After almost a decade at the helm of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, John Collins is ready to stop and smell the roses. The far-reaching support organization’s founder and executive director, who turned 70 in December, will retire effective March 31.
“I think it’s time for new energy, younger energy,” said Collins, who will stay on in an advisory position through the fall. “Somebody to bring in new ideas.”
One of the most visible – and recognizable – figures in the St. Pete arts community, Collins is looking forward to slowing things down, and joining the ranks of average citizens he has tirelessly served for a decade.
“I think it’s time to remember that I have a real life, and a wife who loves me,” he said. “We’ve really devoted ourselves to our jobs for so long that it’s time to devote ourselves to each other.”
Mary Ellen Collins is a writer and editor.
“We’re very fortunate that we own our home, I own my Jeep, and we don’t have to move away and be gypsies, which is what happens to so many people in the arts world,” Collins continued.
“We love where we are, in St. Petersburg. And I don’t want to get up in the morning worrying about who I’m going to ask for money. I want to get up in the morning and say ‘All right, hon – let’s go to a museum.’ Or ‘Let’s go to the beach.’ So it’s time, that’s what it is. It’s my time.”
Although his 50-year arts career included plenty of fundraising work, Collins – the former President of Boca Raton’s Centre For the Arts – prefers to use his energy in other areas. Under his watch, the nonprofit Arts Alliance launched (among other things) the Second Saturday ArtWalk, the SHINE Mural Festival and the ACE (Arts for a Complete Education) public school program, and has provided grants and other forms of support and supplement for hundreds of homegrown artists.
But none if it came cheap.
“As a former fundraiser for universities and arts organizations, I understand that’s very much how we survive, on grants, donations and sponsorships,” Collins explained. “Anything we can do to fill a vacuum, or present a festival, but also make a little bit of money so we can continue.
“We don’t have an annual income stream, the way typical arts alliances do, where funding comes from one source or another.”
The organization’s main source of funding comes from the city’s Dept. of Cultural Affairs, an annual $30,000 grant for SHINE, along with $15,000 for artists’ awards and $50,000 for other support including Arts Business Workshops. In a good year, money also comes from Washington and Tallahassee. Collins and his team then work to match those with other grants and donations (contributing private foundations include the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and the Pinellas Community Foundation).
“I think what we’ve been able to do with the money that’s been given to us is re-invest in our city’s arts community,” Collins said.
The St. Petersburg Arts Alliance received its charter in 2012. Collins, at that time, was mayor Bill Foster’s Consultant for the Arts. The city already had a Sports Alliance – so a similar nonprofit, dedicated to helping St. Petersburg build and promote a reputation as a “city of the arts,” seemed prudent.
The organization was created “to provide funds and support for emerging artists, artists and creative businesses,” Collins said.
“We never gave up on the idea of an arts endowment. We did create one, at the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, but it’s very, very small. But it’s done, and it’s there, should we find someone to endow the endowment.”
It wasn’t always easy, and it wasn’t always fun. Still, Collins always kept an inspirational quote – something he heard somewhere – in the back of his mind: “Creativity needs organization to succeed.”
“I think,” he said, “that’s what we were able to provide, the organization for all this creativity, the cohesiveness of our cultural community. And of course every organization needs a champion. I’m not saying I’m a champion, but you need somebody to be the leader and do the work.”
He credited the Office of Cultural Affairs, his grant writer Randi Hillesø and his (small) staff. “I’ve been very fortunate to find incredible volunteers,” he added, “and build a board that is incredibly supportive.”
As the board searches for his replacement – vice chair Helen Hansen French will serve as interim executive director – Collins is planning a future that doesn’t involve fundraising.
“My wife and I can go to ArtWalk and just enjoy it, and not have to work it,” he said. “We can go to the museum and just enjoy it.
“Maybe I can devote more time to going and seeing freeFall Theatre or American Stage, who I believe are two of the finest small theater companies in the country. We can go listen to a band, and if someone comes up and asks if I can do something, I can say ‘Yes, the Arts Alliance can do that. Call them.’”