During the height of the recession in early 2008, Florida’s Department of Cultural Affairs’ statewide annual grant budget for arts organizations went from a healthy $38 million to just a little less than $1 million.
Fortunately, the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County was there to cushion the blow when public funding for the arts seemed to be in freefall.
Founded in 1986 by a team led by then state Sen. Bob Johnson, the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County serves as the major advocacy, communications and fundraising organization for the more than 100 registered nonprofit arts institutions in Sarasota County as well as the thousands of individual artists who call Sarasota, Venice, North Port and Englewood home. The constant promotion of all those artists and cultural institutions within Sarasota County is not only necessary for the creative lifeblood of the area — it is big business for the economy.
“A lot of people don’t realize that in Sarasota County the nonprofit arts and cultural organizations employ more than 5,000 individuals,” says Jim Shirley, executive director of the Alliance. “And if we took them as a group, they’re the largest single employer in the county and spend more than $200 million a year supporting other small businesses in Sarasota and Manatee County.”
Armed with those statistics, Shirley, his three-person staff and members of the Alliance promote the local arts scene as a cultural and economic pillar of Sarasota County. Nestled in a third-floor suite on Tamiami Trail and 12th Street, the Alliance networks and brainstorms in office space that itself is a fusion of arts and business: eclectic pieces of art and pop culture overlook professional business tables and desks topped with expense reports. The Alliance constantly seeks annual grant opportunities from county, state and federal officials to bolster the artistic vitality of the community.
The clearest example of the symbiotic nature between the local government, economy and artistic climate is the Alliance’s annual allotment of its Tourist Development Cultural Arts Grant. Accrued from a 5% bed tax that’s charged to anyone who spends a night at a hotel or rents a condominium for less than six months, one-half of 1% of that tax goes to bankroll the grant.
Funds accumulated through the tax collect throughout the fiscal year, with the Alliance acting as arbiter; it distributes the funds to artistic institutions that reside in Sarasota County and can demonstrate that a sizable portion of their audience is tourists. With approximately $1.58 million allotted for the 2015 fiscal year, the tourist development grant is an essential component of the alliance’s fundraising mission.
“Most people understand the arts enrich lives and are a boon to the community, but they’re also an economic driver,” says Linda M. DiGabriele, managing director of Asolo Repertory Theatre and an Alliance board member. “The Alliance is very engaged in grants and offers some of the biggest granting opportunities in the county that directly affect the Asolo because we have received a tourist development grant for years and years.”
Last year Sarasota County arts and cultural organizations sold about 2.5 million tickets to their various presentations, functions and exhibits, says Shirley. More than 40% of those were tourists. More tourists equals more money inserted into the local economy; more tourists visiting also results in a higher tourist development grant and, thus, stronger arts organizations.
But the Alliance offers more than just a “build it and they will come” strategy when it comes to championing the local arts environment. In addition to the tourist development grant, the Alliance raises money and distributes smaller “opportunity grants” funded through State of Arts license plate sales and a John Ringling Tower endowment. These smaller funds are gifted to individual artists and groups that haven’t reached the institutional-level of popularity that proffer tourist attention. The goal is to cultivate new and upcoming talent.
This giant gumbo pot of various public tax monies and private donations have amounted to approximately $14 million raised and invested into the arts since the Alliance’s founding. And when cooking with so many and expensive ingredients, Shirley knows the upmost significance of maintaining a clean kitchen.
“The first thing that we keep in mind is that we’re dealing with public tax dollars,” says Shirley, “so we want to make sure everything is absolutely transparent and clear.” Ethical standards are maintained through a review system that consists of five committees composed of arts-inclined private citizens and elected public officials.
The process begins with the Grants Policy Committee, which dictates the policies and structures of how grant proposals are evaluated. Then, once the yearly grant proposals are collected in January from the various institutions in the county, the Grants Evaluation Committee (composed of various citizens who have experience and knowledge of the local arts scene) reviews the respective proposals, visits the various institutions through the late spring and summer at events and productions and evaluates them against strict criteria. Then the finalized grants are delivered to the Tourist Development Council of Sarasota County and then on to the Sarasota County Commission, which has the final authority to change and approve anything.
But the Alliance is far more than just a fundraising taskforce: It’s an active advocacy and cheerleader for local arts enthusiasm and support. The clearest example of bolstering the artistic is the Sarasota Keys interactive public art project. The Alliance assembled a brain trust committee that proposed six pianos be scattered throughout the city of Sarasota, sponsored by a local business, and painted and ornamented by local artists. With the help of Pritchard’s Pianos & Organs and seven local artists, the Alliance’s project lasted from January to May of this year. The Sarasota Keys was such a success that the City Commission unanimously approved a second installment of the project for later this year.
A Sarasota County without the unity and stability provided by the Alliance would still be a hotbed of creativity and new works, but Sarasota’s common champion for the arts allows organizations and artists to create quality works without having to worry about the status of the economy.
“What the Alliance did during the recession is take up even more of the slack to get that public voice out there,” says Shirley. “We advocated for the return of funding and support for the organizations. It’s one big community working together through and for the arts.”
Back to School
Though its main focus is on supporting and leading fundraising efforts for artists and institutions in the area, the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County also strives to instill a vibrant and strong presence of the arts in the school system.
“When you look at the things that are fundamental to our lives, our education makes us who we are,” says Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance. “We know that for a community to thrive and to grow it needs to have a great school system, and the arts have always been a contributor to great school systems. We know that students who have at least one arts course in their background perform better in school.”
In the spirit of promoting arts education, the alliance leads various functions throughout the year directly related to arts exposure in the classroom. One such event is the education summit/luncheon Nov. 12, at Holley Hall at the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center. Every principal in Sarasota County is invited to attend to discuss what role arts education plays at his or her school. The Youth Symphony will perform during the event.