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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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St. Pete art community hopes new leaders offer support

ST. PETERSBURG — The number of people who list “artist,” “musician” or “performer” as their occupation been steadily increasing here in recent years.

The arts community, in fact, has become enough of a force that local leaders have started to take notice, especially leading up to this month’s election, when mayoral and City Council candidates were repeatedly asked how they’d help make St. Petersburg an easier place for creatives to make a living.

The help can’t come soon enough for many artists.

Even as word spreads about St. Petersburg’s status as an arts destination, many who are looking to get established here say the city hasn’t done enough to make it easier to do so. Many in the arts community are hoping the new mayor and City Council will change that.

“I have every reason to be optimistic,” said John Collins, who heads the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, an arts fundraising and advocacy nonprofit organization.

Perhaps it was a good sign for Collins and others involved that Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman held his election-night party at Nova 535, an event space heavily oriented toward local performers and artists. In the ensuing weeks, Kriseman assembled a transition team that included a task force to focus on arts and culture. The group held its first meeting Tuesday.

“We’ve just begun our fact-finding,” said Dan Ray, who chairs the panel and also sits on the board of Florida Craftsmen, Inc., a nonprofit gallery downtown that features works from a statewide artist collective.

“We’re essentially looking at where artist organizations and artists themselves are,” he said.

The plan is to examine the economic state of areas such as the Warehouse Arts District and the 600 block on Central Avenue — and the city as a whole — to see what their needs are in terms of grants, entrepreneur support programs and workshops and present the findings to the mayor after he takes office in January. The team also may review the city’s arts-related marketing and branding strategy and any possible changes in zoning that would help artists cut costs by allowing them to show their work in their homes.

Replenishing the city’s endowment for the arts would be a plus, Collins said.

“I think we need to restore funding to at least what the city was able to support seven years ago,” he said.

Back then, the fund amounted to nearly $400,000. Now, it’s less than half of that.

Newly elected City Council member Amy Foster agrees about the endowment.

“It’s kind of been stagnant,” said Foster, who will represent District 8.

There appears to be a lot of support for policies that help creatives, she said.

“I do think that everyone that was elected understands the multiplier effect for economic development,” Foster said.

Foster, whose district encompasses the Kenwood area and neighborhoods to the north, said it would be nice to have a plan in place that aims to showcase points of interest outside of downtown — maybe a tour that shows off the offbeat sculptures throughout town, such as the giant lizard sitting on a rooftop near the Interstate 275 entrance ramp on Fifth Avenue North.

“We have all this great sculpture, but we really don’t market it that way to get people out of the downtown area,” she said.

Darden Rice, who was elected to represent District 4, said she’d support restoring the arts endowment and that she wants to help artists get health care.

“I’d be very interested in working with the arts community to see if there’s some way to raise money to offset the cost of premiums,” she said.

Such a program would not use public dollars but, rather, raise the money through private entities, Rice said.

Councilwoman and gallery owner Leslie Curran, whose term expires this year, said she’s optimistic that the new leadership will be more aggressive in branding the entire city as an arts destination. Such efforts became stagnant during the recession, she said.

“There’s a lot of potential for arts and culture — not just in downtown St. Petersburg but throughout the city,” Currann said.

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