Friday, December 15, 2017
News Roundup

Architect Brandon Hicks helps Gasparilla arts festival thrive

Art should push perceptions and challenge conventions, says Brandon Hicks, architect and president of the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, a Tampa outdoor art show older than he is. • "Everyone should have an opinion about art and architecture. That's the point," Hicks said, "to get people involved and engaged." • Controversial art, a.k.a. nudes, launched the festival when it got the boot from the Florida State Fair years ago. It turned into the Gasparilla Sidewalk Art Festival in 1970 and has been staged variously along Whiting, Ashley and Franklin streets until it landed at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in 2010. • Hicks, 40, oversees strategic planning for the prestigious juried festival, which is expected to draw 100,000 viewers Saturday and March 2. • Just one-quarter of 1,000 applicants are invited to display and sell their artwork, photography, sculpture, jewelry and fine crafts. • Hicks volunteered to help a friend with site planning in 2009. The next year he co-chaired that committee, then spent two years as festival co-chairman. He doesn't take the legacy lightly when he pursues partnerships to further a reputation for high-quality work, nationally prominent jurors and cash prizes totaling $75,000. • The University of Florida grad is influenced by the livability of Budapest, Prague and other capitals he visited during two semesters of study in Italy, where he met his wife, Sarah Joubert, also an architect and the festival's treasurer. Now Riverside Heights residents, the couple worked together for two years before she was lured to a large firm and he formed Twelfth Street Studio in the Channel District. Times reporter Amy Scherzer asked Hicks about the festival's longevity and the politics of art and architecture.

How has the art festival become successful and stayed solvent?

The majority of revenue comes from applications and booth fees from the 235 artists the selection jury chooses. Basically that's how many fit in the park, down from 300 when we were on downtown streets.

We learned a lot from the economic downturn. When demand for luxury items like artwork dropped, our applications dropped. We feel that those are the times when people really need art. We built up good reserves for that reason and built true multiyear partnerships. Raymond James has been our title sponsor for 16 years and pays the $15,000 Best of Show award.

Do you conduct annual assessments of the festival's economic impact?

We do exit interviews, but I'm not comfortable throwing it all out there. It approaches $1 million in art sales throughout the weekend. For instance, last year the Best of Show winner sold that sculpture for about $7,500, then he sold two or three more castings of it. With the $15,000 award, he left with about $30,000.

The American Marketing Association group at University of South Florida is doing a demographic survey for us during the festival. It will be a pretty extensive "heads in beds" survey to quantify impact. Like all of us, they're all volunteers.

So what's new and exciting about this year's show?

We've expanded community outreach, like popup art by local artists in Kiley Gardens in containers provided by PODS. We'd like to do a live painting of a car at Mitzi Gordon's (director of Creative Pinellas) Carmada exhibit. She drives around in vehicles with words painted on them, like bumper and hood and door.

The Brink Foundation is matching sales from the Art Collectors in Training booth for the Children's Cancer Center. All the artists donate one piece and kids from 6 to 14 can buy what they like for $5 to $25. We are providing space to MacDonald Training Center, and Hill Ward Henderson is matching whatever they sell.

Your first job was in New York with Rafael Viñoly on his proposal for the Tampa Museum of Art, until the city pulled the plug on that project. What did you learn from that experience?

Alfonso Architects hired me three days after graduation in 2002, and I immediately left to represent the firm. I lived in the eccentric Chelsea Hotel for three months, then a studio apartment in Hell's Kitchen for a year.

Viñoly is very charismatic, and his architecture makes big civic statements. He's a classically trained pianist, but he didn't have a driver's license. I would fly down to Tampa to meet with city officials and back the same day. We were approaching the beginning of construction, but it shifted to a new administration and it was very difficult to survive that. There was a whole different set of intentions and purposes.

It hurts to work 18 months on a project and not see it happen. It was completely different than what we have now, much larger and more expensive. I feel it would have made a huge impact on downtown. I still have a stack of Viñoly drawings.

What kind of art and architecture are you personally drawn to?

I appreciate art that is minimal and abstract in nature, something that is both clear and open to different interpretations. I appreciate clean modernism born out of the Bauhaus.

I appreciate propaganda posters and the political commentary they suggest.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.

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