Arts are generally regarded as important to the health and economic climate of a city, and Lakeland city commissioners devote a quarter of a million dollars a year to helping non-profit arts organizations stay afloat. But like all questions of using taxpayer funds, commissioners have to make tough decisions about which organizations are supported. In recent years, there has been intense debate about how to spread the wealth among eight Lakeland arts organizations that have been the traditional beneficiaries.
Until a new approach was put in place two years ago, city and arts leaders say that decisions were made in a haphazard fashion, with groups competing against each other for money and a few major organizations having the inside track. Even an attempt to set aside a permanent fund for the arts failed when the city commission raided the fund during the recent recession, leaving the arts community and its supporters to start over again.
In 2017, the City Commission agreed to a new approach, placing a dedicated line item in the city’s budget in the amount of $250,000 and assigning the Mayor’s Council for the Arts the task of recommending which groups would receive the funds. The process is supposed to encourage more collaboration between the local arts organizations and create an impartial process for allocating funds. However, that same process has – for now – ensured that only eight major arts organizations in Lakeland have access to that $250,000, leaving out other potentially qualified groups.
And there continues to be competition for those funds. In 2019, some arts groups will receive an increased percentage of the available pie, while a couple of others will see their shares shrink, provoking dissatisfaction. (Lakeland Arts Funding 2015-2019: Spreadsheet or Chart.)
Arts community leaders and advocates say the city’s support of the arts is stable now – although it is a different matter at the state level – and they are optimistic about the future. Questions remain, however, about whether shifting political philosophies will mean more upheaval; and whether the current system is fair.
According to former Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs, who served on the city commission from 1992 to 2017, requests by local arts groups for city funds was a random affair for years, with each organization making its own request for money each year. He said relations among the arts groups was not particularly amicable when it came to money, viewing one another as rivals. Then in the mid-1990s, the commission began to set aside money in a trust fund that was intended to become a perpetual source of funds for the arts, “so that (they) wouldn’t have to come begging every year,” Wiggs said.
But during the economic downturn that began in 2007, then-City Manager Doug Thomas persuaded the commission that the money in the arts trust fund – amounting to about $1.7 million – was needed elsewhere, and the fund was raided year after year.
“There was less willingness to fund the arts. I remember thinking how sad and unfortunate it was,” Wiggs said. “When you look at great cities, they recognize that arts … help improve educational performance, have an economic impact and improve the quality of life. Anyone who says it’s a taxpayer giveaway hasn’t done their homework.”
Wiggs said just as the fund was nearly exhausted, there was a renewed effort to find public support for the arts. In 2013, Mayor Gow Fields created the Mayor’s Council for the Arts, with eight of the city’s major arts organizations represented, to provide an informal forum for cooperation and advocacy.
In 2014, when Wiggs succeeded Fields as mayor, he set about strengthening the council. He appointed former State Representative Seth McKeel as chairman and expanded its membership to include prominent members of the business community.
“Howard was amazing through all of it,” said Lesley Chambers, who served on the Mayor’s Council for the Arts for five years and was its chairman for three years until her term expired in November. “He was willing to support arts organizations and helped define the role of the council.”
In 2015, McKeel resigned as chairman of the Mayor’s Council, and Wiggs appointed Chambers, director of student services at Harrison School for the Arts, as his replacement. Chambers was given the task of developing an equitable process for distributing city-provided funds to qualified arts organizations.
In 2016, the council decided to follow the example of the state and the county and distribute the funds as grants, requiring arts groups to submit applications which would be reviewed and scored. The council also persuaded the city commission to appropriate $250,000 per year for the arts.
However, the Mayor’s Council also voted to restrict the applications to the eight arts organizations represented on the council. These groups – the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College, the Imperial Symphony Orchestra, the Polk Theatre, Explorations V Children’s Museum, Lakeland Community Theatre, Platform Art, the Florida Dance Theatre and the Lakeland Concert Band – were historically the only ones to receive funds from the city.
However, the vote seems to contradict the guidelines established by the City of Lakeland, which include the following statement: “Organizations whose primary mission is cultural arts focused and who are headquartered within the Lakeland Electric Service area are eligible to apply for funding through this process.”
Chambers said the decision to close the grant applications to the eight groups “created a lot of issues,” including charges of entitlement from members of the commission and others in the community. She said the vote reflected the arts organizations’ fear of losing financial ground.
“The organizations felt panicked that if the funds were available to others, it could be a huge hit for them,” she said.
Claire Orologas, executive director of the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College, said in an email that the decision was based on the city’s previous funding pattern and hinted that other arts groups will eventually be allowed to apply for grants.
“We are looking at other examples of eligibility guidelines to ensure we are in keeping with best practices around the country and will draft recommendations accordingly,” she said. “Putting the foundational pieces in place has taken more time than we anticipated, especially with a change in city government, bringing everyone up to speed on the work at hand and learning the intricacies and requirements of city processes and procedures. It’s been a learning process.”
Orologas also noted that when Polk County changed its funding of arts groups to a grant process, it initially allocated money to a small number of organizations but eventually opened up the applications to any eligible organization. She predicted the same will happen with the City of Lakeland.
