Matt Johnson grew up tinkering with art.
After all, his dad, Alan Johnson, was one of the first art teachers hired at Gibbs High School in 1984 to helm its new Artistically Talented Program. So it made sense for him to enroll in the program in 1988. That same year school officials changed the program name to the Pinellas County Center for the Arts, or PCCA.
He graduated in 1992 and went on to pursue degrees in art and industrial design. He worked for electronics, home goods and cosmetics companies, and now teaches full time at New Jersey's Kean University. Years after high school, Johnson and his classmates still tinker with art.
"We fully use the experience and skills we got from PCCA and adapted it to all sorts of careers," he said.
That much is evident at the Morean Arts Center, at 719 Central Ave., where more than 62 PCCA faculty, students and alumni like Johnson are showing their artwork over the next few weeks. The exhibit ends April 28.
What started out as an idea for a solo show for a retired PCCA instructor snowballed, said Amanda Cooper, an art center curator. Word about the exhibit spread on social media, and the gallery now has 125 pieces of PCCA-related work displayed.
"I don't think there has ever been a show like this, acknowledging the program from outside of it," Cooper said.
The show also is a PR boost for a program that has experienced a dip in enrollment in recent years as Gibbs High has struggled overall with discipline and academic performance.
The program has space for 500 students, said Yoko Nogami, who chairs the visual arts department at PCCA, which also includes music, theater and dance studies. Roughly 450 students are enrolled.
"Things do happen at the traditional side," Nogami said, referring to the student body at the school that is not part of PCCA. "So when there is bad press, prospective parents get worried. The hard part about it is, we have been here this long together. Nothing has really changed."
In an era of tight school budgets and a greater push for students to enter science, technology, engineering and math fields, programs like PCCA have struggled to convince parents that art education is still relevant.
"It's a challenge to convince parents that arts education is a good opportunity for their children," said Matt Johnson.
Many PCCA alumni have gone on to pursue careers in architecture, medicine, design, video game design and teaching, according to information provided by Cooper. One former student opened a gallery, and many others produce artwork and exhibit around the United States..
"Many of us have gone off and work in applied arts. . . . A lot of parents who aren't involved in arts have this idea of starving artists, that artists are flaky and can't maintain their lifestyles," Johnson said. "This is a show of students who are successful, and here are some of their stories."