Local artist Boo Ehrsam remembers seeing the photo in the news years ago.
"It was this dark, empty street, and an egret flying away," she said. "The caption read, ‘Will the last one to leave St. Pete please turn out the lights.’ "
That was before the revitalization of downtown, especially the now-thriving 600 block of Central Avenue.
Today the historic block is busy with boutique clothing shops and bars and restaurants. In 2009, it was a lot of old, empty storefronts. So the city struck a deal with property owners to lease them to local artists at a huge discount.
It worked. The 600 block filled with galleries such as Chad Mize’s Blue Lucy, Jennifer Kosharek’s Eve-N-Odd, James Oleson’s Oleson Gallery, Derek Donnelly’s Saint Paint — altogether about 20 of them, including the Dazzio Art Experience, which had classrooms in the space that is now Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops. People returned. The artists painted murals in the alley behind the block. It helped downtown forge a fresh identity.
The galleries are mostly all gone. They moved or closed fast after the five-year discounted leases ended and rents rose in 2014. Ehrsam says the period on the end of the 600 block’s brief moment as a gallery destination — noted as such in national publications’ travel sections — comes May 25 with the closing of St. Petersburg ArtWorks, the block’s last gallery focused on visual art by locals.
True, you can still find some fine art at Graphi-Ko, but they sell mostly a mix of locally made and import jewelry and gifts a few doors down. Fourward Glass Gallery, a few doors east, carries a few St. Petersburg-made pieces among its selection of functional glass waterpipes, but it’s more smokeshop than art gallery.
This is why on Sunday at 2:30 p.m., Ehrsam is organizing a funeral, complete with a procession of art community mourners who will march the 600 block and place headstones made of card stock at the sites of former galleries with those galleries’ names. They’ll sing a song with lyrics about gentrification, asking "where have the galleries gone?" There will be staged "tourists" who roam the block seeking the non-existent galleries before the procession begins.
Ehrsam said her "memorial for galleries lost to gentrification" isn’t really a protest. The 600 block, while different from the days of galleries and divey clubs, is thriving with small businesses, and she knows that’s a good thing. She eats at Cider Press Cafe on the corner, in a space that also used to be galleries.
"The memorial is just a nice way to honor and recognize the galleries that were there, because the artists really did help to build up St. Pete again to what it is now," Ehrsam said. "When you have the arts, that’s what brings in the restaurants and the gift shops. ... It’s just a shame the city couldn’t have helped the artists move into an area where they could stay permanently. They’re assets like many things the city invests in like parks or libraries."
There are still plenty of galleries in St. Petersburg, but they’re more spread out now in places like the Warehouse Arts and Fringe districts. Ehrsam and St. Pete ArtWorks director Judy Vienneau both said they think it’s harder for the tourists who buy art, and may stick closer to downtown, to find them there.
St. Pete ArtWorks is a co-operative of several dozen local artists who displayed their work there. Vienneau said the gallery opened at 635 Central Avenue in 2013, part of a second wave of openings after the initial five years of discounted leases.
"We moved in to the space, because another gallery was leaving when their rent doubled," Vienneau said. "Now we’re leaving because, five years later, our rent is doubling. I guess it doubles every five years."
Vienneau said the gallery hopes to open in a new, smaller space farther west on Central Avenue in the city’s Grand Central District in June.