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FEBRUARY 22, 2023

“Preserving the Magic by Breaking the Mold”

Hi, my name is Mark Aeling and I’m a working artist. I have over 30 years under my belt,self employed, making a living making things. I’m also the Board President for the Warehouse Arts District Association as well as an arts advocate.

Anyone who’s walked around St Petersburg can tell you that this city is booming. New buildings are sprouting up everywhere and our streets and cafes are overflowing with people and energy. The future looks bright, for many. For those who can afford to live here that is.

We call ourselves the city of the Arts. We’ve got outstanding museums, independent galleries and a stellar performing arts scene. And we have a close-knit community of artists – people thinking about art, talking about art, and devoting their lives to the making of art. The arts are the soul of this community.

Right now, the Warehouse Arts District has over 300 local artist members and our ArtsXchange campus has over 30 subsidized and affordable studios leased to local working artists. It’s not nearly enough. We get requests from artists everyday looking for space. We could quadruple it and it still wouldn’t be enough. Why? Because they are they only spaces that are still affordable in the city?

This artist community is breathing energy and life into this city. It’s one of the primary reasons that St Petersburg has the character that makes people want to move here. What if artists could no longer afford to live or work here? Yes, we‘re in danger of losing our groove. We haven’t lost it yet, but have no doubt it’s in danger as real estate skyrockets and prices the artists out.

So, what can be done? We can take action.

Here’s what happens all over the world; Artists move into run down parts of town because they are inexpensive. Their creative energy attracts attention. That attention brings development which drives up prices and the artists get pushed out.

The Warehouse Arts District was started by a group of artists. With the help of the Downtown Partnership we organized the creative community to give it a voice.

We started the ArtsXchange because we saw what development means to creatives and we wanted to break that mold.

We have one mission – to keep artists in St Petersburg by providing what they need to sustain them – We started with affordable working space and we are currently positioned to develop living spaces as well but we lack the resources. We have the property but not the funds to develop it.

We squeak by on private donations and grants but we need more to do more. We need the power of the city behind us to ensure that artists have a place in this community.

What does that mean? There are many ways in which this can be manifest.

We currently have a percent for art for municipal projects which is great but it’s a very small percentage of the development that occurs. We need a percent for private development. This concept, which is utilized by some of the most vibrant communities in the US was proposed at the chamber of commerce a few years ago. To say it fell on deaf ears would be an understatement.

What if we changed that attitude and actively worked at creating sustainability for the creative community? Say we take a $100,000,000 development ( let’s pick one of the many that has ART in its title) and 1% of that project total was paid into a fund for sustainability for artists. Not just to plop a sculpture on the corner (which by the way is how I make my living) but to generate affordable housing. Live work spaces for artists. That’s $1,000,000 into that fund.

Right now there is 0 incentive for developers to give back to the community that has made their profits possible. Consider it a form of tithing. Giving back to that which gives you strength. As a city, if we don’t legislate it, it’s not going to happen. We don’t have to do it but if we don’t the result is very simple. The artists will leave. It’s already happening. I have personal friends who have left because they can’t afford it. My studio employs many artists and it’s become very difficult to get creatives to move here. Oh, they love the idea of it until they start looking at rental prices.

This is just one example. Another would be to require developers who are buying art for their new buildings to buy local for at least a portion of their design budgets.

– We need legislation. Creative communities develop organically. It takes a special kind of synergy for them to be manifest. THEY ARE LIKE UNICORNS. Sustainability is another matter. Keeping that magic in place doesn’t happen by accident. It requires intention. Inspired leadership. The ability to break the mold and fight for the things that give value to your experience.

This city owes so much of its current popularity and financial growth to the character which the arts community has created. If we want to protect St Petersburg’s character for the future, the city has an obligation to legislate programs which will help artists afford to live and work here. Without that, St Petersburg will soon become just another flash in the pan and the magic will be gone…

I will be presenting this information at the St Petersburg Conference on World Affairs tomorrow, February 22nd, at 9am as part of ‘The future of cities- the arts’ panel discussion. I’m hoping for a lively conversation! Please join in person or stream on line at this link:

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