The Arts Economy: Paint by numbers

Muralists like Sebastian Coolidge have helped transform St. Pete’s cultural landscape. - Heidi Kurpiela
Heidi Kurpiela
Muralists like Sebastian Coolidge have helped transform St. Pete’s cultural landscape.

With its recent profusion of murals, downtown St. Pete seems to have a level of vibrance that wasn’t there in, say, 2007.

Something about these works, done by muralists like Sebastian Coolidge, Bask and Jennifer Kosharek, makes the place seem more alive than it once was. They’re the visual equivalents of the music spilling out onto the streets from countless downtown venues every Saturday night.

Even as the recession caused public funding to dwindle and private buyers to vanish, the Tampa Bay region — St. Petersburg in particular — grew as a place for creative people. But the government money that used to fund grants to artists and arts organizations hasn’t really come back, and artists say the community can’t really sustain itself without the existence of an infrastructure to help them stay afloat here, especially those who are just starting out.

“We’ve got a lot of people here that are really badass craftspeople,” said established industrial artist Frank Strunk III, who works out of Gulfport but says he sells about 95 percent of his work to out-of-state buyers. “All we really do is live here. We don’t put on any serious exhibitions here.”

What Strunk and others say they want to see is a concerted effort that matches public officials’ rhetoric about the city and county’s status as a hub for creatives.

“I think it’s hypocritical and disingenuous for agencies to blow their horn so loudly about what an arts town we are without funding artists,” Strunk said. “If we’re going to call ourself an arts town it behooves us to [back it up] with public money. It shows everyone who visits here that we believe in our artists.”

At the city level, St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman and an arts-friendly City Council have upped the ante some.

Among other efforts, Kriseman last year increased the amount of money the city was committing to the arts through grants and other initiatives and pledged $50,000 to the Warehouse Arts Enclave project, which, once built, will provide low-cost studio space
to artists.

It’s hard to know exactly how much the city is giving in total, though, because those allocations don’t fall under the same umbrella in the city budget. For example, the city gives $600,000 to the Mahaffey Theater, $38,000 to the Florida Orchestra and last year it gave $25,000 to the Blue Ocean Film Festival. The city also supports the St. Pete Arts Alliance, an arts advocacy agency led by director John Collins; last year it gave the group $16,666 and this year it will be giving $50,000 as a reimbursement grant.* The council also recently voted to allocate about $1 million ($200,000 over five years) for the arts through money the city has been sitting on from the sale of land near Weeki Wachee.

The Tampa Bay Times’s Kameel Stanley writes that the city’s FY 2015 budget (Kriseman’s first as mayor) got $300,000 more for the arts than the prior year.

Whatever the total amount, advocates say there ought to be more funding, considering the return on investment the city has seen.

“St. Pete has attracted new galleries, museums, artists and theaters,” said Jeff Schorr, who owns the Craftsman House Gallery in the city’s Grand Central District. “We have attracted more sellers but not more buyers. It’s basic supply and demand. We need to do a better job of marketing our city as an arts destination.”

The numbers tell an interesting story about the arts’ fiscal impact on the city.

click to enlarge Metal artist Frank Strunk III sells most of his work out of town. - Arielle Stevenson
Arielle Stevenson
Metal artist Frank Strunk III sells most of his work out of town.
A 2010 USF St. Petersburg study found that the city’s arts and cultural attractions brought in 1.3 million visitors the prior
year, spending $23 million. The attractions, including galleries, museums and theater companies, provided about 520 jobs. And that was during the tough times.

The level of local funding for arts, whether to promote the area or hire local creatives, has been both a point of contention for advocates and a target for those who think government shouldn’t be funding art.

Yet, despite increases, there is still no permanent funding mechanism.

“Mayor Kriseman and the majority of the current city council recognize that the arts have been a major factor in the renaissance of St Petersburg. They have increased funding,” Schorr said. “But the arts still need a sustainable and consistent funding source for both non-profit and for-profit art venues.”

Kriseman’s efforts to put more city resources into the arts have not been without infighting.

