Creative Pinellas’ Arts Annual takes strides towards making Tampa Bay an arts destination

The group exhibition runs through Dec. 20.

click to enlarge Elizabeth Barenis "Palm Triptych" - Creative Pinellas
Creative Pinellas
Elizabeth Barenis "Palm Triptych"

What makes a great art destination? If you ask Creative Pinellas CEO Barbara St. Clair, she’ll tell you it’s a combination of having great cultural institutions and good energy. She uses Cleveland and Austin to make her case.

“Cleveland has, arguably, the best art museum in the whole world,” says St. Clair. “If it's not the best, then it's one of the top three. They have one of the best symphony orchestras and symphony halls. They have these amazing cultural institutions. But people don't come to Cleveland because Cleveland is an arts and culture mecca, even though it's got these fabulous institutions. Then you look at Austin. Austin really doesn't have these kinds of institutions, but people go to Austin for the arts and culture and the energy of an arts community.”

By these standards, Pinellas County is already a great arts destination, but not everyone realizes this.

Arts Annual Group Exhibition
Through Dec. 20
The Gallery at Creative Pinellas
12211 Walsingham Rd, Largo

“We have those cultural institutions with the Florida Orchestra, the Dali, the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art up in Tarpon, the Chihuly Collection. You can just go down the list,” says St. Clair. “But we also have the hip vibe and the local galleries and the art fairs and the music in the park.”

So how do we get people outside of Tampa Bay to notice our fantastic arts and culture scene?

“That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” says St. Clair. “Some of it's marketing, but a lot of it is building relationships.”

Creative Pinellas is working hard on both.

About five years ago, Pinellas County’s Board of County Commissioners noticed art’s ability to attract tourism dollars and decided to fund efforts to make Pinellas County’s art scene even better. After some discussion, they chose to channel these funds through Creative Pinellas, with St. Clair at the helm.

St. Clair came to Creative Pinellas from the corporate world, where she’d worked to provide shareholder value for companies for 30 years. In 2016, she started using this same skill set at Creative Pinellas to build value for her community instead.

St. Clair recognized the arts as the economic driver that it is in Pinellas County, and immediately started looking for ways to leverage Pinellas County’s arts and cultural scene to attract tourism dollars. She spent 2017 in conversation with Pinellas County artists and arts organizations, seeking ways to increase the appeal of our local art scene to artists, locals, and visitors.

In 2018, the Creative Pinellas team came together to find ways to implement all the wonderful things it talked about the previous year. In 2019, the fun really started. Creative Pinellas is now in the implementation stage. As St. Clair describes it, they made a plan and they’re actually following it. And though it’s not easy to do this in a pandemic, the arts agency is blossoming before our eyes.

Under St. Clair’s guidance, Creative Pinellas grew its partnership with Visit St. Pete Clearwater and hired Leigh Davis to liaison between our artists and arts organizations and the tourism and hospitality industry.

They created a glossy arts and culture guide for Pinellas County and delivered it to the region’s visitor centers, hotels, and airports. You can request a copy online via They started a quarterly art and tourism newsletter. And they created Arts Annual in 2018, hoping that one day it would draw arts and culture tourists to Pinellas County like Art Basel does for Miami Beach.

"The Arts Annual program is a direct outgrowth of realizing that there was so much that could be built and so many creative things that could happen, if we could really make that connection between the tourist industry and the arts community,” St. Clair told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “Everybody was willing. Everyone recognized that there was a need and that the opportunities for fabulous outcomes were there."

Arts Annual is an annual festival of the arts in Largo that combines both the visual and the performing arts under one roof. Each year about 30 Pinellas County artists, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, and actors participate in the event.

The event launched Sunday, Nov. 15, with a two-hour long virtual festival streamed live on YouTube. Those who tuned in saw an assemblage of pre-recorded studio tours, poetry readings, musical performances, mini-documentaries and short films featuring Pinellas County artists.

