Take 5: Dave Lawrence of the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County

Dave Lawrence (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

The Cultural Council’s new CEO strives for an arts scene that represents everyone

Dave Lawrence grew up in a culture-saturated home in his native Indiana. His parents would take him to museums, and Broadway musicals played in rotation on the home stereo. His own artistic talents would be just as eclectic. He started playing cello in the fourth grade, and he later mastered the saxophone and acted in community theatre. But it’s in the advocacy side of the arts that Lawrence would forge his career, spending nine years at the helm of the Arts Council of Indianapolis. And in August 2018, he succeeded Rena Blades as president and CEO of the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, the civic organization tasked with championing, engaging and growing the cultural community of the Palm Beaches.

In addition to supporting arts organizations behind the scenes, the Council has expanded its own events in recent years, from its monthly in-season Culture & Cocktails conversations with arts luminaries to the gallery space in its Lake Worth headquarters, which showcases edgy work from Palm Beach County artists.

Lawrence sees a sunny future for the arts in the Palm Beaches, noting that 31 cultural institutions are in the planning or implementation phases of major capital expansions and improvement programs. But he’s also fighting storm clouds in the form of draconian budget cuts to the arts, enacted last year, that have affected cultural organizations statewide. He comments on these and more with Boca mag.

1.Last year, Florida’s government slashed arts funding tremendously. How has this affected arts institutions in the county?

The cuts the state made have been drastic—a 90-percent reduction to the funding. They’ve had an enormous impact. Organizations eligible to apply for up to $150,000 in grants were getting $8,000 and $9,000 instead. That means reduction in services, reduction in programming, reduction in the number of people served.

Cultural institutions do come here for help. We have been working with cultural organizations in a committee we’re calling the Cultural Coalition, that is working on a number of legislative priorities, the first of which is to restore that state-level funding.

2. What was the state’s justification for the cuts?

I can probably surmise that it’s the usual—that the arts are “nonessential.” That is the story we hear across the country. It’s imperative for us to be able to make the arguments about how the arts help in education, in crime prevention and streetscape beautification, and help build business by attracting and retaining talent to our communities. Look at the economic impact in Palm Beach County—$633 million every year.

3. What are the new happenings this year in the arts in Palm Beach County?

One of the biggest is the opening of the Norton. I don’t think we fully appreciate yet just what that institution alone is going to do for culture in the Palm Beaches. Their opening season of lectures and performances and art-making activities … is going to transform the way the arts are delivered. You can see the change in the businesses in that neighborhood, which they’re now calling the Norton District. That’s what culture can do for a neighborhood, and for a city, and for a community.

4. Are there cultural areas that could be better represented in Palm Beach County?

What I would like to see is more culturally specific organizations. It would be great to see African-American dance companies and Latinx music groups throughout the county. I’d like to make sure that we are, in all our cultural forms, representing all of Palm Beach County.

5. Does the Cultural Council also support for-profit entertainment—like the West Palm Bach Amphitheatre or Palm Beach Improv?

We do need to think as broadly as possible about the cultural sector, and find ways to … connect people to experiences. The public are not making the nonprofit/for-profit distinction. When a cultural experience nowadays can be an evening out at dinner—which is what a recent study from Americans for the Arts showed—we have to think about craft beer, culinary experiences, for-profit galleries and concerts and those kinds of activities as cultural experiences, too.

This story is from the May/June 2019 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.