On the Florida Arts Funding Cuts: Beyond the Fringe


Last week Florida governor Ron DeSantis vetoed $32 million in arts funding, which in that state is managed and allocated by the Division of Arts and Culture. The Miami Herald reports:

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday cited “sexual” festivals in Orlando and Tampa as the reason he vetoed more than $32 million in arts funding across Florida this month.

“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 during a news conference, offering the first explanation about his decision to cut the entirety of the cultural grants and arts funding from the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year. …

“It’s like, how many of you think your tax dollars should go to fund that?” DeSantis said. “Not very many people would do that.” …

DeSantis’ spokespeople did not respond to questions about which events at the festivals were sexual, or whether there were other arts projects around the state he objected to.

You can find the program for the Orlando Fringe here. You can read about the state Division of Arts and Culture here. And you can see it follows the basic template for an arts granting agency, with peer review panels and the like.

What to make of this?

If I had a chance to talk to the governor’s people, maybe the first question I would ask is what arts in their view should get some funding support from the state? And why? It is possible to make the case that the state has no business in funding the arts at all; I don’t agree with that view, but it is not outlandish to suggest that there are other priorities, that the funded arts are not really a public good, but private consumption by the well-off, and that we, or at least Florida, lacks a consensus as to what culture is valuable. But DeSantis has never made this argument, nor does he appear to be making it here. If I were to take him at his word, he seems to be saying that some arts funding could be defended, but that other arts are beyond the pale, and that if the Division of Arts and Culture cannot seem to be able to tell the difference he will, at least for now, do a blanket veto. This is terrible public management, since he is throwing a lot of nonprofit arts organizations into a sudden monetary loss as a result of the government being unable to coordinate with its own Department of State as to what its mission is supposed to be.

Beyond that, it is not clear what arts he thinks should be funded. Opera? Aside from the fact that it too has its share of, as he puts it, “all this stuff”, it’s not clear that Opera Orlando would gain the support for public funding from a majority of citizens, with live opera, or even recorded opera, being very much a minority taste. In the United States public funding for the arts survives by working with a diverse portfolio of genres such that most people can find at least something they enjoy in the set of grant recipients. Indeed, it is commonly observed that in a referendum on arts funding, typically held for local earmarked taxes for the arts in the US, throwing parks, zoos, botanical gardens, science and history museums, and the like into the basket makes the chance of the referendum passing much more likely. A tax to fund purely the high arts simply won’t pass.

Public funding for the arts requires a diverse portfolio. Fringe theatre is not my mug of English Breakfast, but it clearly attracts people to Orlando and Tampa who don’t necessarily get much out of other nonprofit arts, or of the commercial entertainment behemoths that dominate central Florida. No arts council could function if each distinct genre or presenting organization were subject to a referendum; it must be considered as a bundle, and any such bundle is going to have some things in it that an individual might find not to their taste, to be a bit too fringe, or to be simply tedious.

Maybe Governor DeSantis will further enlighten us, though honestly I doubt it – he seems to think he has said all that needs to be said, that he is representing “the people.” But then I don’t see what the granting agency is supposed to do with this result…

Cross-posted at my Substack: https://michaelrushton.substack.com/

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