The variety of performances really stood out. Pinellas County is a place where great writers live and work, creating poetry, plays, and musicals; jazz musicians gather in dive bars, performance venues and parks; people dance in the streets and on stages; independent filmmakers start their own film festivals; and artists paint, sculpt, and photograph in home studios.

This variety is exactly what Creative Pinellas’ Arts Annual showcased Sunday evening with studio tours, short films and pre-recorded performances introducing Pinellas County painters Steven Kenny, Elizabeth Barenis, and Daniel Barojas; Clearwater dancer Marquis Floyd; choreographer Paula Kramer; sculptors Christina Bertsos and Don Gialanella; composer Tom Sivak; jazz musicians David Manson and Mark Feinman; poets Gloria Munoz and Gregory Byrd; photographer Linda Costa Cheranichit; and independent filmmaker Victoria Jorgensen.

click to enlarge Daniel Barojas' "Portal Exploration" - Creative Pinellas
Creative Pinellas
Daniel Barojas' "Portal Exploration"

Leigh Davis lights up when she talks about the event. “It's unusual to have visual and performing artists having a show together with this many participating artists,” she told CL.

In previous years, the event consisted of a gallery show and an opening reception featuring live performances. This year the gallery show, curated by Danny Olda, remains, but with some added precautions.

"It's a very large gallery, so it's pretty easy to maintain social distancing in it,” says St. Clair. “We had the emerging artist show in the gallery, and it worked beautifully, so we're very confident that we can invite the public to a safe and wonderful experience in the gallery."

In 2019, the group added an exciting new element to Arts Annual for Pinellas County’s visitors. Beyond the Walls, which returns in 2020, brings the art directly to tourists by placing it at the hotels they stay in.

“Bringing the art to the hotel directly not only tells the story of our incredibly talented community, but it also offers more accessibility to people to experience it,” says Davis. “Also, we fully believe that artists should widen the different types of places their art is [shown]…There is a place for art in hotels, in lobbies of businesses, in restaurants, in bars, in airports, on trains, on buses, on billboards, on utility boxes…on all types of things.”

For Davis, this “art everywhere” quality is part of what makes Pinellas County unique, and she’s thrilled to be able to showcase that at Creative Pinellas and local hotels.

Thanks to Creative Pinellas’ Beyond the Walls, Christina Bertsos’ beautiful sculptures are now on display at the Sandpearl Resort and Spring Hill Suites on Clearwater Beach; Nathan Beard’s paintings are at Opal Sands; and work from Mickett/Stackhouse Studio is at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort. Visitors to St. Pete Beach may enjoy Laura Spencer’s work at Alden Suites and Carolina Cleere’s work at Postcard Inn. In downtown St. Pete, Steven Kenny’s surrealist paintings are at the Birchwood, and Hyatt Place has some abstract paintings by Jason Hackenwerth. Elizabeth Barenis works are at the Belleview Inn in Belleair, Jim Gigurtsis paintings and Sondra Elder ceramics at Bilmar Beach Resort on Treasure Island, Brandie Dziegel prints at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor, and Javier Dones’ copper art is at the Fenway Hotel in Dunedin. You can view the installations and see the artists talk about their work in a series of three-minute-long video clips on Creative Pinellas’ website.

“When people ask me how we are doing Arts Annual, I say, 'every way we can,’ St. Clair told CL. “We're pursuing every channel available.”

 It’s not always easy getting Pinellas County artists noticed, despite their many talents, in a state surrounded by water and the best beaches in the world, but I’m glad Creative Pinellas is working on it. Pinellas County’s arts and culture scene has enriched my life in more ways than I can count over the past few years I’ve been writing for CL. It should be celebrated, and Arts Annual is the perfect opportunity to do so.

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About The Author

Jennifer Ring

Jen began her storytelling journey in 2017, writing and taking photographs for Creative Loafing Tampa. Since then, she’s told the story of art in Tampa Bay through more than 200 art reviews, artist profiles, and art features. She believes that everyone can and should make art, whether they’re good at it or not...
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