Three years ago, Florida arts and culture organization celebrated a windfall. Gov. Rick Scott approved $42.9 million in grants through the Department of State's Division of Cultural Affairs. A wide swath made out, from the Tampa Theatre to the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, the Florida Aquarium to the Lowry Park Zoo.
But each year since then has been a downhill slide. The latest budget released by the legislature, not yet signed by the governor, continues that trend. This year, funding for cultural organizations and projects stands at $24.5 million through Cultural Affairs.
The shortfall has artists wondering whether broader economic anxieties have made it tougher to sell the arts as a vital part of a community.
In the new budget, eight additional programs, which were not part of the same grant process but deemed worthy by the legislature in separate actions — including $400,000 each to the St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District Project and Great Explorations Children's Museum — boost the total to $27.6 million.
Approved grants for 480 nonprofit organizations is at $11.1 million, down from $19 million spread across 413 organizations last year.
Four professional theaters in Tampa and St. Petersburg have or are developing programs reaching out to poor or young people, and the Florida Orchestra used state funds to expand its outreach to smaller communities in Florida earlier this year.
Artists fear a continuing slide could endanger or even kill their organizations. Their margins can be deceivingly low, and nonprofits depend on grants to stay in the black.
St. Petersburg's Freefall Theatre Company, which depends on grants and donations for about half its revenue, lost money on two of its most popular productions, executive director Cheryl Forchilli told patrons at a fundraiser in March.
"You come to Freefall and you see the seats full," Forchilli said. "You try to get tickets to The Light in the Piazza and they're all gone. And you know what everyone thinks? 'Everything's fine at Freefall. They don't need anything from me.' "
The bottom line arguably suffers from the very element that makes Freefall a standout — its high standards. Those include hiring members of Actors' Equity union in all shows, and paying union wages to everyone on a production. The company didn't spare cost on Mame in 2015. The show completely sold out its four-week run.
"We had people lined up in our courtyard every night wanting to buy the no-shows," Forchilli said. "It was like Hamilton. Absolute smash hit."
Mame lost $1,774 after expenses, which included more than $90,000 in labor.
The Light in the Piazza sold out 96 percent of its seats. It made $6,745. Those figures only cover direct production costs — not things such as marketing, advertising, salaries or utilities.
Freefall applied successfully for grants in 2015 and 2016, with a possible maximum of $25,000. It expects to receive $7,000 this year. The grant ceiling for a company of its budget size is $150,000, but due to state regulations, Freefall will have to wait until 2019-2020 before being eligible for that amount.
By contrast, American Stage, established in St. Petersburg since the late 1970s, received $92,000 last year. This year, the company is expecting about half as much — equivalent to two full-time staff positions, producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte said.
"This means that more of our resources have to be spent making up that revenue, which negatively impacts the resources we are able to devote to programming," Gularte said.
Arts advocates say that a vibrant community increases in value. A 2015 survey by the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance said that 32 arts nonprofits generated $38.2 million. "Indirect spending," an extrapolation based on admissions and state tourism data, amounted to a whopping $180 million, the survey said.
"Our argument is based on the idea that this money will do good for people, it will be good for the humanity and be good for society," said Karla Hartley, the executive producing director for Stageworks Theatre in Tampa. "But while there seems to be an emphasis on 'show me the results,' it's going to be hard with arts organizations to see the immediate effect."
Ambiguities abound as it is. Applicants for these competitive grants must file a year in advance. Panels of experts, artists and administrators appointed by the secretary of state meet 24 times over the summer, ranking and scoring the applications. Panels recommend amounts to be awarded, usually less than requested. After appropriations, the number shrinks again.
Jobsite Theater, the resident theater company of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, did well last year, receiving nearly $17,000 out of a possible $22,500.
"Last year was an anomaly," said David Jenkins, Jobsite's producing artistic director. "I'd have to say it was an election year, and (legislators) wanted to keep people happy."
Awards have ticked up in recent even-numbered years, starting with the boom year of 2014, when panelists recommended that 100 percent of grant requests be paid. Those recommendations dropped to 71 percent in 2015, then rose to 73 percent in 2016.
Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist, correlates an increased skepticism about the value of arts from the recession's lingering effects.
"People are seeing it as a luxury, not a necessity, which is very troubling for arts and cultural organizations," MacManus said. "It's an important part of education, but for the many people who are just badly concerned about putting clothes on their kids or food on the table, that's what makes it sort of difficult to sell politically."
So how did 2014's budget bonanza happen?
Part of it could be that educated voters who make up most of the donor class turn out in nonpresidential election years. The mood of the Florida's electorate has also changed, MacManus said.
"The primary impetus for budget decisions lies with each chamber's leaders," she said. "This year's legislative leaders are more anti-government-spending on local economic development than were leaders in 2014."
At Jobsite, Jenkins has for years been urging colleagues to call and email representatives. Now he's not sure that does any good.
"Maybe they really are tallying up calls and emails across constituencies, across a wide range of legislative matters," Jenkins said. "But who's not impacted on some level by some line item in the state budget, with all the many dogs and many fights they have around grants at this time of year?"
There remain bright spots. The state approved $11.1 million for cultural facilities, most of what was requested. That bodes well for new construction at the Morean Arts Center and a new visual arts center at Eckerd College, which requested $500,000 each.
Smaller organizations hope the amounts they receive will keep them afloat. Una Voce: The Gay Men's Chorus of Tampa Bay, was approved for $8,925. Its president, Harold Harkins, wouldn't be surprised if the chorus received only one-fifth that amount. But even that might help keep their artistic director.
With the $10,000 originally approved, the Pasco Fine Arts Council hoped to hire a director. In the last two years, the New Port Richey group has survived the departure of its previous director and a move to a new facility after 30 years. Its 250 to 300 members enjoy pottery, or painting with watercolors or acrylics.
Arts watchers have told acting director Jo Baughman to expect the final amount to be closer to $3,000. Baughman, 72, said she's enjoying the work, even though it can be wearying.
"We don't give up," Baughman said. "We definitely don't give up. You see how much the kids love it. You get elderly women coming in, and they may have lost a spouse or they are just getting older and they want to keep their minds going."
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.