The pleasingly plump, 4,000-pound bronze woman lounging in a waterfront park is a testament to the role arts have grown to play in St. Petersburg. The coming exhibition of works by famed Colombian artist Fernando Botero include the outside display of Smoking Woman and two other major sculptures, while inside the Museum of Fine Arts there will be about 100 additional sculptures, paintings and drawings by one of the world's most recognizable artists.
Such exhibits are the envy of other cities St. Petersburg's size, both for the intellectual stimulation they offer residents and for the tantalizing combination of cultural cachet and economic development they bring. As Bill Foster becomes mayor Jan. 2, maintaining a thriving arts community should be among his priorities.
Foster said last week he will give responsibility for the city's arts programs to Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, whose portfolio will be community enrichment services. Mayor Rick Baker announced he planned to make art programs part of economic development efforts after eliminating the city's art director. And it's a new role for Davis, who is best known for his recent efforts in Midtown.
The next few years will be key for the city's arts community, which has been battered by the economic downturn. While larger organizations, such as the fine arts museum and the Dali Museum, have found a way to expand even during these tough times, others serving a smaller clientele have shuttered their doors or reduced their offerings. And even the Morean Arts Center has had to rethink its planned expansion for a Chihuly Collection, though it now appears it will reside at 400 Beach Drive.
Foster said he hopes to forestall further pain by persuading some organizations to consolidate. On another front, he wants to increase the utilization of the city's Mahaffey Theater to potentially lower the city's subsidy. Both strategies could go a long way to preserving St. Petersburg's cultural quality in tough economic times, but they'll require significant attention.
Meanwhile, the Botero exhibit (Jan. 9 through April 4) serves as a vivid example of what is possible when a city places art among its priorities. The theatrical painter's distinctive enlargements of people — often with the effect of ridiculing the Latin American elite — have made his work eminently identifiable and accessible to audiences around the world. Stroll along Bayshore Drive NE and see if Smoking Woman, with her perfectly coiffed hair, overfed features and languorous leisure doesn't evoke social commentary, and perhaps a delighted grin.