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St. Pete 2.0: Arts as an economic driver [Part Two]

Jaymi Butler




The St. Petersburg renaissance has been in full swing for more than a decade. We’ve excelled in many areas and struggled in others. In our series St. Pete 2.0, we’re partnering with the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership to explore what lies on the other side of our potential – what will it take to move to the “next level” as a city? Through this series, we’ll dig into specific topics with the hope that you, our thoughtful citizens, will share your insight, experience and wisdom.

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on so many segments of St. Petersburg’s economy, but the arts have been hit especially hard in 2020. Galleries went dark. Concerts were canceled. Museums shut their doors for months on end. As we move toward our new normal, artists and art organizations are finding themselves in search of answers to some complicated questions. How can they continue to share their work when many of their patrons are still staying home? Will they be able to earn enough money to pay their bills? And what role should they expect the community to play in supporting the city’s arts economy going forward?  

In this edition of St. Pete 2.0, The St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and Arts Alliance sought to develop a greater understanding of the connections between the arts community and the city as a whole. We asked Catalyst readers to answer a series of questions on a variety of arts-related topics, including their willingness to contribute financially to ensure the city’s art scene remains vibrant and their thoughts on what can be done to make the arts economy even stronger. Here’s what we learned:

Would you be willing to pay more in local or state taxes to support art?

While several people said they wouldn’t support paying more taxes to support art, the majority of participants responded to this question with a resounding yes.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” a commenter named Beth said. “Kids need art. Seniors. Vets. Everyone needs art, even when they don’t realize it is making their life better.”

Another person who voiced her support suggested the city appoint art directors to attend and represent the voice of the art community at city council and other government meetings, especially when budgets are involved.

“I think you would find the artistic input would make all decisions and investments better and enhance the arts the same time,” the commenter, named Robin, wrote, adding that developers building downtown should donate funds to support local art. 

Those who didn’t agree with the idea expressed concern that the money would not be allocated or managed correctly.

“If it’s state taxes, then I’d be concerned public art money would be going to something like painting a new sign for a failing alligator farm in the middle of nowhere,” wrote a respondent named Ben.

There are also fears of politics stifling artistic expression.

“State-sponsored art leads to a political voice driving that art and curtailing its freedom and creative voice,” one person said. 

Would you be willing to contribute to a private foundation to build art capacity in St. Petersburg?

Again, most people enthusiastically supported this idea and a number of respondents said they’re already doing so. Several replied with “it depends on who’s running it” and how it would operate, while others said they would have concerns about too much money being spent on overhead costs. 

One person questioned why a private foundation is necessary. 

“I already support the arts in a number of ways,” the commenter said. “I’m not sure what a private foundation would bring that is not already present.”

How has art shaped St. Petersburg’s urban renewal?

While respondents had different ideas on how art has shaped the city’s urban renewal, the majority agreed that it has definitely played a major role in St. Pete’s growth and development.

“Art drove it completely,” wrote a commenter named Bonnie. “The Studio@620 lit the flame as an incubator for artists of all types who went on to start theaters, galleries, music and dance groups, studios, etc.”

Several people pointed to the connection between art and tourism.

“It’s a draw for visitors to come spend time and money in the community, and art activates many places and spaces throughout the town to make it come alive,” a commenter named Holly wrote. 

That connection has even extended to the development of the business community, which has created more jobs and opportunities for people to relocate to St. Pete. 

Art brings people and people drive business. Businesses drive residential development, which drives more business,” wrote one respondent.

The museum scene has been critical to the city’s urban renewal, wrote a commenter named Valerie.

“Just look at the Dali, the James Museum, the Chihuly Collection, public murals and countless galleries,” she said. “Would they be here if St. Petersburg didn’t support the arts?”

Speaking of murals, a number of respondents mentioned them as important contributors to the city’s unique identity. 

“The public art in St. Petersburg gives the feeling that the city is vibrant,” said a participant named Brian. “It makes it clear that this is a community worth developing and investing in.”

Wrote another: “Art, particularly public art and murals, have drawn people into areas that have been underexplored. Murals have livened up alleys and taken rundown buildings and made them special.”

Several people pointed out the areas that have benefited most from an infusion of the arts, including Kenwood, the Warehouse Arts District and the EDGE and Grand Central districts. 

“It has changed underutilized light industrial areas into strongly growing, cohesive and lively neighborhoods,” one commenter observed. 

However, there is some concern about who gets left behind once these areas become too trendy. 

“I really don’t see any ‘urban’ renewal. Where exactly is this urban area that you speak of? I see a lot of change like every city. The artists come in and take hold of an area like the 600 block in St Pete or the 5th Ave. South so-called ‘Arts District,’ and then rich people come in and buy up the property and try to fix it,” wrote an artist named Natty. “It always ends up becoming a desolate area again when the artists get pushed out.”

A commenter named Paul agreed. 

“The typical pattern occurred here,” he said. “Artists move into ‘blighted’ areas, it becomes cool, they can’t afford to stay, they move to another area and the cycle repeats.”

What would make the arts economy even stronger?

As with any endeavor, money always helps, whether that’s in the form of governmental contributions, endowments or private donations. More funding for arts education and scholarships would also be beneficial. 

“DeSantis and the Florida legislature sure don’t mind giving money to big companies and private schools,” one person wrote. “They should give more to make our citizens – especially lifelong residents – a reason to stay.”

A number of respondents also called for tax breaks, rent-controlled spaces and financial support for individual artists. 

“St. Petersburg has to not just support the arts, but the ARTISTS,” urged a commenter named Brooke. “Our amazing thriving city is going to price the cost of living out of reach for artists if they do not have adequate community and public support. We need to revise zoning laws that prevent artists from being able to live, work, and show their art in one physical place. We need to give tax breaks and subsidies to communal areas that create affordable studio space to visual artists.”

One local artist echoed her plea. 

Please support artists and help them get through Covid-19,  especially artists that relied on festivals for a major part of their income,” he wrote. “They are scrambling to find new ways to survive. Their entire income and plans for employment disappeared. Adaptation will take time.” 

To that end, the city should also consider more ways to promote local artists and connect them with potential patrons. 

“I’d like to see an online store for local artists,” one person wrote. “In this time of Covid, I have wanted to purchase local art to support local artists. but the opportunities are difficult to find.”

Several people suggested creating events similar to Tampa’s Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, Miami’s Art Basel and New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival to draw attention to the city as an arts destination (once the pandemic is over, of course). 

“Arts can be a catalyst for the community to come together and begin to come out more as it becomes safe to do so,” one respondent said. “I think an arts-fueled celebration of community could be an amazing way to reinvigorate neighbors and local businesses as we begin to bounce back from the pandemic, the effects of staying home for so long, the economic fallout and the long period of uncertainty.”

To read part one, click here. 

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1 Comment

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    Nathan H

    October 22, 2020at8:20 am

    Great emphasis on the arts. Keep the momentum up!

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