Group Paints Vision of Arts in St. Johns; They Hope to Make Them Part of Everyone's Life, but Will Need Tight Public Money

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID HUNT

ST. AUGUSTINE - Chalky pastels and a head shot of pop singer Beyonce Knowles got the kids, even if for just a moment, thinking about color and form, duplicating and creating.

The lesson of the day was portrait drawing, working the creative side of the brain for at-risk youth in the less well-to-do west side of town. But the after-school class also was a small step toward a larger movement that's gaining political momentum in a county bursting with growth.

Painters and performers alike are joining forces, looking to make local theatre, music and art part of everyone's life, from the 170,000 residents to the millions of tourists hitting historic sites and golf courses each year. But the idea will take money - notably public money at a time county officials are wincing at property tax reform debates in the Legislature.

Still, the St. Johns Cultural Council has doubled in membership and rallied for the attention of the County Commission, which controls the purse strings of an $182.5 million general fund. Arguing the arts could benefit education, reduce crime and build a better sense of community, the cultural council has the commission's ear, but the five commissioners have made no decisions whether to respond financially.

"I'd hate to say this is a cart-before-the-horse issue, but it really is because of the funding air ball we have in Tallahassee," commission Chairman Ben Rich said. "We don't know where we are."

Rich said he sees merit in helping the arts flourish, but property tax reform - far from the commission's control - could lower funds for everything from arts programs to fire and ambulance services.

Vice Chairman Tom Manuel suggested redirecting tourism funding to help the arts grow.

"Only good things happen when you have an active arts community," he said. "The community becomes energized."

Cultural Council President Philip McDaniel said the group operates on a shoestring budget with no financial assistance from the county. An analysis provided by the council shows that out of more than $150 million invested in the county's culture and recreation programs from 2003 to 2006, $254,000 went to arts programing.

McDaniel said the goal is to gain a thicker funding stream to promote the arts as the county grows, possibly by establishing a department of cultural affairs at the county level.

First, the group has to get a better idea of what people want. From the fast-growing northwest sector to the affluence of Ponte Vedra Beach and the eccentricities of St. Augustine, each of the three major population hubs in St. Johns County will have unique needs. McDaniel said community workshops, like one that brought out more than 70 people last month, will continue as the group searches for ways to enrich communities and get the financial help to do so.

BUILDING IDENTITY

About half of the tourists who travel to Florida check out some type of cultural activity while they're here, be it a museum, play or concert, according to a state tourism study performed between April 2005 and April 2006. Half of that group, or about 25 percent of the state's tourists, had no plans for the cultural arts until they arrived and discovered what was available.

To McDaniel, that means building arts programs would keep tourists around longer and boost the economy. But arts programs also could have an important role in retaining the nearly 45,000 residents who have moved to the area since 2000 and enticing the thousands more expected to move there as time goes on.

Bill Cleveland, chief executive of the Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based Center for the Study of Art and Community, said St. Johns County may be able to take a lesson from California's Silicon Valley, the tech industry's boomtown.

"A lot of people were coming, filling their pot of gold and leaving," he said. "It was a great place to make money but a terrible place to raise kids. …