Arts Supporters Still Optimistic After Tallahassee Venue Setback

Apr 16, 2014

The lot where the performing arts center would have been built may soon be up for sale.
Credit Donald DeBevoise

Tallahassee won’t be getting a stand-alone performing arts center any time soon. The Leon County Commission has decided to use tax dollars originally earmarked for building arts centers in other ways. It’s the latest in a series of struggles facing large arts venues in Tallahassee.

Bob Inzer is Leon County Clerk of Court and president of the yet-to-be-built Florida Center for Performing Art and Education. More than $4 million from a local hotel tax was originally intended to fund art centers like Inzer’s in Tallahassee—before the County Commission redirected it. But he says a performing arts center is a crucial economic development tool

“I can’t find any city anywhere in the country that doesn’t have a performing arts center that would be on my list of places I want Tallahassee to be like,” Inzer says.

County commissioners who voted against funding the arts center say there wasn’t enough private funding to justify government dollars. Chairwoman Kristin Dozier says she and other members didn’t have confidence in the center’s ability to attract investment.

“For my part I was never comfortable with the numbers that were coming back to us, and the Sales Tax Committee might have had the same feeling and others have as well,” Dozier says.

The proposed arts center is not the first instance of a Tallahassee venue struggling to raise money. The Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science closed last year after failing to make financial ends meet. When enough private money didn’t materialize, the Brogan sought public funds, yet it still closed in debt.

The Brogan’s former Chief Operations Officer Trish Hanson says the problem wasn’t a lack of visitors but rather the museum stretching itself thin with too many projects.

“I think a lot of it is that the Brogan Museum tried to do too much, meaning they tried to be everything for everyone,” Hanson says.

Hanson believes there’s an audience for art centers in Tallahassee, but she says they need organized and carefully planned programming to draw those audiences in.

The Brogan’s failure and the nixing of the performing arts center raise the question of whether such facilities are necessary with other performing arts venues in the city—venues like the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center and Florida State University’s 1,100-seat Ruby Diamond Concert Hall.

“We should never assume that we’re always going to have access to Ruby Diamond Concert Hall,” says Tallahassee Symphony Executive Director Mandy Sauer.

She says the symphony plays at Ruby Diamond but she’s not happy with limited availability.

“So clearly when we look to the future we need to be thinking long-term about where we might move our concerts were we ever asked to move that venue,” Sauer says.

And cities smaller than Tallahassee have thriving performing arts centers. Clayton County, Ga., Fine Arts Director Monika Wiley says her local center hosts school and community shows.

“We believe in the fine arts and that’s why I believe it’s so successful: because our community supports us,” Wiley says.

Clayton County’s performing arts center is primarily funded by the county and school district, in contrast to the Brogan and proposed Tallahassee arts center, which relied heavily on private funds. Wiley said even when the economy dipped and schools looked to cut costs, the county arts center continued to thrive because of its importance to the Clayton community.

“That’s the pride of the county: what we do in fine arts,” she says.

Leon County may not be ready to fund an arts center. But former head of the area’s Council on Culture & Arts, Peggy Brady, says the Brogan Museum’s failure shouldn’t be a warning for investors looking at potential arts venues.

“I think right now until that perception is defeated and real facts are looked at, I think that’s going have to be what is overcome before the efforts can be successful,” Brady says.

Brady believes Tallahassee will have a performing arts center in the future.

Meanwhile, Dozier says the county is considering selling the lot that would have housed the proposed arts center.