State of the Arts

Orlando arts groups and individual artists face financial challenges. But their passion to create makes the show go on.

The arts in Orlando are in a strange and puzzling place.

Budgets for cultural organizations are down, but a dazzling performing arts center is rising across from City Hall. Over the years, we have watched a symphony orchestra pull off a remarkable resurrection and an opera company go belly up. Arts groups wounded by the economic downturn and corporate funding cutbacks have been forced to go leaner in order to keep presenting their concerts, performances and exhibits. Individual artists, meanwhile, continue to branch out, not limiting their creations to a traditional stage or a gallery, but rather seeking unlikely venues like a rooftop or even an old motel-turned-arts-haven.

The arts in Orlando are thriving. They’re also starving.

Meeting of the Minds

David Schillhammer, executive director of the Orlando Philharmonic, calls the fundraising process “starving to death on an annual basis.’’

In December, Mark Brewer, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Central Florida, a local philanthropic group, presented a report called “State of the Arts Organizations 2012’’ at a meeting of arts leaders. The survey reviewed 81 arts nonprofits in Orange, Osceola, Lake and Seminole counties. The numbers were startling.

In 2007, arts organizations received $100 million in public and private funding; in 2009, $59.5 million. The major finding of the survey was that many groups, in a classic Catch-22, are under-spending on fundraising efforts and planning. And they struggle to pay for executives with the ability to run the organizations; 72 percent of the cultural sector nonprofit CEOs are paid less than $50,000, or nothing at all.

“It’s hard to keep good people,” says Terry Olson, director of the Orange County Arts and Cultural Affairs office for the past 11 years. “There’s only so much dedicated volunteers can do.”
Some hard realities were aired at the meeting. Elizabeth Gwinn, executive director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, said her organization was “thriving and starving at the same time.” Bach Festival’s revenues dropped almost 40 percent from 2011 to 2012—even lower than 2008, when the economy crashed.

David Schillhammer, executive director of the Orlando Philharmonic, called the fundraising process “starving to death on an annual basis.” Records show that seven years ago, the Philharmonic had revenues of $3.1 million and expenses of about $2.9 million. A 2011-2012 audit showed income of $3.2 million and outlays of $3.3 million—little growth while costs kept rising.

“Any kind of real growth or change in the infrastructure remains elusive,” Schillhammer said in an interview. “Our employees haven’t received a raise in over five years—and I’m talking about very low salaries. Musicians barely make $15,000 a year, with no health insurance.’’ Despite a large endowment, the general operating budget just manages to sustain the organization.

Sustaining the arts in Central Florida has a curious past. In 1984, the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation was the leading contributor, giving more than $300,000 to Central Florida cultural groups. In succeeding years came Arts United, which raised $850,000 from private funding and foundation grants, and United Arts, which, in its inaugural year of 1988, raised a whopping $6.8 million from business, foundation and government sources to be allocated to the area’s 12 largest arts nonprofits.

Times, they do change. In June of last year, United Arts’ fundraising efforts raised less than $2.5 million, down from $2.8 million in 2011—money that is distributed to 16 organizations for general operating support, as project grants to another 38 groups in the four county area, and as development grants to individual artists. With donations to United Arts from corporate and foundation sources down $1 million from 2011, the fundraising group didn’t make its goal for the first time in a decade. The shortfall caused United Arts president Flora Maria Garcia to scrap ArtsFest, the 10-year-old festival that provided more than 300 free demonstrations of the Central Florida cultural landscape, so that UA could focus on fundraising.

Weathering the Storm

Like any actor accustomed to Shakespeare’s plays, Jim Helsinger, artistic director of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater since 1995, has weathered many storms.  “I remember struggling through the late 90s,” he says, “and now I look back and say, ‘That was easy!’ ”

Orlando Shakespeare Festival’s Jim Helsinger says his company never saw ticket sales slump during the recession, although corporate support slipped.

In 2008, “We cut our budget to the minimum,” Helsinger says. “Our staff got much better at projecting out, looking at potential shows and micromanaging about how much a costume would cost. We were not threatened.” But Helsinger saw other groups go out of business, the most notable being Orlando Theatre Project and the Orlando Opera, both in 2009.

