St. Pete art scene thrives, but market sags
ST. PETERSBURG - Many galleries and eclectic boutiques offering local artists' creations have appeared along Central Avenue, Beach Drive and in the Warehouse Arts District in the past decade. More than 700 creative businesses are registered with the city, and others are out there. The city and nonprofit groups have invested heavily in the push to make art rival sports and beaches as a tourism driver and offer to teach artists how to establish themselves as business people. Arts advocates say the effort is working. But as St. Petersburg's reputation as an arts haven grows, many artists scramble to get by financially. "I think every artist I know has another job," said local artist Jennifer Kosharek, who runs the Eve-N-Odd Gallery in downtown St. Petersburg's Crislip Arcade. "Maybe I just don't know the ones who are really making it."Some part-time artists run graphic design firms; others clean houses. A few come close to supporting themselves solely on selling their work locally. "You have to multitask," Kosharek said.
The concept of "struggling artists" is not new.
"If you know your art history, you know it's always been difficult for artists," said Luis Gottardi, author of the local arts blog Art Taco. "It's a tough row to hoe. And in St. Pete it's even tougher."
The arts, in general, have made gains locally in recent years, but the recovering economy has not amounted to buyers spending more money to support artists working in St. Petersburg.
"The art, they can skimp on," Gottardi said.
Many local artists complain people are not in a buying mood when perusing art walks, gallery openings and open-air markets - instead opting for pieces that can be found at big-box stores.
"People are attending these events; they're spending money at these events," said artist Scott Durfee, who co-founded the wearable sculpture line Spathose. "But they're not buying art."
Durfee said the city has done a lot to help local artists develop and run businesses inexpensively, an example of which is an ordinance that would allow artists in the Kenwood and Old Southeast neighborhoods to set up appointment-only galleries in their homes. Another is the St. Petersburg Artists Resources Collaborative, a program sponsored by the city's Business Assistance Center.
Creative Pinellas, the arts promotion nonprofit that replaced the county's arts agency, also is rolling out workshops later this month.
"You have to make a living," said Elizabeth Brincklow, the city's arts and international relations manager. "You have to ask for money that is reciprocal for the services you are providing."
Some successful artists say marketing their work nationally and internationally helps make up for paltry local sales.
"Our business is doing well because we are out there pushing," Durfee said.
That includes working with buyers from as far as Germany, he said.
Working with local and national galleries and the willingness to sell work on websites like Etsy.com also are important. Kosharek said she recently sent pieces to a gallery in Pennsylvania.
Those galleries work in different ways. You can rent space on the wall in some, but most take a 40 percent to 50 percent consignment from the sale of each piece. That is why some gallery owners work with mainstream artists rather than lesser-known ones, and why art prices can be so high.
"I get approached by I can't tell you how many artists a week," said Rob Rowen, who owns Nuance Gallery with locations in St. Petersburg's Grand Central District and South Tampa.
Galleries typically display an artist's work for a set length of time. They try to bring in potential buyers through events such as gallery openings and art walks. These may not result in big sales, but can educate the uninitiated about local art; and that it doesn't have to be overly expensive.
"You don't have to start off with a $5,000 painting," said Jeff Schorr, who runs the nonprofit Craftsman House Gallery on Central Avenue. "You can start off small and just make art part of your everyday life, whether it's your coffee mug or your cereal bowl or your cutting board or whatever."
While locals may warm to the idea of collecting art, some struggling artists have grown accustomed to financial strain.
"That's what spurred all this creativity," said painter and arts advocate Jenipher Chandley. "We're coming out of not having money."