A creative arts icon called the [email protected] that recently celebrated a decade in downtown St. Petersburg is now taking steps it hopes will assure the next 10 years.
It's a remarkable success story — so far — thanks to the passion and hard work of its founders, sponsors, volunteers, an energetic board and, most of all, the charismatic personality and insatiable curiosity of founding artistic director Bob Devin Jones.
"Bob created this beautiful thing for the city," says St. Petersburg's Michelle Bauer, an early supporter of the studio who now helps run the Tampa Hills-borough Economic Development Corp. in downtown Tampa. "It is a gift."
The nonprofit [email protected], so named for its address at 620 First Ave. S, has emerged as a remarkably accessible venue for artists of every stripe, age and genre. Early on, it caught the attention, and for some with means, the financial commitment, of a wide diversity of people keen on making St. Petersburg not only a vibrant arts community, but a place anyone would be drawn to by its vitality and imagination.
I once spent an evening there watching critiques of local business startups pitching their unconventional ideas. That's art, too.
"This city has seen extraordinary growth," says Jones, who relocated here from Los Angeles 18 years ago. Who would have envisioned Beach Drive as it is today? Who could see this city growing up to be this good and sustainable, he asks.
"So I am a little amazed and delighted to be some small part of the greening of our community," Jones says while we sit in his memory-filled second-story office at [email protected] "It is a beautiful canvas and we have enhanced it."
Jones is adept at writing and directing plays, acting, cooking, conjuring artistic excitement, embracing talent and insinuating himself deeply into the fabric of downtown St. Petersburg.
A 60-year-old African-American who met his longtime partner Jim Howell at Chattaway's, Jones is part of the city's inner core of givers. He has helped shape St. Petersburg into not only a compelling arts community, but increasingly a go-to place for anyone seeking the rush of creative talent. He is an artistic entrepreneur who helps bring out the best in others.
Jones has no near-term plans to step down. But he is looking ahead.
He's eager to take on new artistic pursuits, ranging from writing a play titled Until the River Never Grieves to leading a travel group later this year to tour the arts and architecture of his hometown of Los Angeles. Jones also wants to embrace his baking passion by reviving Bob's Cookies — his chocolate chip cookie business that was such a hit at St. Pete's Saturday Morning Market.
But all that takes a community back seat to one special task: assuring the vitality and sustainability of [email protected]
For most of its existence, [email protected] has survived on the cleverness of finding grants and the kindness of individual givers to sponsor its varied art and community events. IRS filings from recent years show [email protected] has operated on strikingly lean annual budgets over the years of roughly $300,000, made up of gifts and grants, as well as membership dues and sales of art and concessions. Jones himself typically has received small compensation, less than $25,000 a year from the nonprofit.
In business terms, that means taking on some serious fundraising and putting in place a team that must eventually find (and pay for) someone to succeed Jones as artistic director.
It's early, and the details are still sketchy, but there are some plans in place to raise money — perhaps as much as $1 million, if things come together — for [email protected] Bob Glaser, CEO of the Smith & Associates real estate firm, a corporate supporter of the studio, is said to be working on a plan aimed at finding at least 10 wealthy people willing to give $10,000 a year for a decade to the studio. Combined, that would be $1 million. Others involved with the studio are pondering other capital-raising ideas. (Glaser did not respond to requests for further details.)
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In his own way, Jones has carved out a role akin to that of Tampa's Deanne Roberts. She was a visionary businesswoman who rose to chair the Tampa chamber of commerce and helped convince and educate many in this area of the economic merits of embracing young, creative and talented people in the Tampa Bay area. She died of cancer in 2012, but not before she inspired many in the business community.
In his 2011 book For the Love of Cities, St. Petersburg community activist Peter Kageyama writes about the importance of "co-creators" who, like Jones, genuinely love their cities.
"Who are these great lovers of cities? … They start things," Kageyama states. "They inspire others to get in the game. They educate people. They connect people. They are tastemakers and trendsetters."
That's probably the best definition of Jones I can offer after a lengthy interview with him, some of the [email protected] board members, and after listening to others in the business community speak of Jones' contributions to the city. (In his followup 2014 book Love Where You Live, Kageyama again cites Jones' role in the city, suggesting a "Bob Devin Jones Day" may be over the top — "but is worth considering.")
"[email protected] has been a incredible incubator for many things," says Michele Routh, who served on the nonprofit's original board and as past president.
The studio's leadership met Friday to explore their options for preserving the nonprofit and its legacy and, as Routh says, to get away from the "fits and spurts" in fundraising of the past.
As for Jones, look for him working his magic about town — from American Stage and the Palladium to the Mahaffey and the Dali Museum — and especially at [email protected] for a good while yet.
"This is a good place at 60," Jones says. "Not to retire. But there are fewer years ahead of me than behind. I just want to make it" — and here he uses one of his favorite words — "delicious."
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.