Hippodrome cuts performances after DeSantis cuts funding

Hippodrome Theater in downtown Gainesville.
Hippodrome Theater in downtown Gainesville.
Courtesy of Matheson History Museum

Gov. Ron DeSantis caught arts and culture programs by surprise when he vetoed all $32 million dollars appropriated for scores of groups statewide as a new state budget was about to kick in on July 1.

The move has quickly made an impact locally: The Hippodrome Theater announced Friday that performances of the musical, The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee, would end with Sunday’s matinee—two weeks sooner than planned.

Artistic Director Stephanie Lynge told Mainstreet that “financially, it just didn’t make sense” to continue the musical through July 21, as the Hippodrome had previously advertised.

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The Hipp took a hit at the box office after suspending performances twice in June, and again last week, due to some cast members testing positive for COVID. 

Then came the bad news from Tallahassee.

“The COVID cancellations and the governor’s veto of our state funding forces us to make some painful decisions,” Lynge said.

Children’s music programs, art galleries, community operas, museums, and theaters are among 600 facilities and organizations across Florida that won’t get the money they had been expecting.

“We planned, feeling good about the state allotment coming in,” Lynge said.

Following legislative appropriations, state lawmakers had approved the Hippodrome for about $150,000. Lynge said the loss of state funds, combined with the expected loss of about $60,000 from the cash-strapped city of Gainesville and the end to pandemic stimulus money from the federal government, leaves the theater on the brink. 

The Hippodrome is assessing whether it might have to cut back the number of plays and musicals scheduled for the upcoming season. 

DeSantis said he used his veto pen in the best financial interests of the state but singled out funding for the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival in defending his cuts at a June 27 news conference. The festival has produced some gay-themed performances.

“So, you’re having your tax dollars being given in grants to things like the fringe festival, which is a sexual festival where they’re doing all this stuff. How many of you think your tax dollars should go to fund that? Not many people would do that,” DeSantis said of the festival that has been held for 33 years.

Pushback against the arts vetoes has come in broad strokes.

Billionaire Miami developer and philanthropist Jorge Perez said he “could not disagree more” with the governor’s assertion that the cuts make business sense. In a column written for the Miami Herald, Perez, who gave $80 million to an art museum on Biscayne Bay that bears his name, said he and other business leaders can’t recruit “blue-chip” companies to Florida if the political climate is viewed as anti-arts and culture. 

Perez also cited the state’s own research that shows public and private investment in the arts brings a multi-billion-dollar return.

Sanchi Pandey is among nine cast members whose summer stock has declined with the premature ending of The Putnam County Spelling Bee. She hopes to seek her fame and fortune on Broadway and worries fortunes might be dimmed if government retreats from support of organizations like the Hippodrome.

“It’s sad, and it’s a little scary,” said Pandey, who is about to graduate in musical theater from the University of North Carolina. “Even those who aren’t personally invested in the arts benefit from them. They might not realize just how much until they’re taken away.”

Like Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, the Hippodrome has always relied on the kindness of strangers. Donations and private grants provide about half its revenue, with the rest coming from ticket sales and other earned income. The city of Gainesville owns and has made improvements to the building and doesn’t charge rent.  The only government entity that still gives the theater a cash infusion is Alachua County, which contributed about $180,000 last year.

“We haven’t laid anyone off, yet,” Lynge said. “We certainly hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Screenings of a half dozen films that had been scheduled for the Hippodrome Cinema this month have been postponed. 

“We’re taking a pause for a few weeks,” Lynge said.

The theater plans to launch a major fund-raising effort this week in hopes of salvaging the coming season of performances. 

The 2024-2025 season is scheduled to kick off in August with the comedy, Perfect Arrangement, which is based on a true story from the gay rights movement in America.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect contributions from the city of Gainesville.

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Mickie

If this theatre has value, it seems like it could support itself.

Allen

What an ignorant comment! Most institutions like this need support from the public sector. Did you even read the article?

