Spotlight On: The Future of Arts and Culture Districts in Florida

by Bob Evans

I might dispute the claim that a river is the only feature missing from Tallahassee, but I won’t dispute that Johnny Cash lyrics always make a salient point. In a recent Emerging Leaders Blog Salon post at the Americans for the Arts ARTSblog, “Another Wide River to Cross: Incentivizing an Arts District in Tallahassee,” my colleague, Tim Storhoff, gives some excellent commentary as to why a centralized arts district can be a defining factor in the overall health of a city. The truth is that these arts and culture districts provide a community with a meaningful sense of place and purpose, the likes of which cannot be easily replicated.

Map of the Bradenton Riverwalk from

At the behest of the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, I’ve done some research on the subject of arts and culture districts. I found that these areas, intended to create a “critical mass” of places for cultural consumption, have 4 major outcomes:

  • Attracting artists and cultural enterprises
  • Fostering cultural development
  • Encouraging economic growth
  • Fulfilling community needs – both rural and urban

These outcomes are condensed from the National Association of State Arts Agencies Policy Brief on State Cultural Districts, which naturally also defines the state’s roles.  Currently, 12 states have enacted legislation for arts and cultural districts, but Florida is not among their ranks. Overall, I feel like the recognition, facilitation, and cultivation of these districts by the state is the most crucial part of the process.

Originally, I was unclear if the catalyst of these districts came from a grassroots or local effort or from the state; was it a top-down or bottom-up approach? Through my research, I discovered it was more of a growth from a younger program to an older program, where the criteria are established first, and grants, funding, and tax incentives are added later. The current models in states like Texas and Maryland support this.

Maryland is especially receptive to these districts, and has provided admissions and amusement tax exemption, income tax credit, and property tax credit for these districts, the most of any state. The benefits of these districts are astounding. Towson University conducted an economic impact study of these arts districts in Maryland, and found that “an estimated 1,621 jobs, $147.3 million in state GDP, and $49.8 million in wages were supported on average annually between 2008 and 2010.”

Florida has some excellent examples of arts and culture districts, from the Bradenton Riverwalk, to the Tampa River Arts and Channel Districts, Jacksonville’s CoRK District, Miami’s Design District, and on. But as of right now, there are no local or state systems to provide a forum for communication, nor are there direct tax incentives for these areas. If Tim’s dream comes true, there will be a vibrant district right in the middle of Tallahassee, and, as he theorizes, “If Florida’s policy makers can experience the benefits of an arts district firsthand, perhaps a statewide system can be implemented.”

Right now, it’s hard for anyone to see long term benefits of giving tax breaks, especially to relatively new programs. It’s going to take time, and we need to be cautious, which is exactly why states like Texas have adopted the certification-only approach without incentives. It’s a great way to test the efficacy of the program. But, as for the future, I’ll just have to defer back to Mr. Cash: “I don’t know. I can’t say. I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.

Inside the DCA: An Intern’s Perspective

by Bob Evans

Bob Evans, former intern and current staff member.

Bob Evans, former intern and current staff member at the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.

I have this theory. The kids who dream about growing up and becoming astronauts, ballerinas, or other such fantastic professions usually end up as accountants or telecommunications network engineers. Not to say that those aren’t fantastic jobs, but to the average American eight-year-old, it’s much more accessible to imagine space or the stage. But the kids who shoot for, say, architecture or constitutional law might end up being astronauts, ballerinas, or…arts administrators?

Ok, it’s a little trite, as far as theories go.

All this to say I never would have pictured myself as a musician, let alone an arts administrator, let alone working for Florida’s state arts agency. I moved to Tallahassee to pursue an arts administration degree in the Florida State University’s College of Music, and, along the way, I somehow impressed someone enough to be invited to join the Division of Cultural Affairs as an intern.

I’ll be the first to admit to pretending I know more about the various branches and tendrils of state and local government than I actually do (with apologies to my dear, sweet, high school AP Government teacher). I understood that a state arts agency was typically a grant-making organization, but I had no clue how it functioned under the purview of state government. After seven months here at the DCA, I can assuredly say that it is just as complicated as expected but more wonderful than I could have imagined.

My duties include running for coffee, picking up dry cleaning, driving people to the airport…no, that’s wrong! All throughout my internship, I’ve been treated like a staff member, and given just as many responsibilities. I’ve worked with the Florida Artists Hall of Fame and seen firsthand the wealth of artists that promote and preserve Florida’s culture. I’ve helped organize Florida’s Poetry Out Loud contest, under the guidance of the recently retired Ken Crawford. This program, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, encourages high school students to memorize and recite poetry by truly great poets. These students learn how to perform on stage, and by memorizing a poem, they internalize it, which is such an under-appreciated skill in today’s world of instant access. Along with my brilliant colleague Tim Storhoff, I co-author a monthly review of arts and culture events in Florida, titled “Culture in Florida” after the motto “Culture Builds Florida,” which we post at the end of each month on this very blog (shameless plug: check out March).

Florida Division of Cultural Affairs staff members in front of the Brokaw-McDougall House on Halloween.

Florida Division of Cultural Affairs staff members in front of the Brokaw-McDougall House on Halloween.

By far, the most heartening part of the job is reviewing reports where an individual or organization has received a grant of just a few thousand dollars and created inventive programming that is not only artistically resonant but engaging to a community. In those moments, when I realize what we’re doing at the DCA is directly impacting someone’s quality of life, I’m sure that this is what it’s all about. That’s the it.

Recently, due to my keenly honed ability to be in the right place at the right time, I was offered a part-time position working with Individual Artist Fellowships here at the Division. I can’t believe my luck! I’m getting paid to do what I love, and this blog post gets a happy ending after all.