The very first recipient of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance’s Arts Advocate of the Year award began her professional career drawing with pencil on paper. But even though Melissa Seixas, president of Duke Energy Florida (she calls it her “day job”) is hard-wired to the arts, she doesn’t consider herself an artist.
“I couldn’t draw you a freehand picture,” Seixas laughed. “But I’m really good at painting with a twist.”
As a teenager, she had aspirations to be an engineer – and was the only girl in her high school drafting class. She admits a lingering fondness for “the good old-fashioned drafting pens and templates.”
Florida Power, as Duke was known in the 1980s, gave Seixas her first job, drafting technical illustrations of power lines, power poles and transformers. “So there’s always been, for me, an element of taking the verbal and trying to translate it into something visual,” she said. “It makes me appreciate the translation of different communication channels.”
During her recent tenure as board chair of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership (her current title is Immediate Past President), Seixas conceived of the Comprehensive Arts Strategy, an outline for the continued good health, and growth, of St. Petersburg’s ever-changing arts and culture infrastructure – one of the city’s proven economic drivers.
Unveiled last July, the Comprehensive Arts Strategy was a joint effort between the Downtown Partnership, the Arts Alliance and the City of St. Petersburg.
Seixas is quick to point out that the 24-page document was the result of many hours, days, weeks and months by a good many people, starting with Partnership CEO Jason Mathis and the board.
“We knew as board members that we needed to cast a wide net of thought and input, and that we also needed a certain level of objectivity,” she explained. “So, bringing in a consultant that would help us map this out in a way that we could see both our strong points and those areas where we have gaps. And then trying to lay that out over the short term, and the long term.”
Focus groups, one-on-one interviews, workshops and other collaborative events were used to query a diverse group of citizens – including artists, art workers, business and civic leaders – about their beloved arts community, and where they’d like to see it go.
“That’s not to say the Comprehensive Arts Strategy won’t evolve – it has to,” Seixas said. “It has to be agile. Check and adjust, check and adjust. That’s kind of a mantra here at the power company.”
There are numerous parallels, she believes, between her roles as the president of the area’s power concern and an avatar for the arts.
“So much of my involvement in the arts comes from working for a company that has long been a good corporate citizen,” Seixas said, “and recognized decades ago the value of the arts to creating a thriving and vibrant community.”
Duke Energy’s investments in St. Pete’s artistic endeavors goes back decades – the company has thrown its support to The Florida Orchestra, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Dali Museum and the Mahaffey Theater (which bears the official name Mahaffey Theater Duke Energy Center for the Arts).
“That’s with a particular interest in the organizations’ outreach into underserved parts of the community. It has helped me evolve as someone who appreciates the comprehensive impact of the arts.”
In addition to her Master’s from University of Florida St. Petersburg, Seixas has a bachelor’s degree from Eckerd College and a professional certification in Corporate Social Responsibility from Johns Hopkins University.
She has served on the boards of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Ruth Eckerd Hall, Pasco County Economic Development Council, the Pinellas County Urban League, St. Petersburg and Clearwater Chambers of Commerce and the Pasco Economic Development Council.
She is on the USF St. Petersburg Campus Advisory Board, and the USF board of trustees for the University of South Florida.
At Duke, she said, “We have to have a view into the future. For our customers, how we’re going to power – literally – the lives of our communities and our citizens and customers. So it’s kind of a natural extension of my day job, from a strategic standpoint.
“Any organization that I’ve had the honor of serving on, as a board member, I kind of bring my day job. So it’s kind of a consistent view of trying to look at planning from a strategic standpoint. And also seizing the opportunity.”
The genesis of the Comprehensive Arts Strategy was a Downtown Partnership board meeting. Mathis had just been hired as CEO.
“We were talking about, what will continue to drive the success of the Tampa Bay area, St. Petersburg, over the coming years? Quite often it’s around the marine sciences – we’re surrounded by water, we’ve got national science entities that are here in our own back yard.
“And of course the arts, part of that whole discussion about being a big part of the city’s future. So it was just kind of a natural, organic conversation that we were having.”
Initiated in the fall of 2020, the Strategy was intended as a framework on which to build , not a black-and-white roadmap.
They were not, Seixas makes clear, looking for “individual events or activities, outreach events, tactical actions … my recommendation was that we really need to look at this through a very strategic lens. And that’s kind of how it evolved from there. And I give full credit to Jason and the rest of the board for supporting it, and then really investing what it takes to put together a comprehensive strategy.”
Melissa Seixas was in the 5th grade when her family moved from Maryland to Florida. She didn’t recognize it then, of course, but the through line that would connect her inextricably to the arts began at home.
Her father, an American, was a colonel in the Army. “And my mother was born and raised in Brazil. And she always claimed that she learned to speak English by listening to music and watching television. And movies.”
This, Seixas feels, opened her eyes to different modes of perception. “I was fortunate early on to have recognized that people communicated and expressed themselves in different ways,” she said. “Whether that’s through music, drawing or dance or paint or poetry … all things I’m not good at. But that kind of expression.”
The St. Petersburg Arts Alliance honors Melissa Seixas at a brunch Sunday (April 24) at the Rutland-Farley Mansion. Tickets and information are here.
Read the Comprehensive Arts Strategy here.