Bradenton arts grant still in its infancy

Bradenton Herald – Comparing arts funding in Sarasota and Manatee counties might be like comparing apples to oranges at first glance.

Recently, 25 Sarasota arts-based organizations received more than a collective $1 million in an annual Tourist Development Cultural/Arts grant, funded through the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau. In Bradenton, only $50,000 is available to the arts through the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Event Marketing Assistance grant.

It’s a grant few people might know about, and even fewer have taken advantage of.

“It’s something that we don’t advertise,” said Elliott Falcione, interim director for the Bradenton Area CVB. “Fifty grand doesn’t go a long way.”

But while Sarasota’s TDC/A grant program has been going strong for 20 years, Bradenton’s is only a year old — with the potential to grow.

The Bradenton Area CVB plans to research ways the community can better utilize the arts grant program. Until then, designating $50,000 for the arts is a good start, Falcione said.

“We’re reaching out to the arts more than we’ve ever had,” he said.

The Bradenton Area CVB’s Event Marketing assistance program — which is funded through the 5-cent tourist tax — lists a strict criteria for organizations wanting to apply.

To be eligible, organizations must be a nonprofit holding an event in Manatee County, according to the grant application. The event must enhance the area’s overall tourist appeal, attracting would-be guests into hotels, attracting community involvement and generating revenue for the county. The grant can only fund an event that is no more than 3 years old. It must be used for promotion and advertising expenses, specifically ads that reach more than a 100-mile radius of the county. Matching funding is also required.

So far, Realize Bradenton has taken advantage of the assistance grant, requesting $3,000 to help promote the American Watercolor Society Traveling Exhibition at ArtCenter Manatee earlier this year, said Johnette Isham, executive director for the marketing/events group.

The art center was one of only six galleries in the country to host the exhibit. That alone guaranteed tourists would come.

Realize Bradenton used the assistance grant for online banners and print ads in national arts publications based beyond Manatee’s 100-mile radius. It was also used to create special VIP passports that highlighted the watercolor show and featured discounts on area hotels and other Manatee-based attractions.

Isham has been meeting with Falcione and other cultural partners to define other tourist-generating events they can work on together.

“We’re looking to do great events that benefit quality of life,” Isham said. “To make them part of people’s car trips or flights — events that will get them to stay here longer.”

That’s the same goal that Sarasota’s TDC/A grant — generated by Sarasota County’s half-cent bed tax — has in mind. “It’s to help support (arts) programs with programming that will enhance tourism in the community,” said Jim Shirley, executive director of the Sarasota County Arts Council.

The arts council conducts a rigorous application process for its grant. Criteria include a requirement for matching funds, nonprofit status and making sure the event has artistic merit and tourist appeal, among other things.

This year’s award recipients included many of Sarasota’s major art and cultural institutions — from the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which received $50,855, to the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, which received $6,501.

Shirley said the grant comes at a much-needed time, as the Florida Legislature has cut its aid for the arts. In fact, the TDC/A grant awarded more money locally than the Legislature did to statewide arts and cultural institutions. Arts funding from the state government was only $950,000, the Sarasota Arts Council reported. When Sarasota County started its arts grant two decades ago, it distributed $760,750 in its first year, Shirley said. Funding has risen as high $1.3 million, he said.

Though the recession has taken a small bite out of Sarasota tourism, the overall growth can be attributed to two factors: more hotels in the county and an increase in the price of hotel rooms, said Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota CVB.

The local money has made all the difference to organizations like the Sarasota Opera — the grant’s biggest recipient, which was awarded about $88,000. The money will be used for the production and marketing of the organization’s fall opera season, which is in its third year, and its widely popular Opera Lovers Weekend promotion during its regular winter season. Both events draw tourists worldwide, said Patricia Horwell, communications officer for the opera company.

Past successful fall seasons have, on average, filled the opera house to 95 percent to 100 percent capacity, drawing tourists who have taken advantage of off-season travel deals, Horwell said.

“People said there’s nobody here in the fall, but we showed that, in fact, there are,” she added.

For Opera Lovers Weekend, patrons get four performances in three days — a feat touted by one of the few companies in the country to own and operate its own opera house. The weekend event, slated for March, attracts tourists from as far as Europe who enjoy all that Sarasota has to offer, Horwell said.

“During season, we are constantly getting phone calls about restaurants and hotel information,” she said.

published Aug. 1, 2010

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