Chambers said the grant applications are evaluated by a committee that she appoints, consisting of six volunteers who have no connection to the Mayor’s Council. She said the committee follows the guidelines set down by the city:
“Applications will be reviewed by a grants committee and independently scored on a 1-5 scale as to overall community value (1-Poor, 2-Fair, 3-Good, 4-Excellent, 5-Superior). Reviewer scores will be averaged to determine the amount of eligible funding for each organization. A minimum score of 2.0 must be achieved to receive funds. 100% of the maximum funding request (‘max amount’) for each organization equates to 5% of the organization’s prior year’s operating expenses.”
The scoring/funding scale set down by the city is as follows:
4.75 – 5.00 (eligible for 100% of max amount)
4.25 – 4.74 (eligible for 90% of max amount)
3.75 – 4.24 (eligible for 80% of max amount)
3.25 – 3.74 (eligible for 70% of max amount)
2.75 – 3.24 (eligible for 60% of max amount)
2.25 – 2.74 (eligible for 50% of max amount)
2.00 – 2.24 (eligible for 40% of max amount)
The grant committee’s recommendations go directly to City Commissioner Stephanie Madden, designated as the liaison to the council, who brings it before the commission for approval.
“It’s a difficult process for volunteers,” Chambers said of the evaluation process. “There are always going to be people that are unhappy.”
The fiscal year 2018 and 2019 city budgets show the results of the new process. Chambers and Orologas admitted that the evaluation process tends to favor organizations that have paid staff and large operating budgets. In 2017, the first year of grant funding, three organizations with paid staff saw significant increases – the Polk Museum (8.2 percent), the Imperial Symphony (5.0 percent) and Lakeland Community Theatre (a whopping 70.2 percent).
Platform Art, which oversees public art projects, including annual “art parties” that showcase the work of a variety of local artists, saw its funding virtually double in 2018, from $6,287 to $12,392. Its executive director, Cynthia Haffey, who is the sole full-time employee, said she was confident that the more competitive grant process would favor the mission of an organization like Platform Art.
“Our projects have been bigger and better, more significant and more impactful to the community,” she said. “They suddenly saw the value in what we were doing.”
Yet other criteria besides staffing seem to be in play. Organizations with paid staff, such as the Polk Theatre, saw a 20 percent decrease in fiscal year 2018 and an additional 14.5 percent decrease for 2019.
Leslie Sikora, executive director of the Polk Theatre, did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Chambers said, “I can’t speak to the specifics, but their application was not as strong as the year before.”
Another organization that lost ground is the Lakeland Concert Band, which is an all-volunteer group. Its funding decreased by $3,800 in 2018, or 31 percent. Susan Johns, president of the band’s board of directors, said that although Chambers tried to guide the group’s leaders through the grant application process, they felt overwhelmed.
“We really don’t understand the ins and outs of the grant application process,” she said, adding that the band’s leadership was not given a reason for the cut in funding. “It’s very disappointing and upsetting.”
Johns said in addition to the funding cut, the band’s usual concert venue, the Youkey Theatre at the RP Funding Center, has gone up on its rent, with the result that the band is having to look for a new place to play but is having trouble finding one that will accommodate is schedule and the necessary acoustics.
“We’re losing audience, and if we lose audience we lose donations,” she said.
Chambers said it was difficult for the Lakeland Concert Band to demonstrate how it impacts the city culturally, but Johns pointed to the band’s performances at Veterans’ Day and Honor Flight ceremonies.
“We’re celebrating our 40th season, so we have been around awhile,” she said. “We like being available and helping the city.”
Chambers said the fiscal year 2019 application process yielded requests of about $400,000 in all, so the need far outstripped the available funds.
“Is it the best process? No. But part of it is understanding how critical funding is for these organizations,” she said. “I feel we’ve made strides. Even adding $250,000 to the city budget was huge. … The process is not completely where we want it, but we’ve made improvements. It’s a thoughtful process.”
One additional feature of the new grant process is that a portion of available funds are placed in an endowment that city leaders hope will eventually be a permanent and independent source of money for the arts. Mindful of the previous raid on the arts trust fund, this time the endowment – the Lakeland Arts Endowment Fund – was placed under the GiveWell Community Foundation, beyond the reach of changing political fortunes.
Wiggs said the city’s contributions to the endowment are intended to be seed money to encourage others in the community to contribute. Once the fund reaches a certain point, perhaps $10 million, he said, the city might not need to contribute directly to the arts. Chambers said the endowment currently has about $36,000.
Meri Mass, the executive director of the Polk Arts Alliance, a county-wide consortium of arts organizations, said the City of Lakeland deserves credit for continuing to fund the arts in the face of declining support at the state level. She noted that in 2014, when Gov. Rick Scott was running for re-election, 489 organizations applied for grants from the state’s Division of Cultural Affairs and were funded at 100 percent, a total of $48 million.
“Every year after, it went down by 25 percent. Last year, only 2 percent of grant requests were funded,” she said.
In response to criticism that government should not be funding “fluff” such as the arts, Mass said, “That money is keeping kids out of trouble, educating children and promoting tourism. These are not charities, they’re nonprofit businesses that give back to the city.”
With local public funding apparently more stable now, Chambers expressed optimism about the future of the arts in the city. Noting that the Mayor’s Council for the Arts is a semi-official arm of the city commission, she said she would like to see it become an independent arts council such as those in other cities like St Petersburg.
“As we continue to grow, I think arts will be sustainable in Lakeland.”
Haffey, the Platform Art executive, agreed.
“I think we’re in a renaissance for cultural programs. People see the value in them,” she said. “Cultural arts play a huge role for what a community has to offer.”