Neunder and Rainford lead charge to eliminate Embracing Our Differences, Sarasota Chalk Festival and WSLR’s Fogartyville concerts from arts grants list for 2025 funding

Smith fails to win support for motion to approve full list of recommendations

These billboards were part of the 2019 Embracing Our Differences exhibit on the Sarasota bayfront. Image from the Embracing Our Differences website

Although each scored highly as a result of the review process undertaken by a nine-member panel working on behalf of the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, Embracing Our Differences, the Sarasota Chalk Festival and WSLR radio station’s Fogartyville concert series will not receive Sarasota County funding support for programming in the 2025 fiscal year.

That was the County Commission’s unanimous decision on July 10, after Commissioner Joe Neunder expressed opposition to seeing taxpayer money put toward Embracing Our Differences and the Fogartyville programming, with Commissioner Neil Rainford agreeing and calling for denial of support for what he called “sidewalk chalk,” as well.

The grants for the three added up to $112,252 out of the $2.1 million proposed in total funding.

Commissioner Mark Smith did make a motion to approve the full list presented by Brian Hersh, CEO of the Arts & Cultural Alliance. However, none of Smith’s colleagues seconded the motion, so it died.

Addressing Hersh, Smith said he had found the scoring to be “very fair. … You definitely heard the board,” Smith added, referring to prior discussions during which commissioners called for the Alliance to revamp the grants program.

The primary directive to Hersh had been to focus on “putting heads in beds,” as Smith put it, using a tourism industry term for drawing overnight visitors to an area.

Smith also pointed to the new emphasis on use of some of the county grant funds for marketing of the arts and cultural programs. He acknowledged that he had questioned that criterion when it was raised in the past.

“I wanted to make sure we were still getting the quality entertainment that makes us the Cultural Coast,” Smith explained. “You don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs here.”

Hersh himself had used the term “Cultural Coast,” a phrase long utilized to describe Sarasota because of its multitude of arts and cultural events.

Chalk Festival artists work on their creations in downtown Sarasota as members of the public line the street to watch. Photo by Mike Brousseau, courtesy of the Chalk Festival

When Smith initially indicated he was ready to make a motion to approve the recommended grants, Chair Michael Moran pointed out that Commissioner Neunder wanted to speak.

Neunder first directed his colleagues to the page in the list where he had found the Embracing Our Differences grant. Having had “conversations with individuals in our community [about the organization],” Neunder said, he did not believe the 2025 program should win a grant.

“It’s a [Sarasota] bayfront artwork display,” Neunder explained. He also had learned from county staff, he continued,, “There seems to be some logistical issues there.”

Then he directed the other commissioners to the page with WSLR’s Fogartyville funding award listed. “It’s a media arts/radio station,” Neunder said. “This one didn’t really seem, in my opinion and those in my district [to] fit the mold for this funding source.”

Commissioner Rainford expressed his concurrence with Neunder’s views. He added that he did not believe “that the taxpayer dollar should be going for sidewalk chalk.”

Rainford suggested that the funds that would have gone to those three organizations be reallocated to the other grant recipients, based on a multiplier that the Alliance’s panel had used in determining the final amounts. That was what the board members unanimously ended up agreeing to do

‘Disheartened,’ but, in one case, ‘not surprised’

These are images on the Embracing Our Differences website.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for comments about the July 10 decision, Sarah Wertheimer, executive director of Embracing Our Differences wrote in an email that afternoon, “We are disheartened and disappointed with the Board of County Commissioners’ decision to deny vital funding to Embracing Our Differences. We want to stress that we have complied with all the new eligibility requirements for this year’s grants. It’s a complicated process, but we diligently adjusted to the new criteria. Our commitment to the community was at stake — and that commitment is unwavering. We painstakingly met the TDC grant criteria. The merit of our work isn’t in question — and it clearly wasn’t the reason we were cut off. Political calculation is the likely culprit.”

Wertheimer added, “Embracing Our Differences is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting respect, inclusion, kindness, and community engagement. We focus on the timeless virtues of understanding and acceptance, and not the latest controversy on cable news. Our mission transcends political divisions. Supporting our mission is not a question of politics. It’s a question of basic human values — the ones all sides share.”

Jesse Coleman, the new general manager of WSLR + Fogartyville Community Media and Arts Center, responded, as well, in a July 10 email. The Moran-led county commission has chosen to play politics with arts and cultural institutions like Fogartyville, a renowned listening room beloved by both residents and visitors,” Coleman wrote. “We are disheartened, but not surprised by this retaliation against the arts in Sarasota. We hope that everyone who appreciates live music and other forms of creative expression will stand with us as we continue to amplify the voices of our diverse community and promote peace, sustainability, democracy, and economic and social justice.”

