ST. PETERSBURG — Just as important as its famed waterfront, St. Petersburg’s vibrant arts scene has made the city a name to drop when listing hip destinations.
The New York Times included the city in a list of 52 destinations in the world to see in 2014, while British newspaper The Independent crowed that St. Petersburg now rivals Miami as an arts destination.
Now some local artists are saying that while the city is benefiting from its artsy reputation, it is doing little to help the local arts community survive, and it should restore funding that was slashed during the recession.
“It’s time, with the new administration in place, for the city to step up and put its money where its mouth is,” local sculptor Mark Aeling told City Council members this week. “It claims to an arts destination — we need more than talk.”
The push for more city funds is part of a concerted effort to boost arts funding across Pinellas by a newly struck alliance among arts organizations called the PinArts Coalition. The group comprises officials from organizations like Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Dunedin Fine Arts Center, the Dalí Museum, Craftsman House Gallery and others.
They’re trying to get the county to restore arts funding, ideally to prerecession levels. At one point, the now defunct Pinellas County Cultural Affairs Council awarded $600,000 in grants to local arts organizations annually, and the Tourist Development Council gave $750,000 in bed tax dollars each year.
The coalition hopes to see $1.5 million in county and TDC money dedicated to arts and culture and the creation of a $150,000 “artist resource fund.” It is also calling for the city to boost the amount available for arts grants to prerecession levels.
Without that support, more artists may leave for other cities and more galleries may close, local artists say.
“We’re at a tipping point,” said Elizabeth Brincklow, manager of the city’s office of cultural affairs. “We’ve garnered this reputation as a No. 1 arts destination but, when we have a recession, arts is the first to go and the last to come back. That’s where we’re at.”
Research suggests that investment in the arts pays off for communities.
A 2010 study by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg found that the 32 arts and cultural organizations in St. Petersburg attracted 1.3 million visitors in 2009 and provided an economic benefit of about $23 million. The groups, which included galleries, museums and theater companies, provided about 520 jobs.
But the galleries and artists who depend on them have struggled because of the cuts in grants, Brincklow said. City funding for local arts grants fell from $400,000 to $175,000 in 2008 and has not been increased.
“It’s really life blood funding for them, in some cases keeping their doors open,” Brincklow said.
Local gallery owners and artists say the city should help to market more of the arts district than just its main attractions such as the Dalí Museum and the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts.
“People come here from all over the world to see the Dalí,” said Aeling, the sculptor. “If we were to market the other destinations within the city, we could build a second-day destination.”
A lack of people walking through the door led St. Petersburg artist Donna Gordon recently to close her gallery on Central Avenue. Most sales of her bronze figures and the work of other artists she displayed were from online purchasers.
“We need to encourage more art purchases,” Gordon said. “In the last year, nine galleries have closed. Countless artists have moved out of the city after moving here.”
A similar scenario is playing out elsewhere in Pinellas.
In 2011, the county eliminated its cultural affairs division and started Creative Pinellas with seed money. A nonprofit, Creative promotes local artists through social media and holds events to raise money for emerging artists.
But it doesn’t have nearly the budget of the organization that preceded it. Pinellas became the only county in the state without some kind of arts funding arm.
“We had to make some tough decisions in the recession,” County Commissioner Ken Welch said. “Everything was on the table, and arts was one of the things that was cut.”
At the same time, dollars from the tourism council were whittled down to $350,000 annually, mostly used for promotion.
“Up to well over a million dollars disappeared,” said John Collins, head of St. Pete Arts Alliance.
One hard-hit organization was Ruth Eckerd Hall, which last fall cut 20 jobs from its 75-person workforce.
“We finally had to literally tighten and lighten up the workforce,” said Zev Buffman, venue director.
Like St. Petersburg’s artists, the PinArts pitch is rooted in the creative community’s economic ability to attract young workers and tourists alike.
“There are great businesses here and we very well may become an IT hub and so on, but what is going to attract the 20- and 30-somethings here to work at those businesses?” Collins said. “I think it’s going to be the arts, the music scene.”
Buffman said Eckerd’s recent renovation of the Capitol Theatre is a case in point, at least with respect to art’s potential as a bigger tourism draw. Before it opened, he said, many viewed downtown Clearwater as a “no-fly zone.”
Now it’s a destination, he said, with beach hotels running shuttles to get their guests to the venue.
“You have to constantly add, change attractions, innovations, and this is where the arts come in beautifully,” Buffman said.
In May, PinArts will present its case to the county commission. There appears to be some support for restoring funding.
“Obviously, I am a huge supporter of the arts,” said County Commissioner Susan Latvala. “However, we don’t have the money we used to have.”
The same goes for the Tourist Development Council, which has numerous organizations vying for bed tax dollars that will be freed up once Tropicana Field’s debt servicing is paid off.
The Dalí Museum has benefited from the bed tax, but Latvala isn’t convinced other county arts organizations are as much of a tourism draw.
“We have to prioritize where we get the most bang for our buck,” she said. “The Dalí puts heads in beds. Most of our other arts venues don’t have that draw.”
Collins disagrees. He cited studies showing a vast majority of tourists visit an arts institution during their stay.
“(The TDC is) very, very good at selling the county in Chicago and New York for the beaches, but the fact of the matter is arts are also a reason that people come, and I think we could do more to promote that,” he said.