Partly as a demonstration of his commitment to the arts, Kriseman pulled the city’s office of cultural affairs into his own office and hired former Morean Arts Center head Wayne Atherholt. However, in so doing he abruptly replaced former department director Elizabeth Brincklow, driving three of her allies from the mayor’s arts commission.

Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby said the decision was not meant as anything against Brincklow, and had nothing to do with politics.

“His position was reinvented, and he was the right person for the job, because the local arts community wanted the office elevated to the Mayor’s Office,” Kirby said in an email interview. “To be clear, his isn’t a political appointment. He is the best person in the city to lead this city’s arts and culture.”

Some see the hubbub over the arts commission departures as a distraction.

“When you quit and walk away I don’t think it was particularly productive,” said St. Pete City Councilwoman Darden Rice. “It was a premature judgment of Mayor Kriseman’s efforts. I’m not sure it’s helpful to get into the weeds and question that. It distracts from the real message.”

Atherholt’s plan for the city is still in its nascent stages. While there is no set arts funding source now, he’d like to see it all fall under the same umbrella. He knows the money needs to include a promotional element, that it ought to include a piece that offers grants to individual artists and that, yes, there need to be more people who buy art here.

“There’s not an easy answer to a lot of this,” Atherholt said.

In addition to the money, a big challenge of being a government agency that’s trying to help artists, who tend to flourish organically, is the balancing act of helping them thrive without inadvertently limiting their creativity.

“I think a formal mural program would be terrific and it’s something I want to look at,” he said, as an example. “But you don’t want to do something that’s going to stifle the art.”

Atherholt said he’ll likely present his plan to the council sometime in February.

Another piece of the pie could come at the county level.

As with St. Pete, the math as it pertains to the arts’ economic impact in Pinellas is telling.

According to a St. Pete Arts Alliance report, museums and performing arts, among other cultural venues, have the fifth biggest impact on earnings in Pinellas County of any industry. Every dollar invested has a five-fold return, and every million dollars invested sustains 22 jobs.

The county’s convention and visitors’ bureau does promote cultural institutions in many of the same brochures as it does Pier 60 and Winter the Dolphin, but little else is done beyond advertising the county as an arts hub.

A decade ago, Pinellas’ Cultural Affairs Department had a budget that approached $1 million. Founded in 1976, the department gave tens of thousands in grants to entities like Ruth Eckerd Hall.

But when the recession hit, the department’s budget dwindled until, in 2011, thanks to a controversial effort by then-commissioner Susan Latvala, the agency was dissolved.

The county took Cultural Affairs’ remaining funds — $300,000 — and use it as seed money for Creative Pinellas, an independent 501(c)(4) that largely functions as a promotional entity for arts-related endeavors while helping raise small amounts of money for artists.

The agency has one full-timer, Executive Director Mitzi Gordon, and one part-timer on staff as well as a handful of freelance writers who generate Web content about local events and artists. Gordon said the agency has held onto most of that $300,000, and derives much of its operating budget from sales of “State of the Arts” license plates in the county as well as a small grant from the state Division of Cultural Affairs.

This year the county is reconsidering that model, now that tax revenues have helped replenish government coffers.

The County Commission has asked Gordon to develop a budget and a strategy for fostering and promoting the county’s creative community. Over the next month, Gordon will hold a series of community meetings throughout the county in which she’ll ask members of the public to weigh in on the question of how to best use what would be a newly restored resource.

“As with many other political processes, it’s a series of small steps,” she said. First step is an information gathering process. “We’re doing everything that we can at this stage to put together a very well-thought-out proposal that covers a lot of bases.”

She added that the focus won’t be on specific artists or venues, but rather bigger-picture suggestions like smaller artists grants or emerging areas that could use some county money.

“We’re talking more conceptual,” Gordon said. “What’s missing in the greater community from the arts.”

Like Atherholt, she agrees murals would be a great place to start.

“We focus on the mural idea because it’s relatively fast and relatively inexpensive,” she said. “It’s also great for cultural tourism. People like to be in a painted city.”

*An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect figure on the amount of money the city gives to the St. Pete Arts Alliance.

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