Money for Something

The polyglot makeup of Miami's population shapes culture in a city where, increasingly, the performing arts, museums, and the presence of the film industry function as a draw for tourism, a tool for the renewal of depressed areas such as downtown, and, overall, a catalyst for improving the quality of urban life. While New York City embodies the cosmopolitan spirit, Los Angeles sports Hollywood flash, and San Francisco wires for the future, Miami personifies a New World sensibility.

Diversity serves as the current watchword -- proclaimed in concert programs, exhibition catalogues, and opening speeches -- in the campaign to broaden Miami's reputation as an international arts center. Dade County's 700 arts organizations often cite artistic pluralism in their pleas for financial assistance. While some citizens still grumble about "too many Spaniards" in Florida, and some Miami-based male Anglo artists say they feel out of the loop lately, local officials, business leaders, and arts administrators generally contend that the city should be a multicultural model, and that such an image can be projected through the arts.

However, that kind of cultural diversity cannot exist without public funding. Nonprofit institutions and arts organizations ensure pluralistic artistic representation and democratic access to arts events. These organizations, which depend on government support, allow for art of a popular and participatory nature. Through them we have access not just to commercial art, but to avant-garde expression, not just traveling productions of dated Broadway musicals, but experimental and community theater; they also provide children's arts classes, inner-city school programs, visiting artists' workshops, major traveling museum shows, and outdoor public art. Right now, on both a federal and local level, funding for these efforts faces a serious threat. Community support for them remains crucial.

"It's very frustrating to see how many people attend a nonprofit event who do not understand what government funding for the arts means," observes Rem Cabrera, grants administrator for the Dade County Cultural Affairs Council. "We have an enormous job as Americans to educate people about how the arts function. We are currently facing a major federal and local crisis in the arts."

With Newt Gingrich installed as Speaker of the House, the Republicans have made clear their intention to abolish funding for federally supported cultural programs. The most reactionary among them (Jesse Helms, for one) have been attacking freedom of expression in the visual arts for years on ideological grounds, but they've based their recent arguments on economics. The greatest immediate threat concerns the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), support for which Gingrich has proposed cutting off. This year, in addition to providing funding for the three agencies, Congress also must reauthorize their existence. Over the next few months, critical votes will take place in several different Congressional committees, as well as on the floor of both the House and Senate.

Turning off the federal funding tap has a direct effect on the arts in South Florida. For example, it means the eventual demise of New Forms Florida, a regional artists' program that funds painters, photographers, performers, musicians, and others.

"The regional New Forms grants were established as a way of reaching under-served arts communities and minority communities, in order to create a national body of work that questions traditional forms and traditional aesthetics," explains Jenni Person, program director at the South Florida Art Center. "New Forms Florida grants have been keystones for many local artists. It was the first confirmation of the value of their work and really helped get them started." Without the federal funds, grant money from the Rockefeller and Warhol foundations would keep New Forms Florida alive one more year.

Person strolled Lincoln Road mall with a clipboard at a recent Friday evening gallery walk, distributing information about the funding crisis. "The thing that's most frustrating to me is the argument that art should be self-sufficient," she said with a sigh. "In cultural economics there is an artists' gap. That doesn't make art wrong or less legitimate. It just means that it doesn't fall into the system that some old white men in suits created. I'm not saying that system is wrong. I'm saying there should be allowances for things that don't fit into the system as it was planned. The first thing we have to do is to change the perception that public funding for art is charity, or that it's elitist, or bad. One way to do that is for people to study economics more seriously and realize how much revenue the arts generate, how many jobs they provide, and how much they put back into the community."

Many Dade arts organizations receive little or no direct funding from the NEA or NEH. But most benefit in some way from those endowments. Kate Rawlinson, associate curator at the Center for the Fine Arts, figures at least 30 CFA exhibitions have been funded by either or both of federal programs.

"People don't realize the mileage that each NEA dollar gets," adds Amy Cappellazzo, director of the MDCC Wolfson Galleries. "Through traveling exhibitions, we're benefiting tremendously from the secondary economy of NEA funding."

