Earlier this year, Desiree D’Alessandro’s career got a boost when the Arts Council of Hillsborough County awarded her a $1,000 individual artist grant. The cash helped her attend Can Serrat, a well-respected residency near Barcelona, Spain, where she spent the month of August on a performance art project hiking the region’s urban and rural landscape in pursuit of a mythical Catalonian creature called the Pesanta. It also helped her get past a gap year after completing her MFA at the University of California Santa Barbara when she had returned to Tampa and was looking for a job. (Full-time employment as a graphic design instructor at the International Academy of Design and Technology followed soon after.)
D’Alessandro was one of the lucky ones — twice as many artists applied for the grant as the 10 who received $1,000 each. The $10,000 disbursement marked a dramatic comeback for the grant-making program, which was suspended in 2011 for the first time since its founding in 1989, sending a ripple of surprise and dismay through the county’s arts community. Thanks to the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners (the same body that cut the Arts Council’s budget a year ago), $14,000 has been set aside for the grants in 2013, to be divvied up among an as-yet-undetermined number of individual artists through an application process that will open later this year.
The possibility that Hillsborough County’s individual artist grants could disappear again (or forever) during a bad fiscal year doesn’t sit well with the Arts Council’s artists advisory committee, a nine-person group of multidisciplinary artists who keep the agency connected to actual practitioners. At the suggestion of Melissa Fair, a visual artist who is one of its members, the committee began brainstorming a fundraising event for the grant-making program earlier this year. On Friday, they’ll unveil Five By Five at the Tampa Museum of Art. The event fuses an art exhibition and benefit sale of more than 600 artworks — each measuring 5-in. by 5-in. — alongside a slate of 10-minute performances by local musicians, actors, writers, a filmmaker and a contortionist. Tickets go for $10 a pop, and each of the 5x5 artworks will be on sale for $25. The catch is that the artwork is unlabeled — only after buying a piece will the purchaser discover the identity of the artist.
The missing ingredient and the key to the event’s success, of course, is an audience of enthusiastic art buyers. If each of the 600+ artworks donated by 349 artists from the Tampa Bay area as well as Montana, New York, Ohio, Denmark, Poland, India and elsewhere sells, the Arts Council stands to raise $15,000 — all of which would go directly into the individual artist grant fund or put toward offering professional development workshops for local artists. (None of the money raised from art sales will be spent on the agency’s operating expenses or administration, says Terri Simons, the Arts Council’s director of program services.) The premise of the event, which is based on an annual fundraiser at the Rochester Contemporary Art Center called 6x6, offers several incentives to pony up: the guarantee of snagging a fabulous miniature artwork that you love for a mere $25; the possibility of fortuitously choosing a piece by an established artist that might be worth 10 times $25; and the feel-good vibes of having supported a good cause.
Based on the Five By Five website (fivebyfivetampabay.com), where photos of all the artworks are on display for browsing in advance, I’d say a lot of the pieces up for grabs are worth more than $25 in terms of effort and ingenuity. Beyond paintings and drawings, pieces incorporate wood sculpture, metal, stained glass and all kinds of mixed media. The only artist whose cover I’ll blow is D’Alessandro’s. The work she contributed plays tongue-in-cheek homage to Magritte and his most famous painting; to create it she mounted an antique-looking one-hitter to the canvas and wrote below it, “This is a pipe.” Her hope is that whoever buys the piece will chuckle at the inside art joke but also use the pipe, though she did not go as far as to provide any, ahem, tobacco.
To me the best reason to snag a piece like hers isn’t so much about the value of the individual work as much as about nurturing the careers of individual artists with grants because their creativity adds so much to our community. Someday soon D’Alessandro hopes to turn the HD video she shot while hiking in Spain into an artwork of some kind. When she does, I’ll head to a local art gallery to check it out and give thanks for the local money that helped her travel away and bring something back to Tampa.
“This was a really fortuitous opportunity and helping hand that I’m really grateful for,” D’Alessandro says.