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Sketching an arts plan

Imagine art galleries downtown. Rotating exhibits at a gallery in the city's new library. More artistic classes at city recreation centers. First-rate cultural festivals.

These are the kind of things that city leaders are talking about as part of a new push to promote arts and cultural activities in Clearwater.

Last week, the Clearwater Arts! Foundation kicked off a nine-month assessment and planning initiative to develop a comprehensive "Community Arts and Cultural Plan" for Clearwater.

By all indications, the effort has a long way to go.

Clearwater can boast of a major regional performing arts center, Ruth Eckerd Hall, which attracts a variety of national acts. But Pinellas County's second largest city and seat of government doesn't have an art museum _ as does Dunedin, its much smaller neighbor. Neither does it have a hip gallery scene, a public art program or a significant art education initiative.

But a volunteer 29-member steering committee, invited by the city's nonprofit arts fundraising foundation to participate, aims to change that. The group will identify what kinds of cultural programs residents want through interviews, focus groups and surveys.

Then the committee, with the help of a consultant who has been hired through a city grant, will use the data to define cultural goals and recommend steps to nurture the arts in the city. That means identifying sources of leadership and funding for initiatives.

The plan will be finished in November.

"I think everyone has sort of come to the conclusion that it's time to pay more attention to the arts in Clearwater," said Margo Walbolt, the city staff member assigned to assist in the creation of the plan. "It's sort of a missing link."

The cultural plan's steering committee includes people such as Tampa Bay Magazine publisher Aaron Fodiman, local artists and representatives of groups such as the Clearwater Historical Society and Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Mary Storey, community affairs director for the Church of Scientology, is participating because, she said, she wants to see the arts help define Clearwater.

Socrates Charos, who owns the Royalty Theatre, is involved because he thinks there has been enough talk and "somewhere we have to start delivering" in promoting cultural activities.

Sue Froemming, art supervisor for Pinellas County Schools, is there because she wants to figure out ways the arts can enhance education for local students.

And the list goes on.

"There is quite a lot of performing arts in the city, but not as much in the way of galleries and museums, and I think that's certainly a direction that this plan could take, among other things," said Ken Rollins, director of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo.

One place where more visual arts venues could make a difference is downtown Clearwater, Rollins and others said last week. "I think the next several months could be very defining for downtown Clearwater," Rollins said.

Library director John Szabo said that he is serving on the planning committee because he envisions the city's downtown library becoming "an impressive canvas for the arts" when it opens in late 2003.

In addition to hosting exhibits in collaboration with the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, the library could sponsor poetry readings and quartet concerts in its new cafe, Szabo said. There could also be space for exhibits of local historical artifacts in collaboration with the Clearwater Historical Society.

Other people on the planning committee are interested in how the arts can be used to promote economic development and tourism. These folks include Mike Meidel, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce; Assistant City Manager Ralph Stone; and Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Ketterhagen noted that a 1997 Travel Industry Association of America study showed tourists who participate in historic and cultural activities are more likely to take longer trips, stay more in hotels and spend more money. To be specific, the study estimated they spend $615 on average per trip, compared with $425 spent by less culturally minded travelers.

A more recent 2000 study estimated that local arts organizations generated at least $208-million in spending in the economies of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, hosted 5.5-million visitors annually (more than local sporting venues) and created jobs for about 7,000 people.

Advising the new steering committee is Craig Dreeszen, a consultant who is director of the Arts Extension Service and Lifelong Learning Programs at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Dreeszen has helped communities all over the country write cultural plans and develop leadership to promote the arts. He was hired to develop the city's plan for $20,000.

Dreeszen, who literally wrote the book on cultural planning, will take the suggestions of the committee and the public over the next few months, then boil them down into the final plan, which should be final in November.

"I'm going to crop, add and edit until it all hangs together like a single person wrote it," he explained last week.

Dreeszen encouraged the public to think broadly about the arts as Clearwater's cultural plan is developed. He said that means considering the visual and performing arts, as well as "public art" that could be installed in parks and city buildings, the humanities and literature, ways to preserve the city's heritage, festivals and arts education.

At the first meeting last week, committee members suggested many ideas that they want to explore. Among them: Are there opportunities for a museum in the downtown area? How can the city encourage the creation of space for artists and galleries? Are there ways to improve spaces for festivals such as Clearwater Jazz Holiday? How should the Clearwater Arts! Foundation and the city work together to promote the arts?

Many governments require 1 percent of a construction project's budget to be spent on artwork. Clearwater does not. In fact, city officials say, there is not a budget to purchase artwork for the new Main Library.

"I think it's an important process for a community to look in on itself and dream a little bit," said Judith Powers-Jones, executive director of the Pinellas County Arts Council, which is advising the city in its planning effort. She added that dreaming in places like St. Petersburg led to the creation of the Salvador Dali Museum there.

The artists at Studio 1212, a 32-year-old artists' cooperative at 1405 Cleveland St., said they were excited about the effort. The cooperative rents a small gallery and invites other artists to teach workshops. Membership is by invitation. There are 22 members.

Marie Cummings, the cooperative's president, said plenty of artists in the Clearwater area will be interested in the outcome of the city's plan.

Cummings, who is serving on the arts planning committee, said she wants to explore ways to use Harborview Center for artistic activities and to create affordable studio space _ a definite need if the city wants to nurture its artistic community. She thinks local artists would appreciate some help from the city in advertising their presence.

"We're almost a closely guarded secret here at Studio 1212," Cummings said.

City officials say they support the cultural planning effort, even though the city is facing tight budgets.

"I don't believe plans are made to just sit on the shelf, so if I have anything to do with this stuff, then I will always encourage that some action result from it," said City Manager Bill Horne, who budgeted another $10,000 recently to help fund the cultural plan's creation.

Mayor Brian Aungst said he would love to see a museum of some kind downtown and possibly an improved performance venue in Coachman Park. He called the current planning discussions a healthy dialogue.

"It would certainly help if citizens speak up about the arts," Aungst said. "We need to hear from them."

Clearwater is hardly the first city to develop a community cultural plan.

St. Petersburg has had one since 1984 and created a new plan in 1999 after holding more than 100 public meetings and involving more than 1,500 residents in its development. The new plan's suggestions ranged from boosting St. Petersburg's grant funding for arts groups to creating tax credits for businesses that spend money to install public art.

Since the plan was adopted, St. Petersburg created a job to promote the arts, held by cultural affairs director Ann Wykell. The city has also pursued more public art projects, such as the "Millennium Gateway" installed near BayWalk. Artwork also is being created for Sunken Gardens, two libraries and a fire station, Wykell said.

Wykell has worked to develop a weekly celebration in the fall to promote the city's museums and artistic offerings and to create a cultural edition of the city's downtown brochure for tourists.

Goals include bringing more cultural programs to neighborhood recreation centers and working with arts groups to pool funds and doing more collaborative marketing.

"A cultural plan is a guide, a road map to tell you what direction to focus on," Wykell said. "And in the process of doing the plan, you have the opportunity to involve all of these people who are interested."

Find out more

For more information on Clearwater's cultural planning effort or to share your thoughts, contact Margo Walbolt at mwalboltclearwater-fl.com or 562-4809.

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