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John Collins: Time for ‘new energy’ at the Arts Alliance

Bill DeYoung



Change is good, change is necessary. Change is the only constant in life.

John Collins knows this, and accepts it, as he ponders the run-up to March 31, his last day as the executive director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance.

He founded the arts advocacy and support organization 10 years ago, and his original plan was to leave his post – we’re not using the word “retire” here – before his 70th birthday, last December 3rd. He’d told his board as much, long before the pandemic forced the cancellation of every Arts Alliance event in 2020, and subsequent legislative cuts meant the group was forced to scramble and innovate. “So I couldn’t walk away then,” Collins says. “I needed to keep my head held up. So we had to figure out ways to raise money.

“What I missed most was not being able for three or four of us to be together and dream stuff up, and discover and make stuff up every day. And figure out how to fund it to do these great things.”

One “great thing” that did get the necessary attention was the Comprehensive Arts Strategy, a collaboration between the Arts Alliance, the City of St. Petersburg and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.

The groups have taken feedback, suggestions and advice from more than 300 residents on a multi-year plan for growing St. Petersburg as a City of the Arts, helping to identify immediate and long-term priorities including collaboration, branding and fundraising.

The “official” release date for the CAS is March 31 – Collins’ last day on the job. “Basically, we’ve got it,” he says. “It’s down to approximately 16 pages … but now we have to hone it down and tighten it up.

“I don’t think it’ll ever be a perfect, pretty piece. It’s going to be a strategy. We’ll publish it online, of course. But we’re not there yet.”

Collins has been helping Terry Marks, who’ll succeed him in the top spot (as CEO), get familiar with the Comprehensive Arts Strategy, through Zoom meetings.

“We didn’t scare her away,” he laughs. “She asked great questions. And I didn’t ever mean to be creating something that you would just toss to somebody and say ‘Here!’, but I do feel a sense of personal satisfaction that as I go out the door, there’s a plan, and there’s enough money to execute the plan. How many people can say that in the nonprofit world?

“I’ve kind of met my personal goals, and I’m ready to step back and let someone with new energy go forward.”

Marks has a lengthy resume including many years working with nonprofits, wearing both management and fundraising hats.

The latter, Collins has said for years, is his least favorite aspect of arts advocacy. “I want to be done with the fundraising game,” he explains. “I want to be done with being anxious about making payroll.”

He plans on enjoying the vibrant St. Pete arts environment, with his wife Mary Ellen, without having to be concerned about money (where it’s coming from – or not coming from). He is considering consulting work.

Marks, he enthuses, “is going to be great. In a way, we’re a creative business like any other creative business, and we have to grow. The founder gets it going. And at some point, it’s time for the business to evolve to the next level. And that takes a different type of person.

“And our board has found Terry, who can be that next person to build upon what’s there by helping build the capacity of the organization to do more.

“It’s not that I’m quitting, tired and running away by any means. It’s just that it’s time for new energy.”

The city’s remarkable growth as a hothouse for nurturing the arts, and as an arts destination, has been the work of numerous dedicated people – including, near the very top of the list, John Collins.

“Essentially, all I’ve done is organize the creatives for a successful outcome. I’ve said it before, creatives need organization to succeed. And nothing succeeds without a champion.

“I didn’t create ArtWalk – it started 20 years ago – but I get all the credit for it now, because five or six years ago I got all the people who started ArtWalk together in the same room, and we came up with a plan. And I raised the money for the trolleys, et cetera, et cetera.

“What I’m most proud of is the fact that I came up with “Five Arts Districts Equals One Arts Destination,” and everybody’s been using that ever since. Because it does tell the story of the marketing and branding of ArtWalk.”

He also cites, with pride, the “Art Shines Here” banner campaign, developed in conjunction with the city. “We proclaimed our City of the Arts. So that’s probably my fondest achievement, shall we say.”

Monday in the Catalyst: Meet Terry Marks, the St. Petersburg Arts Association’s incoming CEO.













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