Before moving to Florida a decade ago, I sat on a local arts council in Somerville, Mass. From that perspective, and as someone who makes his living working in and reporting on the arts, I have watched -- sometimes in befuddlement, other times in despair, and once in a while in hopeful anticipation -- as our own arts scene attempts to match the aspirations of our growing community.
Orange County recently took a giant step forward by creating an office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. Terry Olson, a longtime Orlando theater entrepreneur, has been named to run it. With the aid of a volunteer advisory council, that office will be responsible for distributing about $3 million per year to raise the profile -- and ideally the productivity -- of those whose efforts comprise the Orange County arts scene.
Now the county commission must choose the 13 members who will make up the arts council. During my six-year tenure in Somerville, we had a vigorous and productive council, and I learned a great deal that may be of help to Olson and the commissioners as they review the nominations. I humbly offer the following advice:
1) Do not appoint politicians to the advisory council. They will make political decisions, not artistic ones. Somer-ville's council was made up of working artists, educators and interested community members. Grant money was awarded based only on artistic merit. There were no extraneous agendas. Peer panels with expertise in such areas as theater, visual art and literature made recommendations to the full council, which then voted on final funding.
2) Do not appoint dilettantes or the merely well-connected. Unlike United Arts, which must raise much of the money it allocates, the new arts council has a funding source. There is no need to appoint high-profile members who can shake the money tree at cocktail parties or put on the squeeze at corporate functions. A council that spends public monies must be representative of the community it serves. (See above note about artists, educators and community members.)
3) Do not fund the same old groups. There will be a lot of hungry development directors from established organizations, with hands outstretched. They need to stand in line behind good, relatively unknown artists who don't have a clue as to how grants are landed. Active-ly seek out emerging artists and give them the tools they need to apply for funding. Make decisions based on merit, not who has been around the longest.
4) Require public presentations from funded artists. It is all well and good to support the starving writer in his garret or painter in his studio as he creates great works for the ages. But public funds require a more immediate public benefit. All grants must be contingent upon some public display of the funded project -- a free art show, poetry readings, a subsidized theater performance. Make the artist come up with the public benefit component in his proposal. In addition, the council should be proactive in creating, staging and advertising public events. In Somerville, our council produced arts shows, performing-arts festivals and other programs to showcase grant winners.
5) Do your homework. Don't fund projects until you're sure the money is going where it's supposed to go. Then require strict accounting from organizations. Last year, the county commission and Orlando City Council each donated $75,000 to the Civic Theatre upon what proved to be specious information -- that UCF was going to come in, take over the facilities at Loch Haven Park and retool the Civic for its graduate theater program. Sixteen months later, the buildings still are dark, and UCF recently admitted it really doesn't know if housing the MFA program at Civic is actually a good idea. (See above note about appointing politicians.) Also, be ready to spend time following up projects by attending events and performances.
6) Tilt spending to programs that offer cultural experiences to schools. It is well documented that the arts impact students in positive ways. There is no better use of your funds than in supporting artists who are willing and able to influence the next generation of taxpaying citizens and art appreciators. Seek out those with something valuable to offer kids and give them the money to do it.
7) Communicate with the public often and effectively. Many of Orange County's boards and commissions are invisible to the population. Without a knowledgeable audience, the arts wither and die. Use part of your funds to let the people know what is going on, and how they can join in the cultural offerings supported by the government, in their name.