Activist Encourages Donors to Support Local Art

For Michael Maguire, art is a lifelong passion. Late last year he put his money where his passion is by writing large checks to nearly a dozen Lakeland arts organizations — and he urges others to do the same.

Maguire made the donations after learning there was a gap between what the organizations requested and what they received in city grant money.

Maguire is an activist and former member of the Lakeland Mayor’s Council on the Arts, which distributes the grants. He wants people in Lakeland to view the arts beyond the dollar sign. Giving is more than just support for the arts, he says.

“It’s investment in creativity,” Maguire says, “investment that generates progress, new thinking, solutions to problems, entertainment and food for the soul.”

Maguire outside the Polk Theatre

Maguire suggests the economic impact of the arts, the subject of a report presented at City Hall in 2014, is only part of the picture. “The economic impact is irrelevant,” he says. “Go to the emotional impact.”

Maguire is analytical about cities and how some services are funded.

“The present concept in government funding is that it should only fund public safety and municipal services,” he says. “The emphasis is, we’re deficient in [our] investment in a creative economy. In the absence of creativity, nothing will be better, nothing will be new. We’ll be stuck in the rut we’re in now.”

The mayor’s arts council, founded in 2014, and its nearly 4-month-old website, LkldArts.org, provides a marketing approach for the visual and performing arts and includes a donation option and an events calendar.

The council makes recommendations and administers grants — last year totaling $235,618 — to organizations such as the Polk Museum of Art, Explorations V Children’s Museum and Florida Dance Theatre. The grants constitute a line item in the city of Lakeland budget.

In previous years, grant funds totaled $250,000. Maguire’s fill-in-the-gap amount for all 11 organizations was $26,831.

His check of $9,107.20 to the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College, for example, brought funding to its original application request of $91,072.

Similarly, Maguire’s donation of $2,814.60 to Lakeland Community Theatre brought its grant of $25,331.40 to the $28,146 requested.

“I put my money where my heart is,” he says, “and I know 100 people in Lakeland who could do the same thing.”

Realtor David Bunch, a board member at the Polk Museum, echoes Maguire’s concerns.  “It’s always a struggle to fund the arts,” he says. “I always appreciate the narrow band of people in Polk who generously support the arts.”

“We need to do a better selling job,” Bunch says. As a goal Bunch, says he would love to see a percentage of budget for every public building set aside for art.

“It says something about a city when you see art,” he says.

Referring to a sculpture project designed by students under way at Bonnet Springs Park, a pet project for Bunch, he says, “People will write a check for what they like. We’re finding it out with the park.”

Maguire says those who want to help the arts community in Lakeland but don’t know where to start could begin by asking two basic questions: Who should we invest with? How much?

LkldArts.org

The answers he says, begin with a visit to LkldArts.org to scroll through the list of nonprofit arts organizations where you can donate through the Lakeland Arts Endowment Fund. Maguire advises looking over the list, and considering the different needs, such as operational costs, before making a choice or choices.

“Giving can be from under $200 to over $10,000,” he says.

Craig Collins, head of Southeastern University’s College of Arts & Media, who stepped down as chair of the arts council Jan. 1, says the recently created website is dedicated to positioning Lakeland as an arts destination, and financial support is always gratefully accepted.

“However, $250,000 is not commensurate to the requisite funding needed to support a thriving arts community,” he says.

Incoming chair of the arts council, Kerry Falwell, executive director of Explorations V Children’s Museum, says she can’t imagine a world without the arts. “Now more than ever the arts need their community behind them,” Falwell says.

“Michael’s gift was selfless and one of the most important, significant investments in the arts I’ve seen,” she says.  “But it [also] came at a time when arts leaders needed someone to believe in them. It’s not that we wouldn’t have survived, but the fact is that he chose to do this in the year he chose to do it, regardless of whether the arts needed to be invested in.”

To get back to what we’re used to locally with concerts, shows and crowd participation in the arts again, there needs to be a full recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, she says.

Until that time, Falwell has a suggestion: Although many people might not be ready to attend events, they could donate the amount of a ticket at the normal price. “Or purchase a ticket to support an event and add a small donation,” she says.

As a personal example, Falwell says she recently purchased a ticket online to watch a digital dance production. “The arts will not die. We are here and we are thriving and advancing,” she says.   

For Maguire, since art equals passion, the equation is never just about the money.

“Real creativity is the heart of the human experience,” he said. “It begins from a creative mind, a blank piece of paper, and a pencil.”

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