17th Annual CraftArt Festival
Florida CraftArt, 501 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, Sat.-Sun., Nov. 22-23, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
When more than 100 artists display their work along Central Avenue and Fifth Street North this weekend for the 17th annual CraftArt Festival, the fresh face of one of Tampa Bay’s most enduring art institutions will serve as a backdrop. Last month, Florida Craftsmen debuted refurbished galleries along with a new name — Florida CraftArt, which rebrands the 62-year-old organization after its most distinctive public event, an annual craft fair that draws participating artists from around the U.S. and invites visitors to kick off their holiday shopping by buying handmade.
The name change has been in the works for a while, says Florida CraftArt Executive Director Diane Shelly. Florida Craftsmen didn’t quite jibe with the organization’s majority female membership; nor did the quaint overtones of “craftsman” fit its mission of cultivating sophisticated artist-entrepreneurs. What’s more, the original name sounded a lot like Craftsman House, a different and equally beloved St. Petersburg gallery.
But what triggered the change to take place at last was the refurbishment of the galleries — and that upgrade was driven by observations that the long-established nonprofit, which has occupied its current space since 1995, was beginning to look timeworn in comparison with new neighbors along Central Avenue from the 300 through 800 blocks.
“There were some really great galleries moving in, restaurants moving in, boutiques and things like that,” Shelly says. “We looked at our shabby carpet and our mismatched displays and said, you know, at some point we really need to make this a showplace.”
One of those shiny neighbors is Michele Tuegel Contemporary, a private gallery operated by Michele Tuegel, who was Florida Craftsmen’s first executive director from 1988 until 2004. It was under Tuegel’s watch that the organization purchased a historic building, where the well-known Rutland department store had dispensed merchandise for decades back to WWII. (Earlier this year, Florida CraftArt refinanced its mortgage on the building, which it will own outright in 15 years.) In October Michele Tuegel Contemporary, which shows artists from Brooklyn to the Pacific Northwest and dips into more traditional art forms such as painting as well as fine craft, celebrated its second anniversary.
At Florida CraftArt, the galleries’ makeover streamlines the space and adopts changes designed to cut down on operating costs while improving the retail experience for visitors. Members of the St. Petersburg Woodcrafters Guild, led by Dale Neff, built moveable walls and sleek wood jewelry cabinets that cut down on former clutter, donating their labor to the cause. Art glass doors by Len Neff throughout the building and new exterior signage painted by J&S Signs of local mural fame are part of the mix; a new LED lighting system will save thousands of dollars on electricity each year, Shelly says.
Another big change is that member artists, who are juried into the organization for the opportunity to sell their Florida-made wares inside Florida CraftArt, are profiled with striking, poster-sized photo portraits by photographer Brian James. Not every artist can be profiled at one time, of course. For the moment a handful of St. Pete artists including potters Charlie Parker and Laurie Landry are getting the nod, but Shelly plans to extend the opportunity to member artists statewide. The images, which include a text description of the artist’s practice, add an engaging layer of storytelling.
The finishing touch is a revised logo — a chartreuse palm of a hand (for “handmade”) impressed with the silhouette of a palm tree — by local designer Phillip Gary. The yellow-green of the logo shows up as an accent color on columns in the gallery that remain lighted at night.
The impressive facelift cost Florida CraftArt about $115,000. A hoped-for second phase, contingent on a state grant that the nonprofit is in line to receive, would equip the building with a new elevator and roof for $300,000.
With more than 100 artists, food trucks and local brews afoot during the CraftArt Festival on Saturday and Sunday, chances are no one will be paying much attention to the host venue. Kate Lydon, director of exhibitions at Pittsburgh’s hip Society for Contemporary Craft, will judge the fair, bestowing $10,000 in awards on participating artists.
But behind it all, Florida CraftArt has a new lease on life.