With so many galleries and artist-run spaces struggling to survive, the Morean is a rarity — an organization that has lived to see its 100th birthday. It’s an achievement that required intense passion and commitment from everyone involved, one that's worthy of both a big celebration and a big exhibition: 100 works from 100 artists with significant ties to the Morean — including instructors, students, exhibitors and staffers.
“We wanted to pay homage to this institution that’s been around for 100 years,” says Amanda Cooper, the Morean's curator of exhibitions. “Every show we are doing this season is a nod to our history or our future, like with the Fresh Squeezed exhibit, but I knew there had to be one show that really captured it. We wanted to focus on the artists. Although it’s a show of artwork, at the end of the day, it’s these artists that built this organization,”
Similar in its intimacy to a yearbook full of notes from classmates, what makes the exhibition especially heartfelt are the wall texts explaining the artists’ connection to the center, and why the Morean means so much to them.
“One of my favorite parts of the show is the head shot of each artist. I love looking at them because while it’s about the artwork, it’s about these people,” Cooper says. “I had each living artist write about their connection to the arts center. It was kind of emotional reading some of these and you realize the impact this organization had over all of this time.”
Without becoming overwhelming, the exhibition offers a sampling of Morean stories from different perspectives. Some of these are generic, while others are highly specific and evocative — like Bill Killingsworth’s description of working on ceramics in an old creaky building while a storm howled threateningly from outside, or Jan Stenhouse's account of how the Morean helped her endure the loss of a loved one by getting her back in touch with her creative spirit.
The connections between artists, artworks and the city provide interesting juxtapositions. Cooper pointed out Alan Johnson’s sculpture positioned next to Madison Zalopany’s painting in one corner, explaining that Zalopany was Johnson’s student in high school. Color palettes and bubbly, organic forms bounce in a back-and-forth conversation between the works.
“There were some unexpected things that happened in curating the show. It looks like their work was meant to be together,” Cooper says.
There’s an impressive mix of artists through the decades, arranged non-chronologically, with the oldest piece from the 1930s.
“Out of the 100 artists that we tried to spread out over those 100 years, 37 have since passed away, so I worked with 22 collectors to get those works. As you can imagine, it was difficult to find some work. I wasn’t able to get anything from 1917, unfortunately,” Cooper says. “The majority of the exhibition is from the last 40 years. Overall, I was looking for artists that were involved with and invested in the Morean on multiple levels, not just as an exhibiting artist, but were also on the board for a few years or worked as a staff member.”
The Center has come a long way from its humble beginnings as the Art Club of St. Pete, housed in a little building by the banyan tree on Beach Drive — where the MFA currently resides. Now located at 719 Central Ave., where it sits across from the new Publix and the Chihuly Collection — which is under its auspices along with the Morean Center for Clay and the Glass Studio & Hot Shop — the Morean Arts Center is truly a staple of the St. Pete art scene.
“I think a lot of our growth comes with our adaptability. We’re flexible, and we can take risks that a museum might not necessarily be able to take,” Cooper says.
With 100 years down and plenty more to go, the future of the Morean has never looked brighter.
“We are very excited to have a new executive director coming in June. Michael Killoren is from the NEA, so he’s very familiar with the arts scene,” says Cooper. “We’re not sure what’s in store for the future, but I’m excited about bigger and better things for the Morean.”