Like the Artists’ Hall of Fame she established with the Polk History Center, Meri Mass prepares to retire on a personal walk of fame leaving a trail of accomplishments as an arts advocate and collaborator for arts and sports tourism.
Mass, 69, officially retires Jan. 31 after 12 years as executive director of the Polk Arts Alliance, founded in 2004 and now representing more than 50 visual, music and performance art entities. A search for a new director is underway.
During her tenure, Mass guided projects that included revitalizing a previously hidden tax benefitting the arts, increasing the number of arts events locally, and measuring the economic impact of the arts.
“I think it’s time for new energy,” Mass said. “I think I’ve taken it as far as I can think of. There are new directions.”
Mass moved to Lakeland in 2005. “I had never heard of Polk County,” she said. What she discovered surprised her.
“In 2005 I came from another county (Palm Beach) that supported the arts. I couldn’t believe the assets of the arts here -– Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, Bok Tower, the Polk Museum of Art, the Polk History Museum, Explorations V Children’s Museum.”
After finding well-managed and popular cultural arts and architecture here, Mass said, she wondered why many people she spoke with outside of the area had also never heard of Polk.
In 2010 after beginning her job as executive director, Mass made a discovery she describes as the missing link. Polk residents had voted for an ordinance in 1986 that set aside a portion of hotel “bed tax” money for arts groups to help with tourism development.
The county, however, amended the ordinance a few years later, ending the automatic funding. Revenue was going to Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing under the county’s tourism tax assessed at 5 percent on hotel stays on top of sales tax.
“That was probably the biggest impact for the arts for the entire county,” Mass said, “because it was secure. There was no dedicated funding; it was general fund money.”
There were few voices advocating for the arts at that time, Mass said, and getting grant funding through the bed tax was a 2 ½-year effort. In 2012 the arts alliance organizations lobbied before a tourism funds committee for their share of revenues from the bed tax. Mass said she was thrilled that they were all working together in collaboration instead of conflict.
The competitive grant program has generated over $5.5 million for Polk’s arts agencies since its inception in 2012, the Polk Arts Alliance says.
“My background is economic development, and the arts working together with sports is always better than working separately,” she said. “So when I came it was about showing the numbers. You can’t just say it’s important without [showing] the numbers.”
Mass also demonstrated her strength and gift for numbers with reports beginning in 2015 highlighting the economic impact of the arts. The people working in the arts are part of an industry, she stressed.
“For instance, even though (an) organization is non profit, the people working there are not. They’re making living,” she said. “The organization’s building may be a 501c3 but dancers are individual artists.”
The 2015 economic impact study showed that the nonprofit arts and culture sector generated nearly $46.6 million in total economic activity, Mass said.
Amy Wiggins, Polk Alliance president and board chair, said Mass has been integral in bringing the arts community together with one voice.
“A coming together in one art-centric direction is what our county needed,” Wiggins said. “And our community overall has benefited from that. Look at the cultural depth and breadth we have available in Polk.”
The board is actively searching search for a new executive director, Wiggins said.
“We’d love to have someone in place by the first quarter” of 2022, she said. “We’re casting a wide net, hoping to find the person who will be the best fit as we transition the organization away from Meri’s leadership.”
Wiggins says although there will be changes, a smooth transition is planned. “After 12 years and with Meri’s knowledge, though, she’ll only be a phone call away,” she said. “Once the new person is on board, the board of directors will lay out the groundwork for a new strategic plan and that person will have guidance.”
The Polk Arts Alliance has grown steadily over the years and now has close to 52 arts organizations that qualify as not-for-profit. In a study before 2020 with the magazine Art-i-Facts, Mass said, they figured most organizations in the grant process were applying for one or two events per month during the year.
That survey revealed there were between 80 and 100 arts events per month in the county from November through April, with many people coming from outside of the county.
Mass, when asked for a crystal ball view, looks at the future for tourism dollars in Polk. “What I see going forward is an emphasis on marketing initiatives and better collaboration with sports marketing,” she said.
Wiggins agrees collaboration is a starting point. “We needed funding for the arts, but arts organizations are overworked and understaffed. That’s why Polk Arts Alliance has to take on an advocacy role,” she said.
As with most organizations, partnerships and digital connections are crucial. Wiggins said in addition to the website polkarts.org, the alliance was “one of the first to partner with WUSF at artsaxisfl.org. This connects our patrons with a regional audience.”
While the arts alliance board is in its candidate search and transition period, Mass, who turns 70 in June, will be busy in several roles, including a volunteer position.
“I’m still representing Americans for the Arts in Washington, DC, “ she said. “We work with the state of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.”
She’ll make time for her own artistic talent: “I’m looking forward to painting again. It’s time to be creative.”
Mass also plans time out just to enjoy. “I’m going to take some time off, be with my grandkids, my son, and maybe do some traveling. And I’m looking forward to actually attending arts events.”
“Polk is on a great path for collaboration and working together and expanding. Hopefully we’ll continue. I’m excited to see what will become of the arts,” she said.
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