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Community Voices: Arts Conservatory for Teens marks 10-year anniversary

Karen Chassin



Dr. Alex Harris (rear, center) is the co-founder and director of the Arts Conservatory for Teens. Photo provided.

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As the nonprofit Arts Conservatory for Teens (ACT) celebrates its annual Champions for ACT Breakfast on the St. Pete Pier Thursday, the organization marks its 10th anniversary. That’s a decade of improving the lives of teens by using the arts to prepare students for high school graduation, higher education, and the workforce.

The brainchild of Dr. Alex Harris and co-founded with Herbert Murph, Shelia Reilly and Derek Berset, ACT has impacted over 13,000 local teens since its inception. It attracts philanthropic and private support because the transdisciplinary curriculum works. With a 100% high school graduation and 90% college placement rates, ACT has found that sweet spot of motivation, support, skills training, and leadership training for some of our county’s most at-risk students.

Many ACT graduates have cultivated their talents at prestigious music schools like Berklee College of Music and Otterbein University and have established careers on Broadway and in television, film, music, and the entertainment industry. Still others prepare for careers in crafts and fields that support the arts, such as audio and sound engineering, graphic design, digital media and marketing, game coding, and lighting and recording, to name a few.

In its second decade, ACT will expand the scope of its workforce initiatives to prepare more local residents for high-demand, high-wage jobs in the arts, culture, and entertainment sector. As a  recording artist, Harris is keenly aware of these opportunities and gaps in the marketplace. His solution is the creation of an arts and culture workforce accelerator and training campus, and revenue-generating performance venues and supporting technologies.

“The vision to prioritize job creation in these sectors is inspired by a variety of factors,” said Harris. “These include the local need for higher wage employment, promising market conditions in the industry, and a wealth of relevant human, cultural, educational and physical attributes in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County.”

Harris noted that nationally there is a shortage of places where large-scale performing acts can stage, rehearse, and mount large productions. Performers compete for the few venues that can accommodate their needs – most of which are on the east and west coasts.

When stars like H.E.R., Lady Gaga and Beyonce, and even smaller acts, are preparing traveling productions, they travel with hundreds of crew members. The industry relies on local talent to supplement its teams of stage builders, craftspeople, and light design, audio engineering, and recording professionals. And ideally, there’ll be a strong contingent of business side skills, including expertise in digital media, marketing, ticketing, financing, logistics, legal and more.

ACT’s team of advisors, educators, and mentors is currently expanding the ACT curriculum and strategy of educating a broader population and a wider range of career paths so that the area becomes known as the go-to destination to create, stage, produce and market artistic and creative output.

Working with the firm CapX Advisory Group and Wannemacher Jensen Architects, ACT undertook feasibility and financing studies which determined that a 36,000-square-foot facility is needed to accommodate the performance studios, technology, administration and teaching areas as well as a performance venue.

With beaches, beautiful weather, and already vibrant museums and visual art scene, the addition of the ACT creative workforce accelerator and performance venue is a way to lock in the region’s claim as a creative destination, Harris believes. He envisions a day when booking agents will think of this region as the best place to bring a show, make a recording or film, or tap the local talent pool to fulfill any creative vision. And they’ll get an audience of art-loving locals and visiting tourists at the same time.

“The arts, culture, and performance market segment is a natural fit for St. Petersburg and one where we can really shine,” Harris added.


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