Decades ago, the Midtown area of south St. Petersburg, the heart of the city's historically black area, had a flourishing arts, music and entertainment scene. The 22nd Street South District, or The Deuces, functioned as the center of the black community, and businesses like the Manhattan Casino allowed residents to escape from the ever-present racial tension at the time.
Nowadays, even as the adjacent Warehouse Arts District is enjoying tons of local attention and praise, arts and entertainment venues are somewhat lacking in Midtown. That's why Carla Bristol, owner of Gallerie 909, hosted the 2nd Annual Black Arts & Film Festival, which showcased work by local and national artists whose work is inspired by the African-American experience, over the weekend of Feb. 24.
Between drumbeats, paintings, sculptures, and handicrafts, the event opened at Studio @620 with "Dancing Like Home," a film directed by Joyce Guy. There was also a scheduled guided tour of the African American Heritage Trail, and the Royal Theater presented a showing of the movie "Art in The City."
Bristol said St. Pete has a lot of festivals, but there wasn't a festival like this that focuses on the African-American community.
“Is not just expecting people to come in, but bringing the gallery outside,” Bristol said. “The idea of it is to have a festival of this caliber in our community. This area has a tremendous amount of heritage. So, for us to have arts, culture, and heritage as a culminating event for Black History Month is important.”
Tom Ruthz, a Brazilian painter, living in Sarasota, was invited for the first time to come to this show. He said he hopes this kind of event will bring the community more knowledge and opportunities, given how tough it can be for some of the area's low-income residents to regularly experience St. Petersburg's cultural attractions.
“Most of them...don’t have that kind of opportunity to go to a museum or to visit an art gallery,” the artist said.
Jewelry maker Tiffany Sankey-Elliott, who is from St. Pete, agreed with Ruthz on the importance of the event for Midtown.
“It was a great way to gather the community, speak to people and sharing the same culture, which is good. I haven’t been part of this before, and it was great to connect with people,” Sankey-Elliott said.
Zulu Painter, a muralist, focused in The Deuces, said having art in the neighborhood can help improve the outlook of people who live nearby.
“Maybe that will make them feel better at the beginning of the day, as opposed to just starting the day and see nothing but garbage and trash,” Zulu said. “We need to give them some art.”
Bristol remarked on how three years ago there weren’t enough activities in the St. Pete area to celebrate Black History, but that has changed over the years.
“There was no support from the city. The largest amount of money the city spent on the event was to close the street. Last year we had one sponsor. This year we received sponsorships from the Arts Alliance, Earth Day, and basically, it was around a 120 dollars per hour to close the street for 10 hours, which pays for two officers,” Bristol said.
She also allowed the artists to take 100 percent of their profits.
“If you are able to bring up you costumers’ transactions, you are able to keep 100% of that. The idea is really to provide artists with opportunity and to be very selective about the artists and the vendors."
For Sara Norine, program coordinator for Nomad Studio Inc., this event was based on the need of providing awareness of the fact that St. Pete's arts and culture don't start and stop with downtown, Grand Central and the Warehouse Arts District.
“It's bringing new awareness to the community outside of Midtown and the Deuces about what the African culture has to offer, what global black artists have to offer and how amazing and wonderful the community is. If you don’t give the opportunity to pass through a community like this, you don’t even know that it exists.”