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Sarasota County Defunds Cultural Organizations

Written by on Thursday, July 11, 2024

WSLR-Fogartyville is one of them. An art show organizer calls the decision ‘political’.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: July 10, 2024

Host: The Arts & Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County had recommended 38 local organizations to receive tourism tax grants.  But the Sarasota County Commission chose to pick winners and losers at their meeting this morning, by singling out three organizations to be defunded. I was at the commission meeting in downtown.

Johannes Werner: To say it right away — one of the organizations that was cut off from tourism tax grants is the Fogartyville Community Center, the live music venue connected to WSLR. The other defunded organizations are Embracing our Differences, which organizes a public art exhibition in Sarasota’s Bayfront Park, and Avenida de Colores, the organizers of the annual chalk art street festival.

The combined $112,000 in tourism tax grants of the three organizations will be proportionally distributed among the other grant applicants.

The elephant in the room was the suspicion that commissioners made ideological choices, given that Embracing Our Differences has been a target of conservative culture warriors. Sarah Wertheimer, executive director of Embracing Our Differences, made no secret of her feelings. Asked how she felt about her organization being singled out, she said this:

Sarah Wertheimer

Sarah Wertheimer: Very disheartened and disappointed. I think that the County Commission, like many others unfortunately, are choosing to politicize human rights and human values and are choosing to look at our work through a political lens, which is completely inaccurate. We are not a political organization. We have never been a political organization, and we never want to be a political organization. We are arts and education. We are here to represent all people and that’s all that we want to do.

JW: However, the commissioners’ discussions surrounding arts funding this morning was different from the controversial defunding earlier this year of social service organizations. In the latter case, Sarasota County Commissioners had wielded abortion and connections to Planned Parenthood as an argument to cut funding. But today, Commissioners Joe Neunder, Neil Rainford and Mike Moran used technical arguments.

The commissioners presented themselves as good stewards of taxpayer funding. Moran questioned Cultural Alliance CEO Brian Hersh about recommending funding for almost all applicants, and later suggested they might want to change their approach by rejecting half of the organizations that apply. Moran reiterated the importance of scoring the organizations, which the Alliance already does. Rainford said he wants all organizations to have a secured and controlled point of entry to their events, to make sure all participants will get to fill out a survey. Which, in turn, would enable the county to track how many participants are visitors, making sure the tourism tax funding is being used to generate more tourism.

Sarah Wertheimer says Embracing Our Differences complied with all of the above.

SW: So we actually did create a very detailed map for them that did designate a single point of entry. We added barriers to entry. We worked with the city to make this possible and we were completely in compliance with their eligibility requirements, which is why we scored a 94.63, which is one of the top scores out of all the organizations. We absolutely fit within that eligibility requirement as well. They require that you distribute surveys to 25% of your attendees. We actually distribute them to all attendees because all attendees have the access, when they walk into the exhibition, to complete a survey. We have individuals on site handing those out, as well as a QR code for individuals to complete it online.

An Embracing our Differences exhibit

JW: She also questions the approach of singling out tourism-related businesses and tourists as the only beneficiaries of tourism tax spending. Sarasota residents seem to have been forgotten in the commissioners’ endeavor.

SW: I do believe that they want to ensure that the dollars are well spent on bringing tourists to the community who appreciate the arts, who appreciate our community and who continue to spend money here, so that we do have that continuing income. I just don’t believe that they’re looking at it in the right way. Once again, it’s incredibly disappointing that they are not taking into consideration the constituents who truly value the work that we do. We have widespread support from across the county, and so to have that just completely thrown out the window is very, very sad.

Art from the exhibit.

JW: All five commissioners voted to drop the three organizations as grantees, after an initial motion by Commissioner Mark Smith to accept the Cultural Alliance’s complete list failed to get a second.

Reporting for WSLR News, this has been Johannes Werner.


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