate some programs.   

“But then, programs equal income,” she added. Some maintenance may be deferred, as well.  

“I think the state funding serves to validate the efforts of arts organizations. When you suddenly go from a state that has been known for having higher levels of arts funding at times … we now sit at the bottom of all the states for arts funding by cutting it all.”  

“Furthermore, we have no idea what’s going to go on with TDC money,” said Crane.   

She was referring to the Collier County Board of Commissioners’ debate over granting Tourism Development Commission funds to arts organizations for external marketing. The commissioners eventually agreed to the grant with the warning they may not be available next year.  

Arts benefit tourists, residents alike  

Kent Kyle, administrator for Opera Naples, said it had lost its $150,000 request, which contributes to its education and student production events like “The Mikado,” coming up July 1921. While Kyle said he never saw program grants as reliable funding, he had been grateful for legislators who, in the past, emphasized the arts as essential.  

“They really put it at the forefront that arts and culture is a great investment that builds not just tourism but our real estate value. Without quality of life, people don’t’ want to live in the state.”  

Like the Marco Island Center for the Arts, Naples Players also was at a pressure point this year, finishing a $22 million expansion and renovation of its Sugden Theatre. The theater reopens with the musical 42nd Street June 26.  

It watched in dismay as the Legislature lopped off the $500,000 it had requested for facilities grant, and then legislators more than halved the $150,000 it was seeking for program grants to $70,000. Then DeSantis vetoed it.  

“We went from $640,000 that we would have been eligible for, to $70,000, to nothing,” CEO & Executive Artistic Director Bryce Alexander said. “And it’s a stark contrast to last year, when the state funded the arts and culture pretty well.”

Kristen Coury, producing artistic director for Gulfshore Playhouse, said she had seen applying through another route for money as pragmatic when governmental bodies were cutting support for the arts all over the state. The $2.5 million request it received came through a Workforce Development program, and Coury credited help from local legislators Florida Sen. Kathleen Passidomo and Rep. Bob Rommel in procuring the grant.   

But her program request, like the rest of the arts in Collier County, was denied: “For our annual budget next year, it has a huge impact for our operations, especially when we’re moving into a new theater with a 50% higher budget than we’ve had before.”  

“I don’t know how many studies we need to do before we prove to them that we’re not only economic impactors but catalysts to growth in every way,” she said.  

No one wins here  

Steffanie Pearce, general and artistic operating director for Gulfshore Opera, which presents seasons in Collier, Lee and Hendry counties, has already taken a major step to bandage any flow of red ink. She dropped its planned production of a popular contemporary opera, Scalia/Ginsberg.   

She was clearly frustrated with the state’s slow process and the last-minute change.  

“To wait until two weeks before the year starts for most of us …” she fumed. “We’re not planning now. We’re cutting things we already planned and announced.”  

Organizations like hers, which had originally applied for $116,000, will now have to raise ticket prices and lean more heavily on their donors.  

“This isn’t going to save anyone any money,” she declared.  

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