Helsinger’s fiefdom carries on regardless. “I don’t think the economy is booming by any means, but our individual contributors have returned. Our ticket sales never went down—during a recession, people go to the theater, always have. What struggled is our corporate support; sponsorships were cut.”

The leaner company is planning large for the future—and it is drawing from an arts community that Helsinger says recently demonstrated just how engaged it is.  In December, he helped organize a meeting to declare 2014 the year of Charles Dickens. “Thirty-six people came, from every theater and arts organization. We’re planning our largest production ever, a 6 1/2-hour, two-part adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby.” Helsinger recalls that in 1999, when he and Terry Olson tried to generate interest in a yearlong program of productions and readings of Oscar Wilde, only 10 theater representatives showed up.

The community’s enthusiasm for the Dickens project is a demonstration of the thriving part. And so is this: Shakespeare, the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre, Central Florida Community Arts, Fringe Festival, Rocking Horse Theater Factory and Mad Cow Theatre all found, adapted or renovated new spaces last year. Galleries such as Twelve21 above Tim’s Wine on Lake Ivanhoe, The Falcon art gallery and wine bar in Thornton Park, the moveable photo festival called SNAP! and the CityArts Factory all created a social scene, bringing new focus to the visual arts. And the area is alive with events on various days of the week, such as the 3rd Thursday art stroll downtown, that expose audiences to new and established artists.
It is a productive bunch. Ironically, that may be part of the problem, Olson says.

“I see comparative studies in different areas,” he says. “There are comparable places with similar types and amounts of cultural ‘product,’ but they have three times as much budget. We’re more productive with what we have, and it burns people out. There’s an amazingly high turnover at all levels.”

Olson, who in his current position guides Orange County’s financial investment in cultural tourism and groups funded by United Arts, knows about throwing one’s heart into the arts. He was instrumental in the creation of the Orlando Theatre Project, SAK Comedy Lab, and the Central Florida Performing Arts Alliance. He also co-founded and ran the Orlando International Fringe Festival when it depended on vacant storefronts and warehouse space for its survival (it later found a permanent home at Loch Haven Park).

“Right now is a really good time to be creative,’’ says Anna McCambridge-Thomas, local artist and visual arts organizer.

Anna McCambridge-Thomas, a prominent local artist and graphic designer, also was an important cog in the Fringe wheel. The former head of Visual Fringe, the fine arts wing of the 22-year-old festival, she is now on the curating committee at the Orlando Museum of Art, helping organize 1st Thursdays, monthly art gatherings that spotlight themes ranging from printmaking to social commentary.  June’s event will feature her collaboration with three other local artists.

“I would say that 10 years ago we started an amazing growth in the arts, with connections between artists of all kinds,’’ she says. “Now it has grown so much it’s hard to even measure. Right now is a really good time to be creative.”

McCambridge-Thomas also is excited about group endeavors like the Corridor Project (a series of contemporary art pieces placed around the city dreamed up by Urban ReThink’s Pat Greene) and FAVO (Faith Arts Village Orlando, a multi-purpose arts facility owned by Park Lake Presbyterian Church in what was formerly the Davis Park Motel on Colonial Drive).
“I’m seeing some amazing artists coming out of UCF—very strong programs for visual artists. I hope people will continue to push; it’s good to see more bright and creative minds… . Thank goodness the artists we have here stay here.”

Raising Money

Flora Maria Garcia, head of United Arts, says that because Orlando is focused on tourism, “we have trouble seeing the larger picture involving the arts.’’

Flora Maria Garcia, president and CEO of United Arts since 2012, has degrees in photography and painting. But the arts are her business. “We raise money and give it away,” she says. “We’re the United Way of the arts.”

Garcia is intimately familiar with the Community Foundation’s woeful numbers. “It’s clear that the nonprofit sector is severely undercapitalized. Staff salaries are very low; there is a revolving door of directors or no directors at all. It’s not something many people want to talk about, but very few arts organizations give health care to their employees. It’s hard to attract good talent.”
She doesn’t see the funding problems as a national, widespread condition. “This is a problem that I see as very specific to Orlando. It’s speculation at this point, but I think it’s because this is a relatively young city, one that is focused on tourism. We have trouble seeing the larger picture involving the arts—to look into the future.”

