Palm Coast government on Tuesday scaled back its Cultural Arts Program almost by half, offering $20,000 to 13 organizations the coming year. It is the lowest nominal level since 2012, and the lowest level in the city’s history when adjusted for inflation.
“I almost wanted to shout at you, like, $20,000? Is that all you can afford when you got 100,000 people almost?” Richard Hamilton, a local arts patron and still-generous philanthropist, told the council. “A quarter, that’s all you give per citizen. Not even that.” He asked the council to be more giving next time.
“Everyone has suffered,” Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin said of arts groups in general, Palm Coast’s beneficiaries among them. “There’s no question, and are suffering with this as well.” He is looking to reverse course in coming years.
The retreat takes place in a year that has seen the disappearance of three major cultural organizations in Palm Coast and the county: the nearly 45-year-old Flagler County Art League, JJ Graham’s Salvo Art Project–once the county’s most vibrant art gallery and creative hub–and, as announced on Tuesday, the dissolution of the Palm Coast Arts Foundation.
The foundation’s signature event had been its spring concert featuring the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra at its outdoor venue in Town Center. But Covid devastate the organization. Palm Coast government had donated the land for the venue and built some facilities there in view of the foundation’s plans for a concert hall and cultural center there. Palm Coast had subsequently established an arts district in Town center, with the Foundation as an anchor. Only last February the city was envisioning an ambitious–and enormously expensive–arts an culture center fleshing out the foundation’s existing facilities.
The flip side of the disappearances is the fledgling emergence of a pair of non-profits, United We Art and the Flagler County Cultural Council, one a city initiative and the other an umbrella organization intended to boost existing cultural groups through grants and publicity, and the marketing muscle of the county’s Tourist Development Council.
The foundation’s stage remains. “Parks and Recreation will manage the site similarly to our other amenities,” Lauren Johnston, the assistant city manager, said today, with the stage open for reservations through the city. The city is “continuing its collaboration with United We Art to enhance arts and culture in the Arts District and Palm Coast. The City is also supporting FC3 for the mission to support arts and culture in Flagler County as well.”
FC3 is the punning acronym for the Flagler County Cultural Council. So far, judging by its rather bare calendar but for its Nov. 12 arts festival in Town Center, the council appears still to be in its formative phase, with three of its 11 board seats vacant. It is conducting a public survey “to define the future of arts, culture and history in Flagler County,” and it’s taken over the arts foundation’s trail of sculpted turtles. The council’s annual meeting is on Friday.
The council has also just landed a $1,100 Palm Coast grant for a modest music series (“perhaps it’ll be jazz, but that’s still being worked out,” Debra Naughton of the county’s tourism office says), one of the nine “second-tier” grants the city awarded, all for $1,1000.
Other recipients of the $1,100 grants included organizations that have been awarded city grants in the past–the Choral Arts Society, the Community Chorus of Palm Coast, Palm Coast Methodist Church, the Garden Club, and City Repertory theatre. They had each requested three times the amount granted.
There were some unusual appearances on the grants list this year, among them the Flagler Education Foundation, which is not known for small budgets or lack of grants: it ended the 2023 fiscal year last July with $3.8 million in assets, with nearly $1 million in contributions, grants and fundraising (its annual golf tournament alone raised $52,000).
That prompted Palm Coast City Council member Theresa Pontieri to raise a question.
“I very much appreciate what they do, but they have so many other funding sources,” Pontieri said of the Education Foundation. “And so I’m curious as to whether or not some of these smaller organizations that maybe don’t get such high funding and maybe have a larger need, I think $1,111 may be a drop in the bucket to the Ed foundation, but can really be stretched and better utilized for one of the other organizations. So really curious as to whether or not that was taken into consideration, and if we should consider that as well up here.” Pontieri said that was not to exclude anyone, but “I really do feel that there are some organizations that perhaps could use the money a little bit more than others. And it’s our job to make that tough decision.”
James Hirst, the city’s parks and recreations director, said the city was listening to suggestions and “working hard on trying to create best possible scenarios wherever and we try and adapt this this program to make it better for everyone.”
The city’s approach this year was to provide $2,500 grants to a small Group of organizations: the African American Cultural Society, City Lites, the Flagler Auditorium, and the Palm Coast Music festival.
Last year the city awarded $39,000 in grants, from a budget of $50,000. When the city awarded $20,000 in 2012, the late Bill Lewis, who was a council member at the time and a champion of the arts, called it “a joke, really, when we talk about millions of dollars for many other things.”
The city in 2012 was emerging from the Great Recession, with significant year-over-year losses to its general fund. This year, new tax revenue was robust, but budget cuts were made necessary by the council’s reduction in the tax rate (though not a tax cut), which reduced the Parks and Recreation Department’s projected budget by half a million dollars. Arts grants are funded out of the parks budget.
“Certainly it would be on our shoulders in the upcoming strategic action plan to fund this cultural arts grant process more heavily than we were able to do this year if one of us or all of us were wanting to make that a strategic action priority for the future,” Alfin, the mayor, said, “because there’s no doubt that we put a hurt on all of these folks this year if you look at the request versus the amount that’s given. That’s a reference directly to the budget. But again, if we establish it as a priority, and then if you’d like to go further, and categorize the–I wouldn’t know where to begin: the outcome, the benefit–personally, I’d like to see this funded at a higher level so that we can get back to a number that they have historically enjoyed. That would be a first step for me.”
To have stayed even with inflation, the city would have had to award $27,000 this year, just to match the lowest amount it had awarded in 2012. The $20,000 it did award is equivalent to $15,400 in 2012.
City staffers–Maeven Rogers, Jason DeLorenzo, Carrie Todd, Alison Palmer and Richard Picatagi–reviewed the applications, ensuring that programs promote cultural arts, expenses are directly related to the programs, and 10 percent of the money would be used for advertising. Applicants were required to show evidence of ticket sales and hotel stays.
The council on Tuesday approved the grants as part of its consent agenda–the portion of the agenda where numerous items get approved wholesale, without discussion. But Hamilton, a former board member at the auditorium and the arts council, picked up on Pontieri’s point when he was the only member of the public to address the council on the matter Tuesday.
“Choosing between different arts organizations is a difficult and complex task, and it’s often thankless,” Hamilton said, speaking from experience. “You should thank the staff that spent their time and efforts in in deciding how to allocate even though it ended up as–did you meet the criteria or not. But they did the job, as you asked them to do, and I fully agree that going forward, we should have a good look at the criteria on choosing these and the process that you have. I don’t see why organizations like the Cultural Council or the Education Foundation, which are supposed to be giving out money to arts and culture, should be absorbing it in this way