Watch Where You Hitch Your Wagon

Over the course of the last few years I have noticed a number of arts organizations which have allied themselves with state universities in order to alleviate some financial difficulties. Many of these relationships have been more or less alliances and partnerships. However, in a couple cases it has been more akin to selling off one’s soul piecemeal.

As I have written about before, the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota, FL started out as a partner of Florida State University. At one time the Asolo and FSU built a facility together which ended up housing the theatre and the university acting and motion picture, broadcast and radio conservatories. As financial difficulties mounted, the theatre company turned to the university for help and the school ended up owning pretty much everything the theatre owned. In time they were actually paying the salaries of seven of the theatre company’s top staff.

The last time I was down in Sarasota I found that Florida State University had also taken over the administration of Ringling Museums (not to be confused with the Ringling School of Art and Design) which shared a parking lot with the Asolo. (At one time the Asolo Theatre Company performed on the Ringling grounds in an Italian Baroque theatre brought over from Italy.) The museum had been struggling financially for years and turned to the state for help.

Given that the Sarasota Ballet moved in to the vacant Film Conservatory space when that educational unit moved back to the main campus in Tallahassee, Florida State University actually exerts some control over three formerly independent arts organizations. Of the three, the ballet still retains the most autonomy because they are more or less a resident of a state owned building rather than subject to its governance.

A similiar thing happened in Orlando when I was working at the University of Central Florida. The Civic Theatre of Central Florida was in financial trouble. They turned to the university, merged with the university theatre and now after a couple of gradual steps the space is now a venue of the university theatre program. The old Civic Theatre operates in some of the spaces as Orlando Rep (though you wouldn’t know it since the Theatre Dept website doesn’t mention them). However, the board of directors is heavily compromised of people from UCF’s development, university president and arts and sciences dean’s offices.

While this state of affairs does show that the State of Florida does actively support the arts, one wonders if it is worth it in the long run. When you are beholden to the state, many of your decisions are open to scrutiny and questioning not only by your own board of directors, but by myriad people in state government.

A case in point, the Asolo’s agreement with Florida State Univ. was that the producing artistic would retire in 2003. He decided he wasn’t going to retire so the university decided it wasn’t going to continue to pay the salaries of the top 7 administrators if he wasn’t going to leave. The theatre board resolved to pay the $400,000 in salaries in order to keep him at the helm. The university also decided to pull the acting conservatory back to the main campus in response to the weakening relationship it was having with the professional company. This news pretty much horrified the community.

Since then, things have been resolved and the conservatory is slated to stay. (Though people are wondering about that in light of some recent events.) It just illustrates the dangers of looking to a state institution to save you.

There is also the question whether weak organizations should be propped up by the state and given the security to perpetuate poor practices on the tax payer’s dime or not. I personally would be heartbroken to see the Asolo close or the Ringling end up selling off all its art works because it couldn’t keep afloat.

But the truth is, the state doesn’t really know how to run theatres and art galleries. The conservatory faculty that has taken up residence as partners are focussed on education and not administration of the other organization. The state isn’t in the best position to come in and provide expertise and guidance as to what was done wrong and what steps can be taken to improve the situation. The best they can do is hire consultants to provide guidance in their stead. To the best of my knowledge this did not happen in any of these instances.

With cuts to both arts and education in many states, these organizations may find that they have just delayed the inevitable and that they may soon have to fend for themselves.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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