Garcia would like to bring programs to Orlando that she has fine-tuned while serving in similar positions in Atlanta, Fort Worth, Houston and Missouri. In Houston, for example, she started an arts organization management program that awarded grants for analyzing issues  in everything from marketing and fundraising to technology and capital campaigns.

So how many of the 50 plus organizations that benefit from United Arts funding need intensive diagnostic help? “Every single one of them,” Garcia says. 

But it’s not just about the arts groups. Like McCambridge-Thomas, Garcia realizes the importance of individual artists in the community, which is why many United Arts grants go to them as well as nonprofits. [In the spirit of full disclosure, the author has received two professional development grants from United Arts.]

“There is no artistic community without artists,” Garcia says. “That’s forgotten sometimes.”

Public or Private?

The debate about public and private funding for the arts isn’t easily resolved, and for large cultural institutions, the hunt for funding—whether from businesses, foundations, government or patrons—is never-ending. But it’s not a one-way street; the economic return from the arts is well-documented. Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, reported last fall that in 2010, the arts in Orlando generated $94 million of economic activity, outside of ticket sales and jobs created. A vibrant arts community, according to the survey, engages the local community (and their spending) and attracts visitors who spend money on local businesses.

Buddy Dyer couldn’t agree more. In his 10th year as Orlando’s mayor, Dyer considers himself a strong advocate of the arts.

“I’m a subscriber to Richard Florida’s ideas about the influence of the creative class,” Dyer says. Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, believes that cities with high concentrations of artists, musicians and technology workers attract a higher level of economic development. “I know that part of the decision that brought the Burnham Institute to Orlando was the construction of the arts center and the Amway Center.”

Dyer says there’s one thing in particular missing from the downtown arts scene—big public art. And he’s doing something about it, with his recently announced $1.5 million public art initiative, See Art Orlando, which will present eight “iconic, dramatic pieces” in a Lake Eola-centered art walk. Each piece, ranging in price from $75,000 to $250,000, will have its own sponsor, from Ford Kiene, Orlando’s Anheuser-Busch distributor, to the DeVos Family Foundation. See Art kicks off a decade of art. “Year two,” Dyer says, “will be the opening of the performing arts center in 2014. And I’ll have to think about what happens after that.”

One literal bright spot on the horizon: The mayor says that the long-ridiculed Tower of Light, the 63-foot stainless steel sculpture bristling with 102 glass panels, will be cleaned and relit through private funds and ready for the See Art unveiling in September.

Both Mayor Buddy Dyer and performing arts center president Kathy Ramsberger can watch progress on what Dyer calls “the jewel of DPAC’’ from their offices daily.

If You Build It

Discussions about attracting visitors, funding and the future of the arts eventually turn to the giant hall under construction at downtown’s south end: the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

Along with the Amway Center and a renovated Citrus Bowl, Dyer has championed what he calls “the jewel of DPAC” since it was conceived in 2007. Construction began in June 2011; the first phase, a 2,700-seat theater to attract Broadway touring shows and a 300-seat community theater, is expected to open in the summer of 2014. Fundraising for a 1,700-seat hall for the Orlando Philharmonic and the Orlando Ballet continues; no start date for construction has been set.

DPAC president Kathy Ramsberger has been the public face of the center while dealing with the tug of war between the city and county over operations control and delays and building plan

changes due to funding issues.
“We’re just at the point where we can articulate our message,” Ramsberger says. So where’s the money coming from? Ramsberger is as succinct as she can be about the four funding sources: community redevelopment funds from the City; Orange County tourist tax monies; the State of Florida; and the philanthropic community.

“A lot of people think we’re an arts organization,” Ramsberger says, “and we’re not.’’ DPAC is actually a real estate development company, with a contract to design nine acres that will house an office tower, a hotel, mixed-use properties—and a performing arts center.

