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It’s our annual Best of Sarasota and Manatee issue. Our readers vote on their favorites in dozens of categories from best pizza to best gala to best TV personality. Choosing a “best” is subjective, of course, much like choosing an Olympic gold medal figure skater. But I still love finding out who the winners are and, I confess, find it just as enjoyable when I don’t agree, sanctimoniously muttering, “You mean readers chose that restaurant?”

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Susan Burns

Image: Lori Sax

But one thing I am confident about choosing as a best in Sarasota and Manatee is our world-class arts and cultural scene. In just one recent week, I attended the inaugural gathering of SRQBAC (the Suncoast Black Art Collaborative), a new group that wants to expose the community to African-American artists; stopped off at Alfstad& Contemporary gallery to see Mike Solomon’s latest paintings; took my mom to Selby Gardens’ Warhol: Flowers in the Factory exhibition; and saw Roe at the Asolo Rep, a powerful play about the unbridgeable chasm created by Roe v. Wade. What a rich variety of experiences within a few square miles that enhanced my awareness of my culture, the world and who I am.

That’s why, when our legislators slashed funding from the state’s already shrinking Division of Cultural Affairs grant program this spring—when we’ve got a record $88.7 billion spending budget—I didn’t worry about being sanctimonious. These cuts are both destructive to the 489 arts groups that receive the grants and to the richness of our lives.

They also impact our economy, which is what legislators care about most. The Florida Department of State has reported that the arts are a $4.7 billion economic driver. Here in Sarasota and Manatee, they employ 8,705 people and contribute $342 million in direct economic activity, according to last summer’s Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 report. Sarasota and Manatee have been shaped by legions of interesting, talented and well-heeled people who come here for our arts as tourists and then move here as residents. 

Legislators have argued that these cuts—arts groups received $11 million in 2017 and only $2.6 million this year­—were necessary because of the extra dollars that need to go to school security and hurricane damages. Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, says he agrees this was an extraordinary year. The Parkland shootings and Hurricane Irma made some cuts understandable. “They had to respond to these totally unexpected events,” he says. “I would have done the same.”

But the arts have seen cuts for years, he says, and almost entirely eliminating the grants when it’s really just “chump change, small change” in Florida’s huge budget, shows that the arts are not a priority for legislators. Florida now ranks 48th in the nation for state arts funding. The Arts and Cultural Alliance might get only $600 from the state this year, down from $18,000 in 2017 and $58,000 in 2016. These deep cuts will hurt. Shirley met with arts groups soon after they got word that state grant money had been cut to the bone. “They are upset, devastated. No one expected this,” he says. For almost all groups, losing dollars means cutting staff and programs.

Shirley says Florida voters should be encouraging their legislators “to consider the arts an economic driver. Let them know your feelings.” And, he adds, we might try to convince our Florida representatives and senators that the arts add quality to our lives.

One of our legislators who understands this is State Rep. Julio Gonzalez of Venice. Both of his daughters are in opera; his oldest, a soprano, is about to graduate from the Manhattan School of Music, and his youngest sings with the Sarasota Youth Opera. “The arts have been amazing for some kids to attend schools, to study, to build careers,” he says. Gonzalez agrees that one of the most effective ways to ensure arts funding is to elect representatives who care about them. “The arts should be supported by government,” he insists.

That was reassuring. But then he added something that frankly concerned me. He said only art that “is reminiscent of our culture and has value that reflects our society and development,” should be funded. You mean Western culture, I asked? We need to support art that makes sure “our culture stays robust,” he said. Modern art, art that is “still evolving”—well, “government should stay out of that arena.” So what period would be acceptable? Western art from the 19th century to perhaps the early 20th, in his opinion.

The takeaway? We absolutely need to elect representatives who understand and appreciate the arts.

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