Published Thursday, April 23, 2009
The showdown between Florida State University and the Legislature over whether the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota will stay open is the latest absurdity in the state's budget crisis. It appears unlikely FSU would risk the public fallout from shuttering the state art museum. Yet the gamesmanship reflects how art has become a political pawn in this recession.
As early as today, the Florida House also could vote on a two-year repeal of a state law that dedicates a tiny fraction of a public building's construction budget to purchasing public art. Advancing that bill and putting Ringling on the chopping block suggests Florida is at risk of losing its artistic sensibilities to save relatively few dollars.
Ironically, the Ringling museum was transferred from the state to FSU in 2000 precisely because it had suffered such lukewarm support from the Legislature over the years. The theory was the university's emphasis on the arts, combined with its benefactors, would provide more financial stability for the internationally renowned complex. The university contributes roughly $7 million annually, roughly half the museum's budget.
But facing budget cuts of up to $77 million from the Legislature, the university's trustees say they have to prioritize funding for programs serving the greatest number of students, and Ringling doesn't make the cut. Many speculate the threat is more gesture than real, considering the Ringling's international prestige. But it's far from clear if lawmakers — embroiled in secret budget negotiations this week — won't call their bluff.
The plan to repeal the state's public art law for two years is pushed by two Hillsborough Republicans, Rep. Rich Glorioso of Plant City and Sen. Ronda Storms of Valrico. The legislation, HB 1295, would interrupt the state's 30-year commitment to spend 0.5 percent of a public building's construction price on art, be it sculpture, murals, installations or paintings. The estimated savings would be $655,000, including a combined $83,314 for art purchases at two new public health buildings in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
In relative terms the arts program costs taxpayers a pittance, but it buys a long-term investment in Florida's quality of life by adding a bit of delight and adornment that changes the experience of interacting with government. And all Florida's arts make it a more attractive state for residents and visitors. Domestic and international visitors travel to the Ringling complex as an arts destination because it is a singular cultural prize. Investing in its continued health is a public priority, no matter who owns it.
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