Ramsberger explains: “In 2008, we were 7 percent away from being totally funded, four years before construction began. When the tourist tax funding was delayed, we had to halt operations. Every staff person, the architects, the workmen, everyone had to be put on hold, but we had to keep them available or start from scratch again. We were supposed to open in 2012.” The construction was split into two phases. A shortfall of $16 million needed to break ground on phase one was met through a personal guarantee from a group of board members, including chairman Jim Pugh and Chuck Steinmetz. There's still $75 million that must be raised through philanthropy to build phase two. For the main hall, however, "we’re on budget and on time,” Ramsberger says.

But not without controversy. DPAC’s executive board announced in December that to increase revenue, the center would self-present Broadway touring shows once it opened, shutting out Florida Theatrical Association, the current presenting organization in Orlando. Ron Legler, president of FTA, expressed “shock and disappointment,’’ saying he would produce his own Broadway series at another local venue. Eventually DPAC and Florida Theatrical worked out their differences: On Feb. 1, they announced an agreement to co-present shows at the performing arts center and share the profits.

As for the center’s effect on other local presenting groups, arts leaders are mostly taking the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach.

“The impact is largely unknown,” says Orange County’s  Olson. “It’s a huge organization; their $12 million budget is larger than the cumulative of all the other arts organizations. But the visibility of a new, big project will also bring the arts to the forefront of the consciousness. If you build it, people will notice it. It will add to our cultural palette.”

United Arts’ Garcia sees DPAC as an opportunity to grow audiences, broaden the base and widen exposure to the arts. “A major city needs a major hall,” she says.

Ramsberger sees many possibilities for collaboration in the future. “If Mad Cow Theatre or the Bach Society have programming that is bigger than their available space,” she says, “we want to collaborate with them. And we’d like to investigate how we might be able to incorporate permanent homes for organizations like them, 15 years down the road.”

Helsinger doesn’t see the center competing with Shakespeare’s ticket sales. “We already have the Broadway Series [currently at Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre]. So there won’t be a drastic change. I hope more people attend theater—the more they go, the more they’ll go. People will point to that multi- million-dollar thing and say, ‘Really? What else is here?’ It will propel the Ballet and Philharmonic into a top place; it will change the game.”

Because of the delays and changes in construction plans, however, the Philharmonic’s Schillhammer is still waiting for that change. “We remain committed to the performing arts center,” he says. “We understand the problems with the economy and the tourist tax dollars that made it necessary to build the Broadway stage first instead of the stage needed by the Philharmonic and Ballet. But the whole promise was for the local companies. The Philharmonic was the reason to build it to begin with—the promise that fundraising was hung on.”

Robert Hill, artistic director of the Orlando Ballet, rehearses with his company. 

Robert Hill, Orlando Ballet’s artistic director, is looking forward to the new space without neglecting the Ballet’s current home.

“We’re in the process of making those plans,” he said about the move to DPAC, “and it’s very exciting to be a part of that growth. But for our 40th anniversary next year, I’m continuing to push this company with classics and edgy, contemporary choreography at the Bob Carr.”

As for the state of the arts, Hill feels that Orlando’s situation isn’t out of the ordinary. “Nonprofits go from challenge to challenge,” he says. “New York or Orlando, funding is a big ongoing consideration wherever you are. For shows like we put on, it’s all about money. And the box office doesn’t pay for it.”

Schillhammer remains hopeful despite the challenges. “We went from a fledgling company 19 years ago to a $4 million organization with 4,000 subscribers,” he says. The Philharmonic rose from the ashes of the Florida Symphony Orchestra, which closed due to financial woes in 1993 after 43 years. The Phil also took on a scaled-back version of the opera when the company failed four years ago and “we balanced its budget, when it couldn’t be done before,” adds Schillhammer.

When asked how the Phil is doing with contributions, Schillhammer responds: “Philanthropy is good; corporate remains strong.’’ But there is a hint of “however” in his voice.

The Future of the Arts

Margot Knight, former head of United Arts (inset), says, “Our world lies between art and commerce.’’

Margot Haliday Knight was instrumental in growing local arts organizations for 10 years. The sometimes controversial former president of United Arts is now executive director at Djerassi Resident Artists Program, an acclaimed arts community near San Francisco that is similar to the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach.

