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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

South Florida arts community reeling from DeSantis veto of millions of dollars in state funding

Blues musician Selwyn Birchwood strumming his base guitar at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach, a performing arts venue featuring music, theatre, visual arts, comedy, and arts education programming.
Arts Garage
Blues musician Selwyn Birchwood strumming his base guitar at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach, a performing arts venue featuring music, theatre, visual arts, comedy, and arts education programming.

Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed $32 million in grants for cultural and museums statewide. Arts leaders say the industry pumps nearly $6 billion into Florida's economy.

Nonprofit arts and culture organizations across Florida, especially South Florida, are still contemplating how to bounce back from $32 million in arts funding slashed from the fiscal year 2024-2025 state budget.

Gov. Ron DeSantis last week vetoed cultural and museum grants secured from state legislators, forcing established organizations scrambling to prevent staff layoffs, cuts to programming or ceasing operations altogether, non-profit leaders told WLRN.

He signed into law a $116.5 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, after vetoing close to $950 million — including the arts funding — in spending approved by lawmakers in March.

"This is historic” for the state's nearly $3 billion industry, said Jennifer Sullivan, Senior Vice President at the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County, an arts support agency for the Palm Beaches.

Organizations are accustomed to various levels of cuts in grant funding overseen by the state’s Division of Arts & Culture but this is the first time that no money will be allocated for arts and culture programs by the state and the potential outcome is “shocking," Sullivan said.

“In 2019, the grant program was cut down to about 2 million [dollars] for the entire state and that was one of our lowest funding for the grant program,” she added. “But I don't think historically they have ever been cut down to zero. So it was definitely a surprise for us in the industry.”

"I never anticipated this," said Charlene Farrington, executive director the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum in Delray Beach, a non-profit museum preserving and sharing Black history for the past two decades.

Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade make up the majority of grant recommendations from the Division each year — if you combine the counties, the vetoes in the fiscal year 2024-2025 state budget impacts $12.1 million in grant funding.

This chart illustrates arts funding recommendations set by the Division of Arts & Culture. The next column shows final appropriations by the the state legislature, which was sent to Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis vetoed the funding.
Florida Association of Museums
This chart illustrates arts funding recommendations set by the Division of Arts & Culture. The next column shows final appropriations by the the state legislature, which was sent to Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis vetoed the funding.

Each year, through a rigorous vetting process, culture and arts organizations across the state submit grant requests and could qualify for up to $150,000 through the state’s Division of Arts and Culture’s four grant categories, which help fund facility renovations and other operating costs.

Last year, arts organizations requested $68 million in grant funding — the state funded the program with just over $40 million.

This year, the Division had recommended nearly $80 million in the 2024/2025 budget to go toward 864 grants across the state, "nearly 100 more grant recommendations than last year, according to the Palm Beach Council Council.

But only $32 million in grant money was appropriated for just two categories — the "Cultural and Museum" grant for everyday operations and "Cultural Facilities Grants" meant for construction and renovation projects.

Those grant recommendations from the Legislature were vetoed — as a result, all grant categories will not be getting funding.

READ MORE: Why 'third places' in West Palm Beach spark community connections

The press secretary for DeSantis did not explain to WLRN why the governor decided to zero out the funding, writing, in part, that the governor makes “veto decisions that are in the best interest of the State of Florida.”

Part of that decision involves reducing overall government spending for the upcoming fiscal year. The arts funding was among nearly $1 billion vetoed from the $116 billion state budget for the fiscal year, beginning July 1st.

Marjorie Waldo, President & CEO of the Arts Garage in Delray Beach
Morgan Sophia Photography/Morgan Sophia Photography
Marjorie Waldo, President & CEO of the Arts Garage in Delray Beach

Some of the overall funding were earmarked for member projects, special state projects that are put forth by individual legislators to help select organizations with such items as seed money for construction.

The governor approved millions of state funds for a few member projects, ranging from various museums and education institutions, which were outside of the grant program categories.

Some of those member projects were vetoed, but it has led to confusion among arts organizations.

"The same people that are putting their member projects through are also the ones that have to vote on our [grant] funding," said Jennifer Jones, President and CEO of Florida Cultural Alliance, a nonprofit arts group advocating for the arts organizations across the state.

"And I think there should be as much allocated for the vetted grants as would be allowed for member projects."

Grant recipients left scrambling

More than 600 arts organizations that were expected to receive funding from the state’s Division of Arts and Culture are now scrambling to fill a financial void.

The general program support or the “cultural museum grant” line item helps organizations with operating costs like salaries, utilities and rent.

Charlene Farrington, Executive Director of the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum in Delray Beach, a non-profit museum preserving and sharing Black history.
Spady Cultural Heritage Museum
Charlene Farrington, Executive Director of the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum in Delray Beach, a non-profit museum preserving and sharing Black history.

Over the years, the allotted money to organizations fluctuates depending on the amount of eligible funds that are appropriated and approved from the legislature.

In the past few years, Arts Garage in Delray Beach, a performing arts venue featuring music, theatre, visual arts, comedy, and education programming, had always budgeted for at least $100,000 out of an eligible $150,000 or 5 percent of their company’s budget.

That’s all gone now, said Marjorie Waldo, President & CEO.

