Saturday, December 21, 2013

The State of the Arts, 2013

With every economic downturn, there are those who saw it coming, and those who didn't. The majority fell in the latter category. Most people in the arts -- and their clients -- plowed on through bleak decreases in revenue, cutting back, postponing acquisitions, watching their savings and hopes draining. This created a lag between the cause and effect.

In 2011, a magazine (American Styles) held a contest of sorts for their online readers to vote on what was the #1 destination for the arts in the US and announced Saint Petersburg had won. This went on for three years, as the city was voted in again and again. To give some idea of the absurdity of this result, Tampa came in 2nd, then Miami. Saint Pete boosters carelessly recited this as a mantra without caveats. The problem was that the hype was undercut by a very real and cruel economic reality: During those years, gallerists wondered why  attendance and revenues were abysmally low, as artists did. This dissonance caused a lot of anger, despair and bickering in this community.

The 600 block was one of the victims of this.In 2013, it was reduced by a series of personal squabbles resulting from a combination of management problems and personality cult issues that should have been shortstopped immediately but dragged out across time, and into facebook, degrading the image capital of this great experiment. At this time, I think its future looks like it will be more oriented toward retail spaces and higher sq. ft. rentals. On the good side, the tenant population is rapidly shifting in a very positive way, and this may result in a renaissance for the block. More cohesion, collective action and responsive management can turn this around. The Oleson Gallery has fluorished in the latter part of 2013, emerging as an inclusive, alternative space.

The very same few people turned up at nearly all of the divisive moments of 2013, The once-charming and successful Wednesday Art Meet-ups at the Sake Bomb came to an end when Sebastian Coolidge splintered it with the Ham and Eggers at the Bends. 

 At the other end of the block, Rasta left as the final outcome of a sordid causal chain. Vitale got out of his space. Blue Lucy was rumored to be leaving, but stayed. Jay Herres is leaving. There is widespread disappointment with the property management. Eugenia Woods moved to a working promising working space at the Wearhouse.

 For personal reasons, the eve N odd gallery is closing at the end of January. One of the best, most innovative galleries in the Bay Area, run by a respected artist, it has been consistently along the leading edge of art shows in the area. Given its size and miniscule budget, it was a model for what can be done.

The State Theater is selling the business, not the building, which is curious, and the 662 across the street has been sold. Unless this signals a drastic change (think demolition), I see it as a positive.

The densepack monoblock idea of "star" artists and galleries in the 600 is shifting with many dispersing and setting up businesses and studios elsewhere. Location is extremely important, but it is not everything. 

In photography there is a term called "platypus", which basically means being neither this nor that, but a mix, posessing several apparently incongruous qualities essential for survival. In the arts, we are not seeing enough of this. still know of galleries that lack a site and are acting as if it was 2003, and are suffering for it.

Mindy Solomon's departure for Miami was our loss, but perfectly understandable. In one year, the arts in Dade County generate an estimated 500 million dollars. Art Basel, in one week, adds another 500 million. All of Pinellas County arts revenues total 23 million yearly. Do the math: Each year, Miami generates the equivalent arts revenues of ***43 years*** of what Pinellas does. It made perfect sense for Mindy to migrate. The amazing thing is that many others haven't followed. It is is a large arts market, meaning it is far more difficult expense-wise, the competition is at a totally different level, and there is a vast cultural difference.

The Morean Arts Center pulled off a miracle, managing to reconfigure their debt, and with Wayne Atherholt at the helm, pulled back from the brink. This is one of 2013's greatest positive stories in Bay area arts. Kudos to all involved.

There was movement in the Central Arts District, with Artpool adding a cafe and more markets. Creative Soul Studio/Cafe opened up and its commitment to the arts and shows are steadily improving. Nuance Galleries has been hosting a variety of shows and defining its Saint Pete identity. The St Pete Opera practice space opened up, Planet Retro and Rob Davidson Fine Arts moved there as well. Lots of continuing development there.

The Warehouse Arts District is building up momentum via a collective effort, great positive energies and more quality shows. It enjoys (due to the nature of the spaces and the "frontier" psychology) a wide variety of art, some of it in very large scale. I admire how the WADans are unifying, pooling resources and forging ahead. There are too many spaces there to cover here, but a few highlights: Soft Water Studios began having drawing classes and better curated shows. Mark Aeling, Carrie Jadus and others are leading the WADA capably. Duncan McClellan started its mobile glass lab for educating students in the school system and achieved a major coup with his Hot Shop. This changed the glass landscape for St Pete. May artists are working there and at least one is in residency. DMG is also having its exhibitors give talks at the MFA, a wonderful program that expands on the purely visual aspects of the exhibit. The Venture Compound has improved the quality of its art shows during 2013 without losing its unique attitude.  In the WAD, two fashion studios come to mind: Spathos, who has taken the lead in making things happen in Saint Petersburg Arts on many planes, and newcomer Wearhouse, a fashion co-op involving Eugenia Woods (Rebekah Lazzaridis) and Misred, who bring a sense of couture and feminine sophistication coupled with a positive can-do spirit.

I see 2013 as the year of correction. A return to reason and a realistic outlook that allows us a clear starting point towards a brighter future. As artists are expanding the range of locations beyond the standard "districts", we are seeing a balkanization that dilutes unity and emphasizes a cloud of locations as opposed to clusters.

 There needs to be better synchronization with government. Education of the latter as to the value of the arts (this seems to be woefully lacking).

 Collectivization between artists, galleries and organizations instead of further divisions and power grabs.

 A complete revamp of the city's outlook and control of murals, including setting up a committee whose members should include artists. We are well beyond the age of  "Czars". 

Facilitation for a plurality of smaller festivals, because these are the seeds from which great festivals grow -- as well as the community's identity.

Involvement, activism and collectivism on the 600 blk.

...and much, much more. 2014 is almost here. There is no cavalry coming to save us. No one will die for our sins. Mr. Right is not at the door (the wolf is!). Only we can make this happen. Let's build a better future, starting today.

--- Luis

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