“Twenty years ago, [Orlando] had fewer organizations and a lot more money,” says Knight, who left United Arts in October 2011. “Now there is amazing growth in the number of companies, but arts budgets haven’t really rebounded.”

Knight sees the value in DPAC, but wishes other plans had also been embraced. For example, the idea of a theater district was introduced in the late 1990s during the administration of former Mayor Glenda Hood as a catalyst for entertainment, dining and retail development—exactly the goals expressed by DPAC. But it never went much beyond the talking stage.

“It’s not just Orlando,” Knight says. “Very few places build an arts scene that is audience-driven, not institution-driven. The biggest problem arts organizations and artists have is venues; all we’ve ever needed is space.”

Like Garcia, her successor, Knight believes strongly in the role of the arts creator. “Art starts with the individual artist; you need to develop ways to support that. The future of the arts is small venues and the individual talents in Orlando—art in neighborhoods, in people’s backyards, like the Milk District and in Winter Garden.”

Olson agrees. “Smaller groups, doing what they want to do, have always been the backbone,” he says. He also is looking for more diversity on the local scene. “I’d like to see more arts groups focusing on Hispanic culture. It’s a large and growing community, and there aren’t a lot of entrenched groups.”

Both Olson and Knight give credit to the theme parks for populating our creative endeavors. “The theme parks are an arts industry,” Olson says. “Disney has 60,000 ‘cast members’ and brings tens of thousands of trained artists into our community.”

Knight saw the numbers every day. “People may not realize that Orlando is the number one area in the country for performing artists per capita,” she says. “And I think Orlando has a bright future because of it.”

For Cole NeSmith, every space is a potential arts venue—even a swan boat on Lake Eola.

A New Perspective

Cole NeSmith is one local artist pushing that future. “I grew up in Orlando,” he says. “I am a theater-film-TV-kind of person. I traveled with a band in 2001, and now I’m a visual artist and writer.”
And mover and shaker. NeSmith developed the 31-day Creative City Project with Terry Olson, presenting temporary art in the blank and unlikely public spaces of Orlando this past December. Sleuth’s Mystery Theatre, Orlando Ballet, Mad Cow Theatre, Cirque du Soleil and others participated. For one event, a total of 22 brass players performed “inSpire’’ by Keith Lay at the same time at six locations, including the top of the Orlando Public Library and on swan boats at Lake Eola. Musician Julian Bond rode along Orange Avenue on a trailer while playing piano. The Creative City project returns this October.

“We did Creative City without a budget,” NeSmith says, although the project got some funding from the Downtown Development Board. “By presenting a different artist in an unexpected performance in a downtown space, our aim was to shape the way the city is experienced. We set up a popup photo booth at Central and Magnolia, and this South American family who was traveling the world in a van drove by. They stopped and had a photo taken and connected with us. And they’ll be thinking about that moment when they think about Orlando.”
The late director and theatrical innovator Viola Spolin once said, “Without an audience, there is no theater.’’ NeSmith found his audience on that downtown street corner.

The arts in Orlando depends on big-budget organizations and independent artists. But it also relies on the unique makeup of the local audience that hopefully will discover new creativity even as the institutions continue to walk the big-dollar treadmill, and artists continue to create in studios, on stages and on street corners. As Margot Knight says, “Our world lies between art and commerce.”

It is a strange and puzzling—but ultimately inspiring—place.

Comings and Goings in the Arts

  • Flora Maria Garcia was named president and CEO of United Arts of Central Florida in May 2012, after a seven-month search.
  • Ena Heller became director of Rollins College’s Cornell Fine Arts Museum in June, and declared free admission.
  • Michael Marinaccio had his first season as producer of the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival this past May.
  • Mark Hough took the post as executive director of Orlando Ballet in May, and resigned in August.
  • In October, Glen Gentele was selected as the new director and CEO of the Orlando Museum of Art. He replaced Marena Grant Morrisey, who retired after 42 years with the museum.
  • Conductor Christopher Wilkins is leaving the Orlando Philharmonic next year after eight seasons, and the search is on for someone to fill his spot at the podium. “Every one of the five symphonies in Florida are going through searches for conductors right now,” says executive director David Schillhammer. “It’s not that unusual.”
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