"It's going to potentially impact the quality of our programming. It's going because we can pay less for it. It's going to impact the quantity of our programming,” Waldo said.

“It's going to impact what we're able to do for our sister community organizations that we work together to provide opportunities. I think we gave out over 1000 free tickets in the last year. We'll have to look at every dollar differently as a result of this,” she added.

One of the sister organizations that help with free community events is the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum in Delray Beach, Charlene Farrington, the executive director, said she had budgeted for between $30k to $50k dollars.

Farrington told WLRN the sudden removal of state funding sends an existential message to the arts and culture community.

“This was very shocking. I never in my wildest dreams anticipated this. I, of course, assume that funding probably would be cut and could be cut severely, but the removal of funding indicates a removal of support,” Farrington said.

“That's what that says to me that we no longer think you are important. And therefore we're going to remove all support. If that is the thinking, then, the state of Florida is in trouble.”

Actors and artists at the City Theatre Miami, known for producing year-round short plays and musicals.
City Theatre Miami
Actors and artists at the City Theatre Miami, known for producing year-round short plays and musicals.

The City Theatre in Miami, known for their short plays and mentoring local and national emerging playwrights, agrees. Artistic Director Margaret Ledford told WLRN they’re small staff had budgeted for $50,0000 or 6% of their budget.

Ledford said the removal of state arts funding has led to more questions than answers but, more importantly, the gap hurts residents and tourists alike, not just the nonprofit organizations.

“This governor removes things he doesn't like, the term climate change and state statutes or things he considers 'woke.' And this is another one of those removals, which in the end will only hurt the state's tourist dollars,” Ledford said.

“When people don't go to restaurants to eat out before a show because theaters had to cancel programming. Or stay a few nights in a hotel because a museum had to change its days open because it couldn't support staffing. This is ultimately taking away jobs from the tax-paying Florida artists.”

Coral Gables Art Cinema, an independent film theater Coral Gables, will grapple with a 10% shortfall or more than $100,000 from their budget because of the state cuts.

GableStage, a theatre company who serves Miami-Dade High Schools and employs more than 100 people each season, said "slashing support for these vital institutions" is "damaging our economic future," said Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport in a statement.

Both Coral Gables Art Cinema and GableState are appealing to its donors to lessen the state funding loss.

Children participating in an arts workshop at the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale
NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale
Children participating in an arts workshop at the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale

How to move forward

Florida’s nonprofit arts and culture organization and its audiences boost the state's economy by nearly $5.8 billion and supports more than 91,000 full-time jobs, according to a statewide study.

The Cultural Council's Sullivan said organizations often use these critical state dollars to match individual contributions from private donors — “organizations use their state dollars to leverage the private side to get that match.”

“If an organization was to, say, get $150,000 from the state, that actually has a $300,000 impact on the organization because they would have had to have matching dollars. And now they won't have those dollars to leverage with some of their donors and other funders,” she said.

Organizations like the Armory Art Center and Natural Movers Foundation in Palm Beach County have always had to squeeze every dollar — the NME said state support made up 100% of their funding or $25,000 for their dance programs.

Survey shows orgs to expect severe cuts

DeSantis' initial budget proposal did not include arts funding, said the Florida Cultural Alliance's Jones. She said, in hindsight, it was a warning sign.

This week, more than100 arts organizations across the state responded to a Jones' recent survey that discussed the immediate impact the lack of funding will have on operations.

Jones told WLRN that 5% of the respondents will have to close their doors. About 8% will expansion plans and 18% percent are going to have to cancel facility repairs.

Staff and supporters at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, an independent theater in Coral Gables
Coral Gables Art Cinema
Staff and supporters at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, an independent theater in Coral Gables

She said the remaining 70 odd percent “are having to make adjustments, whether it's canceling programs for seniors or children or reducing the staff, eliminating positions or canceling public events.”

Some organizations will be able to weather the financial storm with their deep reserves and strong donor community.

Bonnie Clearwater, director and chief curator at NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, told WLRN she's optimistic about bouncing back and plans to double down on marketing efforts after learning lessons from major economic downturns like the 2008 Great Recession and COVID pandemic.

“I think one of the things that people learned from COVID was that because the staff base had been reduced, it became very hard to then fill those positions afterwards,” Clearwater said.

"We've [NSU] invested so much in the development of our staff. They're creative. They're amazing. They will help find the solutions to our current situation.”

Arts community to meet with state officials

Jones told WLRN her arts advocacy group has “a request in for a meeting with the executive office” to understand the reasons behind the veto and build a better rapport with state officials.

“We’re going to have to engage — become friends with the person who thought it was in the best interest of the state to totally wipe us out and come to some good understanding and appreciation for each other's position and hopes that it doesn't happen again,” Jones said.

“And demonstrate that we're good partners and that we really all have the best interests of Florida,” she said.

Copyright 2024 WLRN Public Media

Wilkine Brutus is a multimedia journalist for WLRN, South Florida's NPR, and a member of Washington Post/Poynter Institute’ s 2019 Leadership Academy. A former Digital Reporter for The Palm Beach Post, Brutus produces enterprise stories on topics surrounding people, community innovation, entrepreneurship, art, culture, and current affairs.