Art Talk: Jennifer Sabo, Executive Director of Arts4All Florida

Arts4All Florida is a statewide service organization dedicated to making the arts accessible for everyone. We chatted with Jennifer Sabo, the organization’s executive director, to learn more the organization and about her career in Florida.

Division of Cultural Affairs (DCA): How long have you lived and worked in Florida?

Jennifer: I attended grad school at UF and earned a Master’s in Museum Studies with a concentration in Education. After grad school, I briefly moved to LA, but ultimately came back to Florida, working at the Ringling Museum for a few years as the Youth and Families Program Manager. After that, I had the opportunity to be the founding Director of Education at the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples. That was a true labor of love! It was so exciting to be part of building something from the dirt up. I then had the not-so-brilliant idea to move north again (into the cold), but was soon looking to move back to Florida right when Arts4All Florida (formerly VSA Florida) was looking for a new Executive Director. It worked out perfectly, as I already knew a lot about the organization and had partnered with them on a few programs when I was working with Ringling and Golisano. I’ve now been the Executive Director at Arts4All Florida for a little over four years.

DCA: Tell us about your work with Arts4All Florida. What is the best part of your job?

Jennifer: There are three parts to my job. One part involves the typical Executive Director task of funding the organization—both finding funding and managing funding. A big part of our budget comes from the Florida Department of Education, so a lot of my work is managing and writing our grants, meeting deliverables, reviewing program evaluations, communicating with stakeholders, and so on.

Another big part of my job is what is typical of much nonprofit administration work, “other duties as assigned”. This includes a little bit of everything—marketing, event planning, working at summer camps, and many other things. This is one of the things that I love about the organization. We have an amazing—but small—staff, so everyone really works together and takes turns helping one another with their duties. No one is a silo!

The last part of my job involves trainings, conducting both in-person trainings for school districts and cultural organizations and webinars. We help teach others about accommodations and accessibility for all. I love this part of my job. Most of the time, the people that are at the training really want to be there and want to be more inclusive and accessible. It’s awesome when you see the lightbulb go off in someone’s head and say, “this will work for my neurotypical students, too!” Our vision is really to make the arts accessible for everybody.

DCA: What are some of the challenges involved with leading this organization?

Jennifer: Funding. Every year, the month of April is really stressful, as we wait to hear about grants and other funding sources. We are an interesting organization in that we are both public and private. A large portion of our funding comes from the Department of Education through the University of South Florida. All of our staff are USF employees, but we are also a private 501(c)(3). This makes my work interesting because we have to report to our funders, the DOE, USF, and school districts in more than 60 different counties.

DCA: How has the organization evolved over the years?

Jennifer: The organization is now 38 years old. It was founded in 1981 as a joint project between the Florida Department of Education and the Division of Cultural Affairs. Florida was incredibly proactive about facilitating arts accessibility in this regard– the organization was founded before the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was originally called Florida Arts for the Handicapped, and was part of the international organization that eventually became VSA (which stood for “Very Special Arts”). In 1986, VSA directed all affiliate organizations to become private nonprofit organizations, which was the start of the organization as it exists today.

The program has changed throughout the years based on whatever the needs have been at certain times. We have hosted conferences, residencies, trainings, and now we do a little bit of everything.

Recently, we changed our name from VSA Florida to Arts4All Florida to signify our focus on universal arts. We want everyone to be able to participate in the arts together, not just people with disabilities.

DCA: Which counties or areas do you serve?

Jennifer: For the past two years, we have served 64 different counties throughout Florida. We serve each differently based on their specific needs.

DCA: In your opinion, what is the greatest contribution that Arts4All Florida makes to the community?

Jennifer: Our vision is to make it so that everyone can do art together, so that the arts are universally accessible to people with and without disabilities. The arts are a unifying force and they really level the playing field, so to speak. Many people who have disabilities are able to be incredibly successful in the arts. It’s really cool to see someone without a disability appreciating the art of someone with a disability.

We just wrapped up our “A Definition of Dance” program which we started four years ago. We wanted to bring world-renowned dancers with disabilities to Tampa to do community outreach and performances. The performance during the first year of the program was one of the most incredible performances that I have ever been to in my life, one of those events where everything comes together just right and amazing things happen. In year two, we expanded the program to bring in more dancers and travel to more cities. We were able to bring in 15 artists with all different kinds of abilities from eight different countries for performances in Jacksonville, Miami, and Tampa. This year, we brought in the dance crew ILL-Abilities, and they were absolutely amazing. They spoke about discovering and overcoming their disabilities through dance, and were able to translate this story into their performances. Each dancer performed solo before they came together as a crew. The coolest part was watching how kids reacted to their performance—the kids didn’t focus on the dancers’ disabilities—they just thought, “this is really cool”. That experience was really like our vision coming to life.

DCA: What do you think of when you hear “Culture Builds Florida”? Why are the arts and culture important to our state?

Jennifer: As I mentioned before, the arts are a unifying presence for everybody, whether you are a creator or a consumer. Everybody can enjoy some type of arts and everybody gets something different out of it, either through producing art, participating in art, or viewing art. The arts relax, heal, and unite us. They are social and bring everybody together. No matter what your job is or what your abilities are, everybody can engage with the arts at some level. They make us who we are as a society and culture.

DCA: Is there anything else you’d like us to know about Arts4All Florida?

Jennifer: If there are any organizations that want to help the arts become more inclusive and accessible, please contact us! We are here as a state service organization to help you.

For more information about Arts4All Florida, visit their website at: http://vsafl.org.

The Division thanks Jennifer Sabo, Executive Director at Arts4All Florida, for her gracious participation in this interview.  

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