‘Serious gut punch’: DeSantis eliminates state arts, culture funding for dozens of South Florida organizations

Theater, visual art, dance, music and other cultural and artistic organizations are scrambling to close unexpected budget shortfalls after Gov. Ron DeSantis wiped out state arts and culture grants.

DeSantis used his veto authority to eliminate $32 million that would have gone to large and small organizations throughout the state. The money was appropriated months ago by the Florida Legislature, and recipients expected it would begin flowing in coming weeks.

“It was a shocker. It was a stunner,” said Marjorie Waldo, president and CEO of Arts Garage, the Delray Beach venue that offers live music, theater, comedy, visual arts and more.

“Something like this could literally be the death knell for some organizations, and succeed in doing what COVID could not,” Steven Haines, executive director of the Symphony of the Americas, whose organization’s 37th season begins this fall at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. “We don’t want to sound alarmist, but yet it’s an alarming situation.”

And Phillip Dunlap, director of the Broward County Cultural Division, and Janet Erlick, chair of the county Cultural Council, wrote on a county-run arts website that the art and culture community “took a serious gut punch” when DeSantis vetoed the money.

Eliminated were:

— 50 grants to Broward entities that collectively would have received $2.5 million.

— 51 grants totaling $3.1 million for organizations in Palm Beach County.

— 123 grants totaling $6.5 million for Miami-Dade County groups.

The funding in question amounted to small change for state government — a small fraction of 1% of the $116.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The reasoning behind DeSantis’s decision on the arts and culture spending wasn’t clear; the governor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

State Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, said he didn’t know the rationale behind the veto, and he had no indication the arts and culture money was in jeopardy.

“I’m disappointed in the cut,” LaMarca said. “I would have liked to see it fully funded.”

In the days since the governor signed the budget into law on June 12 and outlined his vetoes, LaMarca said he’s probably heard more reactions from people in the community about the arts and culture funding than about anything else.

Impact

“The impact could be a significant ripple to a tsunami,” Haines said. “This can, and most likely will, directly impact the programmatic output of organizations, and impact the people who are served.”

The veto means a loss of $51,700 for the Symphony of the Americas and $70,500 for the Arts Garage.

The lost grant money amounts to about 4% of the symphony’s most recent budget, Haines said, and about 5% of the Arts Garage budget, Waldo said.

“Don’t think that 4% to 5% of anybody’s budget isn’t significant, ” Haines said. “Most arts organizations already run barebones.”

“We run a very lean budget,” Waldo said. “When that money disappears, it’s going to hurt something.”

The list includes many well-known organizations, including Bonnet House and Flamingo Gardens in Broward and the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens and the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach County, each of which lost $70,500.

Lesser-known organizations are affected as well, such as The Girl Choir of South Florida, which is losing $18,800, and the Society for Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing America, which is losing $9,494.

Cut some, raise some

The sudden change in their circumstances is prompting large and small organizations to find new ways to cut costs, which could include people; consider programming, which could include trimming performances; and reach out to supporters in search of more donations.

Waldo said she and her board of directors would appeal to the community for more support.

In the meantime, she said, she’s looking for budget reductions.

“I’m cutting off a sliver here and sliver there,” she said. If trimming and fundraising don’t close the gap, it might affect the jobs of some of Arts Garage’s 22 full- and part-time employees.

“I am attempting to do everything I can to get that (budget shortfall) number low enough that I don’t have to cut staff. But I cannot say that that won’t happen,” Waldo said, adding that she’s already told staffers to expect meetings about budget cuts. “I’m prepping them for whatever might be coming.”

Arts Garage, which opened in 2011, has more than 300 events, classes and performances every year, Waldo said.

The 2024-25 Symphony of the Americas season, beginning in October, has eight different concert series, and each series has two or three performances. Themes range from the annual holiday pops concerts to recognizing composers of the past to new symphonic voices.

The combination of the short notice of the funding cut and the long lead time for arts organizations makes it especially challenging, Haines and Waldo said.

“For us to be informed at this 11th hour that the grant will be zero is significant,” Haines said.

Steven Haines, executive director of Symphony of the Americas. “Something like this could literally be the death knell for some organizations, and succeed in doing what COVID could not,” Haines said of arts and culture budget cuts implemented by Gov. Ron DeSantis in the state fiscal year that begins July 1, 2024. (Art Pearson/Courtesy)

“Arts organizations work so far in advance,” Haines said — typically one to two years at the Symphony of the Americas.

Waldo said Arts Garage has programmed its offerings through 2025 and she has started work on 2026.

The Symphony of the Americas and the Arts Garage aren’t unique.

In recent days, arts organizations in South Florida have sent out alerts to their supporters, some of which were defiant in tone and others pleading with supporters to dig deeper into their pockets and increase contributions.

Describing “some very bad news for all of the arts in Florida!” Ronnie Larsen, founder and artistic director of Plays of Wilton, told his patrons that the governor’s action was “erasing thousands and thousands of dollars Plays Of Wilton was counting on, some of which was scheduled to arrive very soon. This is nothing short of a disaster, not just for us but for all of the arts in Florida.”

GableStage Theatre Company told supporters of the Miami-Dade County theater that “we fell victim to the heartless power of a veto pen,” and The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival told its patrons that it was “still reeling from the devastating news.”

Arts funding

Arts funding has sometimes become a political lightning rod nationally, and both Haines and Jennifer Jones, president and CEO of the Florida Cultural Alliance, which includes many state art and cultural organizations, said they’ve always known nothing was guaranteed.

