Four years after the Warehouse Arts District Association bought up 50,000 square feet of grey, decaying industrial buildings off 5th Avenue and 22nd Street South, the ArtsXchange – as the facility was named – is thriving. Nearly 30 professional artists, in all media, work in comfy, rent-controlled studio space.
The two-story, 9,200-square foot ArtsXchange main building officially opened, fully renovated and fitted out, last October. With galleries, and event and performance spaces alongside the working studios, it’s become ground zero for St. Petersburg’s ongoing, reverberating cultural explosion – there’s a waiting list to get in, with 400 artists’ names on it. The center’s opening receptions and other public events are routinely packed.
All of this revitalization is tremendously exciting for Diane Bailey Morton, who became executive director of the nonprofit Warehouse Arts District Association in January. Although the non-legal “borders” of the district cover 1.5 square miles – the Morean Center for Clay is there, and the Duncan McClellan glassworks gallery, in addition to numerous non-arts businesses including breweries, distilleries and coffee-grinders –the ArtsXchange is the beating heart of the city’s so-retro-it’s-hip neighborhood.
This week, Morton is beginning a capital campaign to get Phase II up and running.
“We’re going to rehab another warehouse for an arts education building,” she announces. “Including a dance studio, with three classrooms.” The dance studio will be fully equipped, with a professional springboard floor, ballet barres, mirrors, the works.
On April 26, she’ll reveal the renderings to the association’s donors and benefactors.
Although the current facility hosts adult education classes on its second floor, the Phase II addition – it’s 2,400 square feet – has been designed for versatility.
“Three classrooms – it could be anything,” Morton says, “music and voice lessons, whatever we want to do. Anything that will serve the community – if people want to rent it for their dance troupe, their art lessons, whatever. It’ll be multi-use.”
Morton believes it’s important to embrace other artistic disciplines – not just the visual. As an example, she cites the experimental storytelling/theater company, Your Real Stories, which rents a studio in the ArtsXchange. “We’re committed to that idea,” Morton says.
Purchasing the buildings, and rehabbing for Phase I, those were the easy parts – the WADA had state and city money, as well as significant private contributions from arts supporters who wanted to see the facility rise from the ashes of a blighted neighborhood.
This time, it’s up to the donors alone. “Before,” Morton says, “they were buying a vision. Now that we’re bricks and mortar, now that they’ve seen it, I think they’ll believe in us even more. Because we were responsible in how we did it, and it’s turned out beautifully.”
This year, the Warehouse Arts District Association applied for $500,000 in state funding. They got zip, zippo, zilch – the same amount given to them in 2017.
“I wouldn’t be doing this capital campaign if the legislature had funded the project,” explains Morton. “I’m never going to ask the community for a penny more than what we need. If we’d gotten that, it would be a different ball game altogether.”
Diane Bailey Morton is the glass-half-full type – the big raspberry from Tallahassee, she’s sure, won’t stop the irrepressibly forward motion of the Warehouse Arts District. “There are strong challenges, but strong rewards,” she beams. “I am so thrilled with the programming that we’ve done. We have reached so many people. We had a standing-room-only national book launch last week; we got national attention. It was a book on the Pride flag, for children.
“To be able to do events like that, and support our community in so many different ways, that’s the reward to it all. Look how far we’ve come.”
Sadly, there’s been no word from the city on its joint action plan, proposed in 2017, to revitalize and link the Warehouse Arts District and the adjoining Dueces neighborhood.
Inspiration for the contents of the arts education center, Morton beams, came to her during a visit to a revitalized arts center in Lorton, Va. called the Workhouse. The former prison was rehabbed into artist studios, each cellblock representing a different medium.
“One of the cellblocks was movement,” Morton explains. “And I saw on the door ‘pilates, senior yoga, ballet,’ everything, and I went ‘Wow. That’s really multi-use; that’s a broad base of the community.’ I thought ‘I’d like to do something like that.’”
She was also inspired, she says, by professional dancer Misty Copeland’s groundbreaking video advertisement for Under Armour training gear. “It’s a visual of her dancing to her rejection letters. And basically, it was all racist: Your feet are wrong, your hips are wrong, your bust is wrong … ‘you could be a professional dancer in Vegas’ was one of the rejections.”
“Making ballet accessible to everyone,” Morton says, “has always interested me.”
In the meantime, she’ll work on raising the $375,000 necessary to get Phase II on its feet. Along with the arts education center, the organization is hoping for some site beautification.
“We need to clean it up,” Morton says frankly. “We’re going to do aesthetic improvements, and tear down the rusted chain link fences and barbed wire. It’s ironic that an arts organization is ugly!”
The facility’s entrance is difficult to spot from the road. New, effective signage is part of the proposal.
“Since we’re now having events at night, we also need to make it safer, with proper lighting and security,” Morton adds. “And you can’t have people coming in and out of an education center stepping in potholes. We’ve got to clean all those up.”
Morton is keenly aware, too, that the ArtsXchange – the association’s baby – is not the only entity within the district boundaries.
“The Warehouse Arts District is a very large district,” she explains. “It includes 200 businesses. So part of my mission is not only to serve our artists and our artistic community, but to serve the business community. I come from a business background, even though I served on nonprofits for 30 years.” She’s planning a business mixer soon.
And even though the art business is still a business, Morton always has a moment for levity:
“We beat all the other districts,” she says, “and here’s why: We manufacture coffee, vodka, beer and whiskey. What else do you need? That’s why everybody wants to be where we are!”