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Florida Arts Programs Get Highest Funding Ever From Lawmakers

Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre

The Actors' Playhouse executive director Barbara Stein says most of the Coral Gables theater's paid performers are from South Florida.

“We hire some people out of New York, too, but our goal is to hire as many capable and qualified for each production Florida based actors that we can,” Stein says.

The Playhouse sits on a historic site where an old movie house was converted into a performing arts center. It became the catalyst for Coral Gables’ downtown redevelopment. Now, it’s eligible for a $150,000 cultural affairs grant from the state. Stein says the money will help produce shows with cultural significance, like the musical "Ragtime."

Credit George Schiavone
Monty Python’s SPAMALOT at Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre (2014)

“One of the cultures represented in the show is the early black-American culture,” Stein says. “The show’s being presented not only to the general public, but to school performances during Black History Month.”

The Florida Legislature approved over $43 million in the next state budget just for the arts.

That’s almost a fourfold increase from the current budget, according to Michael Spring. He directs the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and chairs the Florida Cultural Alliance.

“This amount would be the largest state arts budget ever enacted,” Spring said. “The last budget that we had that was even near this was back in 2006 when the Legislature passed a budget of about $33 million.”

Hundreds of groups are eligible for grants from the state, and nearly a quarter of them are located in Miami-Dade County. Spring says the state grant money leads to all kinds of jobs ranging from stage carpenters to museum curators.

“The arts employ more than 22,000 full-time workers right here in our community,” Spring says. “One of our arts organization’s directors came into my office, and she said, 'I just have to tell you that we were just having a meeting to announce layoffs of staff members in my organization, and then this news came through about the state Legislature and the arts, and it will forestall our having to lay off people.'”

Credit Alberto Romeu
The cast of Actors’ Playhouse’s Carbonell Award-winning production of Les Misérables (2009).

Avoiding those layoffs may depend on Gov. Rick Scott. He has line-item veto power and could choose to cut the arts budget, although he accepted all of the Legislature’s grant recommendations last year.

Spring says “if the Governor approves this budget, Florida will have one of the largest arts budgets in the nation."

The Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre is eligible for a $76,000 grant to help with stage productions and bolster community outreach projects.

“Some of the programs we work on are working with families that are going through a terminal illness or health crisis and using the arts to communicate and celebrate the time that they do have together,” executive artistic director Janet Erlick said. “We do a lot of work with schools for literacy improvement and anti-bullying.”

Credit Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre
"The Little Mermaid" at Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre

She sees a great economic engine in the arts.

“The numbers -- if you look at groups that are wonderful at tracking that kind of thing, like Florida Cultural Alliance or Americans For the Arts – show a return on every dollar invested somewhere on a minimum end of like $5 and all the way up to $22 or more,” Erlick says.

“In terms of putting money into something and especially taxpayers money that has to be guarded and stewarded in a very careful way, I think there’s very little that will give that level of return on the investment of a dollar.”

Gov. Scott has until early June to analyze the budget and decide whether to veto any of it, including arts funding.