MDCC Wolfson Campus Director of Cultural Affairs Olga Garay backs up Cappellazzo's assertion by noting that "Last year we got about $30,000 in direct support from the NEA. But we're also a member of the National Performance Network, Cultural Centers of Color, and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, and all of those receive NEA funding. So if you start looking not just at dollars and cents, but at the relationships developed and advocacy developed through national initiatives, you see that the picture is much broader than a bottom-line approach of what money comes into the region. Anyone who has ever been to a performance or exhibition that they've enjoyed or that their family has enjoyed has been affected by the NEA in one way or another."

Some local arts organizations have begun to brace for dwindling funds by appealing to the private sector. One such effort has been launched by the Miami Light Project, whose directors recently initiated preparations for future fundraising campaigns by sending out a survey to subscribers; in this way, they'll evaluate the demographics of their audience. "We cannot afford to gamble with our future as a socially and fiscally responsible cultural organization," stated a letter from co-directors Caren Rabbino and Janine Gross. "Miami Light Project can become less dependent on government funding if we cultivate a larger base of subscribers and supporters in South Florida."

Rem Cabrera also has been concentrating on a campaign to increase funds from the private sector -- in this case, through a one percent hike in the food and beverage tax applied to restaurants grossing over $400,000 a year. It would affect approximately 500 businesses countywide, he says. (Hotel restaurants in the county A and all restaurants in Miami Beach A already pay a two-cent food and beverage tax, but none of that money funds cultural activities.) An estimated $3.7 million, or 40 percent of the money generated by the new tax, would go toward the county's cultural programs; the rest would go to promoting tourism and minority economic development in the county. For the fourth consecutive year, Cabrera has undertaken the daunting task of collecting the 20,000 signatures required to put the initiative before the Metro-Dade Commission (the first three efforts failed). Over the past few weeks, he has set up a table in various theater lobbies, soliciting signatures in support of the idea. In a phone interview, he expressed his concern about the apparent apathy of area audience members regarding the cultural funding dilemma. A too typical response, he said, came from one male theatergoer who refused to sign a petition; according to Cabrera, the man reasoned, "I'd rather just pay a higher admission."

Cabrera emphasizes: "They must understand that these organizations cannot survive on what they take in at the door. And the organizations can't just keep charging more. What about people who cannot pay more to support higher admission prices? The whole point of government funding is to help make the arts accessible to more people."

To express your opinion, call the Cultural Advocacy hotline (800-651-1575); $9.50 will be charged to your phone bill to send a Mailgram to your representative or senator in Congress. You also can call the Emergency Committee to Save Culture and the Arts (900-370-9000), who will send messages to members of Congress for a charge of $1.99 per minute. To sign the petition supporting the one-percent food and beverage tax, or for information about public arts support and sample letters to senators and representatives, call Jenni Person at the South Florida Art Center (674-8278), Rem Cabrera at the Dade County Cultural Affairs Council (375-5019), or the Dade Cultural Alliance hot line (858-1DCA).

When President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to Haiti, so did public art. Wall murals, a popular form of political expression in Port-au-Prince, were whitewashed by the deposed military government, reappearing only since last October. Some of these paintings are documented in photographs by Martha Cooper, Gina Cunningham, Carol Halebian, and Katherine Kean, currently on view in the upstairs gallery at Tap Tap Restaurant in South Beach.

Painted in primary colors, the murals depict Aristide as priest and politician; American soldiers A one painting reads "thank you America," another shows a Rambo figure draped in Old Glory; and memorial portraits of young victims of the military regime. The ever-present rooster, a symbol of the popular Lavalas movement, sounds a hopeful wakeup call to democracy in numerous pictures. Journalistic in style, the photos provide a glimpse of Haitian street life. At Tap Tap, they have been interspersed with written testimonies -- some optimistic, some excruciatingly sad -- by several of the artists who painted the walls.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >