How Desantis’s Elimination Of Arts Funding Affects The Tampa Bay Area


ST. PETERSBURG — Wearing pink tights and blond hair wound into a tightly bobby-pinned bun, 8-year-old Olivia Keener was ready for dance class at the Academy of Ballet Arts on a recent Monday morning. But when she walked into the studio, Olivia noticed something was wrong.

Her ballet teacher, Suzanne Pomerantzeff, was logging off a Zoom call with other arts leaders, where they discussed how Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had recently slashed $32 million for arts and culture funding. The veto, only a fraction of a sliver from the state’s $117 billion budget, sent arts and culture organizations across the state scrambling, including the co-founder and artistic director of this local dance school.

The Academy of Ballet Arts was slated to receive $28,000. Pomerantzeff, whose students fondly refer to as “Ms. P.,” told Olivia the state was taking away crucial funding.

“It’s extra money that allows us to pay our teachers so that we have all the teachers that can teach your class,” she said.

Olivia didn’t know her ballet teacher was denied state money. Or that Pinellas County arts organizations were out $1.9 million, or that counties across Tampa Bay qualified for $5 million total — money that was meant to support 77 different nonprofits in the region.

But she understood this was a problem. So, she offered her ballet teacher more money than the state of Florida did.

“Ms. P., I can give you my allowance,” Olivia said. “Really, I have it! It’s a whole five dollars!”

A ballet class at the Academy of Ballet Arts, which will not receive state funding this year as part of recent actions by the governor to veto arts funding. [ DYLAN TOWNSEND | Times ]

A new norm?

That statewide Zoom call in late June, hosted by Jennifer Jones of the Florida Cultural Alliance, swelled with outcries of disbelief over DeSantis’ decision. The meeting, confined to digital rectangles, was reminiscent of COVID-19 protocols, a global crisis many in the arts community aren’t fully recovered from.

Arts leaders across the state couldn’t recall a Florida governor gutting all funding for arts and culture grants before. During the meeting, Jones posted a spreadsheet charting arts grant awards in Florida since 1977. Just last year, the state ranked 11th in the nation for per-capita spending for state arts agencies on legislative appropriation including line items, according to data from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

Although some entities — like the Tampa Museum of Art — expected to receive more than half a million dollars from the state, it will be small organizations that feel the budget cuts most strongly, according to Margaret Murray, CEO of Creative Pinellas, the county’s nonprofit arts agency.

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Ms. P. opened the Academy of Ballet Arts in 1969, but didn’t take a salary until 2015. (Her job at a public school provided her primary source of income.)

“So for the first part of the 55 years we’ve been alive, I didn’t earn anything because I wanted this to survive,” she said.

If Ms. P. is unable to find alternative funding for the $28,000 hole in the budget, her salary will be the first to go.

Suzanne Pomerantzeff, better known as "Ms. P.," teaches a ballet class at the Academy of Ballet Arts on July 2, 2024.
Suzanne Pomerantzeff, better known as “Ms. P.,” teaches a ballet class at the Academy of Ballet Arts on July 2, 2024. [ DYLAN TOWNSEND | Times ]

As the executive director of the Warehouse Arts District Association (WADA), Markus Gottschlich is also concerned about the impact on local arts. The nonprofit was born to cultivate a thriving art community in St. Pete’s Warehouse Art District, attracting artists with affordable studio space and providing educational programming.

The ArtsXchange campus, WADA’s physical location found at 515 22nd St. S., St. Petersburg, features a collection of galleries, studios and art-related businesses. Ms. P.’s dance studio is one of WADA’s current tenants. But without art, Gottschlich fears the world would look “dull” and “homogenous.”

“Arts and culture is always a mirror image of the diversity of a population,” he said, “and so if you take away the cultural programing that mirrors this society … then (minorities) are going to go somewhere where they feel like they’re part of.”

Leaders in the community fear it could create a new norm.

“Artists and arts organizations, we innately find ways to make things work under dire circumstances,” said Gottschlich. “Everybody’s going to work twice as hard, putting twice as many hours into producing the same thing.”

It could become all too easy to continue not funding organizations that routinely depend on grants to support their programming.

The cuts were part of DeSantis’ $900 million in vetoes just a couple of weeks before the fiscal year began July 1. The governor said his decision was influenced by things like “sexual” Fringe Festivals in Orlando and Tampa.

“You have your tax dollars being given in grants to things like the Fringe Festival, which is like a sexual festival where they’re doing all this stuff,” DeSantis said.

Tampa Fringe Festival producer Trish Parry clarified in a statement that Fringe Festivals are live-arts clearinghouses. Meaning, “no Florida tax money we have ever received has been given directly to artists to fund their projects. Revenue that artists earn comes directly from their audiences via ticket sales and merchandise.”

Break a leg, not the budget

David Jenkins works no fewer than 60 hours a week. He’s the co-founder and producing artistic director of Jobsite Theater in Tampa. As the sole full-time employee, Jenkins handles all administrative and artistic decisions for the organization. Depending on the season, 80-hour weeks are not uncommon.

Now, he’s grappling with how to mend a $33,000 hole in his budget.

The state panelists who originally reviewed Jobsite’s grant application recommended the theater receive approximately $70,000. The Florida Legislature approved 47 percent of that. The governor didn’t approve a single penny.

The $33,000 they would have received accounts for roughly 5 percent of Jobsite Theater’s annual operating budget.

“That meant we had to make immediate cuts because I have to be able to show a balanced budget to my board,” said Jenkins. “And obviously my job is to keep the company afloat.”

Summer Bohnenkamp and David Jenkins are pictured in Jobsite Theater's production of "Misery" in Tampa in 2023.
Summer Bohnenkamp and David Jenkins are pictured in Jobsite Theater’s production of “Misery” in Tampa in 2023. [ Stage Photography of Tampa ]

Plans to hire another full-time employee evaporated. Jenkins issued 5% pay cuts across the board, including on his own salary. He had to reduce payroll overall on productions — spending less on costumes, props and cast. The theater will likely only be able to afford eight cast members, instead of the intended 13, for Jobsite’s production of “Macbeth” in January.

Those are just some of the internal cuts.

With the help of state funding, Jobsite provides a number of free tickets to students in the community. That, plus other educational programming, will now have to be restricted.

“It just exacerbates the tension between people who have, and people who don’t,” said Jenkins. “That is devastating … that the people who would benefit most from these programs are going to have the least access — or no access — to these programs.”

Jobsite’s reality represents one out of dozens across Florida. In a survey by the Florida Cultural Alliance, 36 percent of the 150 nonprofits that responded will be forced to cancel programming for children.

“One of the reasons why people talk about starving artists so often is that people don’t believe in paying artists,” said Jenkins. “We would love to be able to do things at no cost for people, but we have to pay the light bill. We have to pay the rent, we have to pay the performers.”



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