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Florida Theatre President Makes Case for Government Funding for the Arts

State arts funding decimated by legislature

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Between the time I started to think about this column, and the day I sat down to write it, the state of Florida finalized its budget for fiscal year 2019, decimating funding for the arts in the process. Funding for three programs was zeroed; the program under which The Florida Theatre receives funding, Matching Grants for General Program Support, was cut by 75 percent. Next year, 489 organizations will split a fund that's been reduced from $11.1 to $2.6 million. Decimated is the only word that fits.

I'd actually welcome a debate about this with someone who thinks the government shouldn't be funding the arts-at least that would demonstrate a philosophy. This government's actions can best be described as capricious or whimsical. Just four years ago, in fiscal 2015, the state fully funded all the program's requests, distributing $24 million in grants. How the same state leadership can reduce its arts funding from $24 million to $2.6 million in just four years, in a good economy, is beyond comprehension.

Of course, I wrote to my elected representatives during the legislative session, and urged friends and colleagues to do the same, but if I had a chance to talk to someone now, here's what I'd say about why government funding of the arts is important.

First, the work our arts organizations do advances the creativity, diversity and culture of our nation. This work distinguishes America (and our city) in the global marketplace as an innovative thought leader in a changing world.

Second, our arts organizations make our communities better places to live and work. If you had a choice between living and working in a city that has great music, dance and theater, and a city that doesn't, which do you choose? If you were relocating your company, which do you choose?

Jacksonville is blessed with a full spectrum of arts organizations, and if you doubt me for one second, imagine waking up tomorrow to find that, overnight, The Florida Theatre, Jacksonville Symphony, MOSH, MOCA, Cummer Museum, Theatre Jax, Players by the Sea, The Children's Chorus, Cathedral Arts Project and dozens of arts groups are gone. Would Jacksonville ever be the same? Of course not.

Third, our arts organizations are economic development machines. Let's use The Florida Theatre as an example. Last year, we hosted 173 performances. On average, we were open every other night, all year long. That activity brought 170,000 people Downtown, generated an economic impact of $14 million, supported the full-time equivalent of 417 jobs, and generated $10 million of household income, $623,000 of local government revenue and $755,000 of state government revenue.

In the current fiscal year, Florida Theatre received a $42,000 state grant, which helped generate $755,000 of state revenue. Seems like an outstanding investment. Multiply these numbers by all the other arts organizations here, and you start to get a sense of the arts' hefty citywide impact, in exchange for a very reasonable public investment.

But why public funding? Why shouldn't the arts pay their own way? It's a reasonable question; the answer is, our government has an honored tradition of helping make things possible. Tax incentives, guaranteeing loans and grants are just a few examples. Assistance comes in many forms, across all sectors, and though it rarely foots the entire bill, it still helps make things happen.

Again, take Florida Theatre as an example. City funding makes up just 4 percent of the theater's annual $8 million budget, state funding 1 percent. By no means is this a "subsidy," but it does help make a few things possible. It helps us preserve this historic building, in a downtown where so much of our history burned to the ground. It helps cover the cost of educational programs for public schools. It helps pay for public cultural programs. Again, I stress the word "helps." We find the rest of the money through ticket sales, business activities and other fundraising.

It's worth reiterating: the state program under which The Florida Theatre received funding is Matching Grants for General Program Support. It's a matching grant. The presumption is that it's not a subsidy; it's an investment to help leverage other funds and make things possible.

If you think the government's job is to take care of its citizens, and you draw that responsibility broadly to encompass everything from safety and security to community health and well-being, the arts are a great investment, and government partnering with the nonprofit arts sector to make things happen is a good strategy.

Arts funding is just 0.004 percent of the federal budget, 0.0004 percent of the state budget, and 0.0019 percent of the city budget. The arts are a huge return for a small investment.

I'm proud to live in a country and a city that value the arts and culture, and support them in so many ways. That's what I'd tell arts funding opponents in the state legislature.

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Saisselin is president of The Florida Theatre. You can help locally. The Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville's website has an advocacy page, CulturalCouncil.org/advocacy. Tell how the arts have improved your quality of life. The CCGJ will share your story with your elected officials.

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