Mickie

If a cigarette store can make a profit, and all the commercial theaters can make a profit, I would think an institution with such valuable content could make it. Just raise the prices and the people who actually go to the performances can pay for it.

Raymond Mellott

So, the governor cuts all arts funding and calls out the Orlando Fringe Festival as justification? Has he ever been? Of course, not. Anti education… Anti arts… Anti science… pro pollution… Making Florida… not great at all.

BillS

“The Arts” are purely a nicety and spending tax dollars on these programs is not wise. If the artsy segment of Gainesville and the elites love these programs so much then they should continue to go and pay a small increase. There are periorities in life and things that are just noce-to-have. this is the latter. Sorry gentle readers but I think the gov ernor was spot on.

Katie

The Hipp will just grab more money from Wild Spaces like they already did. Wild Spaces has become another personal piggy bank for Gainesville.

Trevor

I haven’t been to a show at the Hipp in years. But I would be sad to see it go away. Just knowing it’s there is comforting; it’s the cultural cornerstone to a downtown that is otherwise just a few bars and restaurants. Downtown seems, in general, to be on a decline post-covid. I fear losing the Hipp would be another nail in its coffin.

Even if *you* don’t frequent the Hipp, I promise you it contributes to Gainesville by making our community just a little bit more cultured. I’d love to see an example of a community of our size which doesn’t have a thriving local theatre.

Fact is, there are some things which the “marketplace” just can’t or won’t support on its own; they rely on support from state and local governments (along with donations from benefactors). Museums are a great example of this. Do you think the $5 admission to a museum really covers the cost of that building, the utilities, the employees? Not even close. But imagine a world where these cultural icons don’t exist just because they can’t be commercially self-sufficient.

Stan

The decline of downtown is due to crime and the opening of alternative venues, namely Celebration Pointe and the expanded Butler Plaza.

The finger should be aimed at the Commissioners who are pushing retail/entertainment to the West. That’s undeniable no matter your political preferences.

BillS

The market dictates theae things. Downtown Gainesville is a borderline ghetto atmosphere after dark sp let’s not glamorize it more than it deserves. Celebration Point and Butler Plaza are far better atmospheres, well maintained, safer and more to do …just sayin’ Gentle Readers😉

Sara Morsey

If not for the arts we could not write these comments. Language itself could not exist without the arts. After our most basic human needs are met (sustenance, shelter) we turn to the arts (communication, images, music) to project our humanity. We, as humans, are the essence of what we glean from our surroundings. Our first communicators were artists. The shamans who acted out the stories of the people were our first religious leaders. Societies thousands of years older than our own here in America, have elevated the arts and have thus elevated their cultures. Our educational system is abysmal compared to these countries. The arts and sciences progress hand in hand. Embracing all humanity as one expands us and elevates us all. Cutting out those of us who don’t fit some politically conceived vision only weakens us in every way.

Common Sense

If we weren’t a city dying of leftist cancer, people would be able to easily contribute to the theater. More importantly, residents would have extra money to buy theater tickets instead of involuntarily donating to nonsense that no one but the most die-hard leftists supports. Most of the people with plenty of money and those with an artist/creative bent left Gainesville years ago now.

Having a local economy that is business-friendly is important. Running a giant mentally-ill, drug-addicted hobo ranch for half the country and letting crime run rampant is the opposite of “business-friendly.” And we can’t forget the biomess plant debt, one woman’s great idiocy unleashed upon us for the next 25+ years. We don’t deserve a Hippodrome at the rate things are going. Shut it down like all the poor business owners have had to shut their businesses down.

BillS

Gary Nelson – I can see below that you definitely hit some raw nerves about the public funding issue! Well done. Life will go on justy fine without our tax dollars subsidizing a “nice-to-have” with so many “needs” around us. Keep it up Governor👍👏👍👏👍👏👍👏

BobbyD

But we had taxpayer money this year for $38 million for a UF Golf course?

Last edited 9 days ago by BobbyD