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Rent increases, pandemic shut down Venus art space

Bill DeYoung



Venus co-founders from left: Emily Stone, Jodi Chemes, Ashley Sweet, Mitzi Jo Gordon and Tiffany Elliott. Photo provided.

Another one bites the dust.

Ten St. Petersburg artists will lose their affordable studio spaces Jan. 22 when Venus, a combination art and community event space, closes its doors after just shy of three years.

The reasons are all too familiar: The one-two punch of skyrocketing rent and the trickle-down effects of Covid-19.

“Ultimately, it felt like an impractical or irresponsible choice to try to continue to run this space, in the same way that we have, with the costs essentially doubling,” said co-founder and de facto space manager Mitzi Jo Gordon.

Gordon was a charter member of the nonprofit St. Pete Women’s Collective, which operated Venus, at 244 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N., as an “incubator” for creativity, with a library, a large meeting space and artist studios.

The landlord is Peter Barlas, who along with his father Hank owns Coney Island Sandwich Shop (established by the Barlas family in 1926) and adjacent real estate on the west side of MLK.

Barlas, Gordon said, has been “great” to work with, keeping the annual rent increases low for Venus, which is supported through small grants, private donations and art sale commissions, and operated by volunteers.

In the end, however, it got to be too much, and the 1,600-square-foot space will soon stand empty again.

“We could’ve passed the increases on, but that’s not our mission,” Gordon said. “It would transform the entire energy of the space. The environment that we have here is very much for people who don’t have a lot of means, but have a lot to give and share and are very much needing a creative space to do that in.”

Exacerbating the rent issue was the pandemic, which forced the group to stop allowing community events at Venus.

“We were able to do so much in that small amount of time; it has really flown by,” explained Gordon. “I feel like we had incredible momentum right from the start, and everybody in the space was really focused on utilizing it and activating it to the fullest. We worked with a lot of different artists, different community efforts, nonprofit groups, to share the space.”

Payment for use of the space, she added, was on an “each to their means” basis – if a retail group wanted to host a coffee or wine tasting, for example, they’d agree on a fee (“because they could afford it”). Other nonprofits, and community organizations, usually got the space gratis.

The St. Pete Women’s Collective hasn’t existed for a while, after several founding members left the area for other work and other opportunities. The Collective’s initial focus on mental health, and women’s issues, went with them.

“It’s hard,” said Gordon, who’ll be at the final sidewalk show and sale Jan. 22 (4-9 p.m., along with other artists and members of the collective.

“I’m sad. But also, I feel like it’s the right decision. And everyone else in the group also feels that way. We’ve discussed this at length. The original plan, vision, structure shifted so much; it was kind of like one domino after another.

“And if it had been only one of those things, or two, maybe we could have continued to pivot. Because we pivoted quite a bit along the way.”

RELATED STORY: Venus rising: Women’s Collective art studio, incubator opens this week








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