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St. Petersburg mayoral candidates, arts leaders have their say

In only a decade, St. Petersburg has grown from sleepy town to arts mecca. Construction on the new $35 million Salvador Dali museum continues. World-class performers Seal and Il Divo performed in front of sold-out audiences. A new artists' colony could blossom on Central Avenue with the help of city leaders. But beyond the city's big-name institutions, the painting is more grim.

Local nonprofits are struggling to survive. The amount of grants available is dwindling. The recession is causing patrons to rethink giving. And the emissary to the arts, former cultural affairs manager Ann Wykell, was removed, the victim of city budget cuts.

With a changing of the guard coming to the mayor's office soon, the tight-knit community of creators is waiting to see if past successes can be continued. We asked the community and the mayoral candidates a two-part question: What is the biggest challenge facing the arts world and what can be done about it?

What arts leaders had to say:

Mary Ann Assiff, director of Youth Arts Corps

Challenge: A lack of sustained funding sources that organizations can count on. Another challenge is that the arts are not a priority for the school systems. We run the danger of losing future audiences.

Solution: The city should partner with arts organizations to go after grant money and opportunities, both private and public. They should keep at the 600 block of Central project and work with business owners. It's a win-win for them and the city. They need to be more flexible with zoning to make the project come to fruition.

Jessica Calandra, Patel Conservatory Youth Orchestra program manager

Challenge: I feel like it's tricky, because everyone's struggling to fund their organization.

Solution: The city needs to look at the city's history, take a look at when things were thriving and why, and carefully examine how to build upon on previous successes instead of creating new initiatives.

Hank Hine, director of the Salvador Dali Museum

Challenge: To keep the St. Petersburg community engaged.

Solution: That responsibility falls squarely on two parties. The public has to be enticed by excellent programming and the arts need to provide that programming. And the public needs to be responsive to that. Sometimes they don't realize arts is for them.

Charlie Parker, St. Pete Clay Co. co-owner

Challenge: Keep St. Petersburg the arts mecca that it is.

Solution: The new mayor could help by having the ears of the art community and listening to the direction that artists are focusing on.

David Rovine, general manager of the Mahaffey Theater

Challenge: Working together to focus efforts in a more cohesive fashion. Determining goals for the arts community and needs and wants.

Solution: I don't think it's only the mayor's responsibility; it's the entire administration. There's a new arts person (Elizabeth Brincklow). I think she's going to be a big asset to the arts community. She wants to bring the arts community together. I frankly think all those positive things are going to happen.

Ann Wykell, former cultural affairs manager

Challenge: Between the loss of government funding, the downturn in the market and the fact that private giving in the arts is down, you really have arts being hit from all sides. It's really beginning to show.

Solution: The city leadership could help make this a city in which the civic culture is to support nonprofits. Not just arts, but social services, by working with the major business leaders in our community. They could really influence more giving and support.

What the candidates say:

Jamie Bennett

Challenge: Funding and how do we keep our arts community alive during an economic downturn.

Solution: As a city we can maintain our funding. It's not a great amount but we do provide some help.

Paul Congemi

Challenge: I'm not 100 percent familiar with the arts community, but I do realize it's an important part of the community.

Solution: I will host benefits to help the arts community if necessary.

Deveron Gibbons

Challenge: We could do a better job of coordinating the entire arts effort (and) finding steady funding for the arts community.

Solution: We have to coordinate those folks. You have to work with the private sector to create more philanthropic opportunities to support the arts.

Richard Eldridge

Challenge: It's the individual artist. It's a free market issue.

Solution: I support that the mayor put art under economic development; it doesn't need to be under its own umbrella.

Kathleen Ford

Challenge: Funding. And making money.

Solution: Make sure we're wisely using all of our resources. I think it is critical that we have a cultural affairs manager that ensures this actually occurs.

Bill Foster

Challenge: The biggest challenge is the economy.

Solution: We need to consolidate some of the artistic elements together. There could be some leaning on each other. We need to use the unencumbered Weeki Wachee funds to endow the arts. Not everyone has a skateboard or a dog, but everyone can appreciate art.

Ed Helm

Challenge: The biggest problem for culture and the arts in St. Pete is the recession and weak economy.

Solution: Jobs, jobs, jobs. Living wage jobs for every person who wants to work. In addition, our city officials, starting with the mayor, need to listen better to people involved in cultural activities and the arts, small businesses and the public that support culture and the arts. We need to listen to their suggestions about how and when to increase patronage, why certain times and activities are better than others.

The candidates on the arts

Scott Wagman

Challenge: Funding. Tackling funding issues is going to be a very difficult thing.

Solution: We need to more effectively promote St. Petersburg as an arts destination. The city needs to commit to a higher level of direct funding. You have to provide art outfits with seed money.

John Warren

Challenge: There is no one-need artist. They're like anyone else feeling the pinch from the economy.

Solution: The city needs to make sure the funding for the arts is there so they don't lose ground.

Larry J. Williams


It's a gigantic governmentally under-served community. It's so fragmented and everybody is trying to get something done.

Solution: If you could consolidate some of the efforts, I think we're onto something big. It's kind of a sleeping giant.

St. Petersburg mayoral candidates, arts leaders have their say 08/18/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 12:37pm]
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