“There’s an element of surprise, but not shock. I think it was just a matter of time that this, unfortunately, would play out with this result,” Haines said.

When DeSantis originally outlined a proposed budget before the 2024 legislative session, he included nothing in the arts and culture categories he eliminated, Jones said.

The proposed grants, vetted and recommended by the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, were forwarded to the Legislature, which reduced the totals by a little more than half. Ultimately $32 million was included in the state budget, which the House and Senate passed in March.

DeSantis spent much of the ensuing three months touring the state talking about all the good things the budget contained, and highlighting popular initiatives the Legislature included that he said he’d approve. He routinely warned, however, there would be some cuts.

On June 12, he made those cuts, 20 days before the start of the new fiscal year.

“I don’t think anybody thought it was going to happen,” Jones said. “He recommended nothing, and by golly, he delivered,” Jones said.

DeSantis vetoed a total of $949.6 million from the state budget — just enough to boast that spending in the new fiscal year is less than spending in the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30.

At an event Wednesday in Marathon, a week after he acted on the budget, DeSantis described it as the “most fiscally sound of any in the United States” and called it “really sound, very responsible and protective of taxpayer money.”

The state coffers are brimming with cash — DeSantis called it “a massive surplus” on Wednesday and previously estimated reserves would top $17 billion — though there is no guarantee how long flush times will last.

DeSantis’ motives

State Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman, a Palm Beach County Republican, and state Sen. Lori Berman, a Palm Beach County Democrat, said they don’t know DeSantis’ motives.

“I don’t know why he did it. I don’t know who told him this was a good idea. We never heard any negative comments about any of the cultural programs or funding,” Berman said. “I can’t imagine what the thought process is.”

The governor is widely viewed as planning a candidacy for the 2028 Republican presidential nomination. His budget actions could burnish his credentials with the Republican Party base, which generally isn’t enamored of things like spending government money on art and humanities and show his prowess as fiscally prudent.

Jones said the arts have received financial support under previous conservative Republican governors and from the Legislature, which has been controlled by Republicans for decades. “You can’t take the numbers and look at who’s in a position of authority and say, ‘I see what happened here.’ I don’t think it plays out that way. People probably have ideas about which party is more interested in supporting the arts or not, but when you come down to the numbers it doesn’t really play out that way.”

Gossett-Seidman said she believes DeSantis was trying to spend money in areas with the biggest needs.

“There are so many avenues to fund the arts. I believe the governor was looking at taking care of major issues that are super important,” she said. “Maybe the arts have to wait another year. I believe that is the attitude.”

“We’ll come back and make it a priority,” she added.

In the meantime, Gossett-Seidman said, philanthropy can help make up the lost funding, supplemented by other governments such as the School Board.

Benefits

Arts and culture organizations, and their supporters, said there are two central reasons government funding is good public policy.

Spending on arts and culture has a positive impact on the economy, including tourism, they said.

“The economic impact is massive,” Haines said. Waldo said someone coming to a show means parking fees, dinner before the show, and employment for venue staff and artists.

She and LaMarca said spending on arts and cultural organizations helps the economy by spurring tourism, a pillar of the state’s economy. “I’m a strong believer that the arts actually have a good return on investment. We invest in the arts, you have people that come here,” he said.

Waldo said Arts Garage was just awarded funding through the Palm Beach County Tourist Development Council, which is financed through hotel bed taxes, so it could market to tourists.

Arts and culture improve the quality of life, they said.

“We need the mind to be stimulated,” said state Rep. Marie Woodson, a Hollywood Democrat. She said art and music help provide that stimulation.

“We bring communities together, people who might never meet one another otherwise. We have an impact on mental health, on physical well-being, on students academic performance, on community engagement,” Waldo said. “The work that we’re doing has a deep and lasting impact.”

Symphony of the Americas artistic director and conductor Pablo Mielgo with soprano Kyaunnee Richardson on Dec. 6, 2022. The symphony is one of many arts organizations working to fill a funding shortfall after Gov. Ron DeSantis eliminated the state arts and cultural grant program for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2024. (Zak Bennett/Courtesy)

Zak Bennett

Symphony of the Americas artistic director and conductor Pablo Mielgo with soprano Kyaunnee Richardson on Dec. 6, 2022. The symphony is one of many arts organizations working to fill a funding shortfall after Gov. Ron DeSantis eliminated the state arts and cultural grant program for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2024. (Zak Bennett/Courtesy)

What’s next

Island City Stage, a theater in Wilton Manors planning five plays in its next season beginning in October, urged its supporters in an email blast to contact their state lawmakers — and provided a link people could use to figure out who represents them.

Posts on the South Florida Jazz List on Facebook also urged action. “When you read the list, you should get angry!!!.” Another post included a call for people to contact their elected officials with a message: “This is wrong.”

Dunlap and Erlick, the county cultural leaders, wrote that they weren’t sure what would happen next.

“Our collective voice still has power,” they wrote. “Let’s do our part to be involved in advocating for what our sector needs and what our community values. Convey this to elected officials at the State level,” adding an admission: “Remember to be respectful.”

In theory, the Legislature could override DeSantis’ veto of the spending. Practically speaking, legislators said, there is no chance the Republican-controlled House and Senate would override the Republican governor’s veto.

LaMarca said he hopes money will be put in the next budget, for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2025.

Haines said he’s unsure of the prospects. “Once any part of a state’s budget is zeroed out, the concern is when and how does it get restored,” he said.

Anthony Man can be reached at aman@sunsentinel.com and can be found @browardpolitics on Bluesky, Threads, Facebook and Mastodon.

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