Nik Wallenda and his wife, Erendira, perform at the 2012 Sarasota Chalk Festival. Photo courtesy of Denise Kowal

Denise Kowal, founder and chair of the Sarasota Chalk Festival, which formally is known as Avenida de Colores, provided this statement via email, with emphasis: “Well certainly it was unexpected as we have qualified for funding the past 15 years; and while the county commission states it is focused on tourism — our organization is creating it with over $70,000 already spent on lodging for the 120 artists flying here to spend upward of two weeks in our city, all the while marketing is happening with all our partners in over 25 countries and throughout the US, and when data is important to [the commissioners] we have a point of entry where we will track our guests; and particularly when significant cultural exchanges are taking place this year that I have worked on for ten years with Gerano, Italy; Genzano di Roma, Italy; Tenerife, Spain; Pune, Maharashtra, India; Tokyo, Japan; and Heroica Huamantla, and Tlaxcala, Mexico, to host delegations of ‘Flower Carpet’ artists at the November 8-10 Sarasota International Chalk Festival, that will be the VERY FIRST TIME EVER that delegations of these artists have performed together in the USA — a historic moment for both the art form and Sarasota — all the while this art form is on the verge of being listed as world cultural heritage by UNESCO, alongside as we host the largest gathering of renowned pavement artists and the 3D illusion art, which is a contemporary new art form that was invented by an American, Kurt Wenner, who has performed numerous times in Sarasota, including creating the Circus City chalk painting illusion that Nik Wallenda performed at, to have this event and its profound cultural significance categorized as ‘sidewalk chalk’ by one of my county commissioners is truly disheartening in itself while creating a bigger funding gap than we started with — ouch … and are you aware I volunteer my time to do this? :)”

The new funding criteria

During his July 10 presentation, Hersh, the Alliance CEO, pointed out that the organization has conducted the annual arts grants application review and recommendation process since 1995.

This slide provides details about the process the grants panel undertook this year to make its recommendations. Image courtesy Sarasota County

One of the slides that he showed the board listed the new County Commission requirements for the grants program, beginning with the 2025 fiscal year, which will start on Oct. 1.

Those are as follows:

  • 50% of the grant funds are to be used for marketing.
  • Streamlined metrics should be used in judging “artistic/cultural purpose and tourism impact.”
  • Requiring a visitor survey to collect attendee data, including lodging information. At least 25% of event attendees must fill out the survey.
  • Addition of “a point of entry or ticket sale requirement for grant eligibility.”
  • Creation of “a more robust scoring rubric to evaluate grant applications.”
  • Restructuring of the grant review panel.
  • The county “will process no more than two reimbursement requests per grant award.”

Hersh said the Alliance received 40 applications for the 2025 fiscal year, and the grants panel recommending that 38 receive funding.

He used another slide to show how the grant amounts were linked to the average score of each application.

These are the funding recommendations presented to the commissioners for the 2025 fiscal year, with the score of each shown. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Along with his remarks about the changes for the 2025 fiscal year grants, Hersh took the opportunity to talk about three Sarasota County arts and cultural organizations that are in the figurative spotlight because of opportunities accorded them outside the county.

First, he noted that The Sarasota Ballet won international recognition for its performances at the Royal Opera House in London in June.

The Circus Arts Conservatory, for a second example, is “just about to be in the Berkshires [for performances],” Hersh said.

Finally, Hersh pointed out that the Choral Artists of Sarasota was chosen to perform in Normandy during the 80th commemoration of D-Day in June.

Another try

This slide provides examples of how the panel arrived at the final recommendation for each grant recipient. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Following his colleagues’ comments about Embracing Our Differences, the Fogartyville series and the Chalk Festival, Commissioner Smith said he would like to have Hersh come back to the podium in the Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota to clear up any questions about those organizations.

Smith sought assurance from Hersh that all of the grant funds would be coming out of “bed tax” revenue, not out of the county’s General Fund, which contains all of the property tax revenue and money from other revenue sources. (County staff describes the General Fund as the most flexible source of money for a wide variety of purposes, including the operations of county departments that do not generate revenue on their own.)

Hersh confirmed that the arts grants come out of Tourist Development Tax revenue. A county staff memo in the July 10 agenda packet noted, “[A 1% levy of Tourist Development Tax (TDT) is allocated to enhance Sarasota County as a visitor destination by providing quality cultural and fine arts entertainment, festivals, and activities.” The 6% “bed tax” is charged on rentals of accommodations in the county for six months or less time.

Smith also asked Hersh for more information about the scoring process that the Alliance’s panel members had used. “I realize,” Smith acknowledged, “when dealing with art, it’s to the beholder.”

Hersh provided the total scores for each of the three recommended grant recipients that Commissioners Neunder and Rainford had cited. The scoring details were provided in a slide he had shown the board. For Embracing Our Differences, it was 94.63; for Fogartyville, 93.11; and for the Chalk Festival, 89.67.

Longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key addresses the audience during a Chalk Festival event. Photo by Mary Smiley, courtesy of Denise Kowal

After Smith’s motion to approve all of the grants died for lack of a second, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger noted the discussion the board members had had previously with Hersh last year, which resulted in the new criteria for awarding the grants.

His view, Cutsinger continued, is that ticketed events and single-entry events should have the top priority, whereas the three organizations Neunder and Rainford had named are what Cutsinger described as “open forums.” He added that he did not believe they fit the commission’s criteria.

At Chair Moran’s recommendation, Rainford ended up making a motion first to approve the other grant recipients on the Alliance list. No funds would go to Embracing Our Differences, WSLR/Fogartyville or the Chalk Festival, Rainford clarified at Moran’s request.

Neunder seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.

Next, Neunder made a motion to reallocate the money that would have gone to those three organizations, using the Alliance panel’s multiplier, instead of dividing the money evenly among the other recipients.

Cutsinger seconded that motion. It also passed 5-0.