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Wednesday, Sep 17, 2014

Pinellas arts scene making do without county grants

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CLEARWATER -

While the recession left many county departments running on skeleton crews, dwindling tax revenues spelled outright demise for Pinellas County’s arts agency.

Nearly two years later, the much-smaller nonprofit that took its place operating on a shoestring budget.

Creative Pinellas replaced the county’s Cultural Affairs Committee’s grant-centered approach with one focusing on promotion and social media, with a fraction of the former agency’s budget.

Critics wonder whether how much of an impact such an approach can have, without the sizeable grants the Cultural Affairs Committee used to pump into the local arts scene every year.

Those involved with Creative Pinellas, though, say it’s made the few dollars it has go far.

“I think it’s been very successful,” said County Commissioner Susan Latvala, an emeritus board member of Creative Pinellas, who played a large part in its formation.

“Obviously, because we don’t have the government funding we had in the past, the mission is different.”

Three years ago, the Pinellas Cultural Affairs Department, which was doling out about $500,000 in grants each year, saw its $2.2-million budget slashed by more than half in 2010 and then eliminated in 2011. The county gave the nascent Creative Pinellas $300,000 in seed money and designated it as the county’s sole arts organization. Most of that seed money was put in a reserve fund, and the group runs on roughly $35,000 annually Latvala said.

The new mission is a far cry from the old one. Creative Pinellas stresses promotion, microgrants and connecting artists with patrons who commission or purchase work through events or the Web.

The nonprofit organization’s small budget covers one part-time salary and one consulting position. A website fed by content from a handful of bloggers entrenched in the arts scene is losing money and being paid for with reserve funds something Creative Pinellas hopes will change with an expected boost in advertising revenue for the site.

The way Pinellas County is supporting the arts is not a common model, especially in an economy that’s starting to recover, industry experts say.

“There has been big growth in the arts industry,” said Bob Lynch, CEO of Americans for the Arts, which has a membership roster of 500 arts agencies. “Most of these organizations have stuck it out and are coming back.”

Nationwide, the trend is to push social media in addition to awarding grants, not do social-media marketing almost exclusively.

As of yet, though, there’s no clamor to bring back Pinellas County’s arts funding arm.

With no grant money to dole out, Creative Pinellas had no choice but to think differently about how to support the arts.

“We were formed to make the best out of a bad situation,” said T. Hampton Dohrman, the consultant serving as the director of Creative Pinellas.

Creative Pinellas has been able to do a lot on its shoestring budget, Dohrman said.

“You can give $10,000 to one person and have it not go very far,” he said. “But on the other hand you can give someone $100 and have it do a lot.”

As a promotional entity, Creative Pinellas has been focusing on pushing local art-related content through social media. So far, its cultural blog, Articulate Suncoast, which launched last July, shows up in more than 500 Twitter and 345 Facebook feeds. Its YouTube channel has about 16,000 views, the lion’s share of which come from a short video featuring a vibrant crocheted coral reed featured at Florida Craftsman Galleries last June.

Creative Pinellas launched with the promise of creating buzz about local artists, and even those working with the organization admit it’s not yet driving enough traffic to live up to that claim.

“It’s still growing,” said Mitzi Gordon, who manages Articulate’s content and social media. “I’m starting to see more conversation happening.”

In part, that’s due to the newness of the nonprofit and its publication, both of which are still in the development stage, Dohrman said.

“This time last year, I’m not even sure there was a logo,” he said.

The organization is on track, though, to fulfill its promise, Dohrman said. The website gets 1,200 unique views per month, with a goal of averaging 2,000 monthly views by the end of this year. The organization’s newsletter goes out to nearly 6,000 people, a quarter of which clicks through to read the full text. The end-of-year goal for that list is 10,000.

The promise of Creative Pinellas’ efforts can be seen in a video it produced to showcase the Clay Center of St. Petersburg, a new space in the flourishing Warehouse Arts District. The video helped drive people to the center’s grand opening April 19.

“We had 300 people through there, and a lot of people said they saw the video,” said Lynn Van Vorst, one of the center’s owners.

More intangible goals, such as how much Creative Pinellas is helping the local arts scene grow, are tougher to measure.

“We measure those through success stories,” Dohrman said. “Where the impact is most important is where it’s toughest to measure.”

One way is tracking attendance at events such as Feast, a dining event held five or six times a year that allows attendees to contribute to the artists of their choice.

The last Feast event, held Nov. 15 at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, drew 180 people and raised $3,000, of which each artist got a share. That’s money that could cover supply costs or bookkeeping software.

“[We] invest on the artist level, where you can have the most impact,” Dohrman said.

This summer, the nonprofit is also launching a series of workshops on art entrepreneurship.

Critics of the county’s decision to pull its support of the arts say such efforts, while important, aren’t as effective without grants.

“You get what you pay for,” said Terry Olson, Orange County’s director of arts and cultural affairs. “In the last 3,000 years of history, what we’ve seen is that arts, which are the measure of a society, are always supported through patronage.”

Ruth Eckerd Hall was one of the local institutions that lost out when the county closed its Cultural Affairs Committee. In 2010, the Clearwater venue received $67,000 in county grants.

“Unfortunately, it was a casualty of the economy,” said Eric Blankenship, a spokesman for the performing arts center. “We do what we do every day [to compensate], and that’s work harder.”

Losing the Cultural Affairs funding was a blow, but at least county recognized the need to continue promoting the arts, Blankenship said.

“What is important is that the value of a designated local arts organization was recognized enough that it did not lapse,” he said.

Creative Pinellas hosts its next Feast event at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Safety Harbor Museum and Cultural Center, at 329 S. Bayshore Blvd.


kbradshaw@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7999

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