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Meet John Collins, St. Petersburg Arts Alliance executive director

Diane Shelly, executive director of Florida CraftArt, which sponsors the annual CraftArt Festival, sits next to John Collins on a wall painted with one of the dozens of murals along St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue Arts District. She’s one of the many arts professionals who works with Collins to promote the arts in the city.
Diane Shelly, executive director of Florida CraftArt, which sponsors the annual CraftArt Festival, sits next to John Collins on a wall painted with one of the dozens of murals along St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue Arts District. She’s one of the many arts professionals who works with Collins to promote the arts in the city.
Published Dec. 15, 2014

John Collins must have a big battery pack hidden somewhere on his person. How else to explain his energy?

Day or night, weekend or workday, the executive director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance seems to be everywhere there is an arts-related happening or a potential donor who could fund it. He takes meetings in corporate offices in dark business suits, then trades them for jeans to take in a performance at Freefall Theatre or the monthly Second Saturday ArtWalk. His job description includes being an advocate for individual artists and large arts groups, providing resources and advice, and finding funding for projects and events. He also works with them on business models and grant writing and as a liaison to the city and corporate sponsors.

It's a job, sure, but it's also a passion for Collins, 64. The veteran high-level administrator and fundraiser has been a vice president at Berklee College of Music, managing director of Tufts University's Arena Theater, vice provost for Institutional Advancement at Arizona State University West, president and CEO of the Centre for the Arts in Boca Raton, vice president of development and communications for Eckerd Youth Alternatives and executive director for campus advancement at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, among many other jobs, including consultant for a number of nonprofits.

His job with the arts alliance is far less distinguished and far less lucrative, with a salary of about $50,000.

"I make one-third of what I made in my last jobs and work three times as hard," he says. "And I'm 10 times as happy."

The reason?

"I fell in love with St. Petersburg."

Collins grew up on a small farm in Connecticut, the oldest of six children.

"We ate what we grew," he says, and the 18th century farmhouse didn't have plumbing when he was a boy. His father was a gifted pianist but Collins hated lessons.

While at Clemson University, "I discovered theater. I built sets, acted and made spending money being a street mime." He earned a master's degree in theater in 1977 and managed numerous theater groups, landing at the Tufts University theater in 1980. He was recruited by the alumni office to help with its $140 million capital campaign, and from there he was hired by universities around the country as an expert in "advancement," a broad term that can include straightforward fundraising as well as the more conceptual study of an institution's goals and mission.

"I was working my way up through universities," he says. "They have the education funding to send you to conferences for training. My ultimate goal was to be the director of the Kennedy Center."

Then he met Bill Heller.

Heller was the head of the USF St. Petersburg campus, and in 2001 he and other locals visited Arizona State University seeking advice on campus development. Collins was in charge of Heller and his contingent and the two hit it off. Collins and his wife, Mary Ellen, a freelance writer, were ready for a change of climate and were receptive when Heller invited him to St. Petersburg for a job interview.

"We booked a 'Tampa Bay' hotel having no idea of the difference between St. Pete and Tampa," Collins says. They landed at a Marriott next to the Florida Aquarium, unaware they were more than 20 miles away from their planned destination. A move to the Renaissance Vinoy righted things.

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"We were on the veranda for my 50th birthday," he says, "and I thought, 'How can you get better than this?' "

He took the job, then moved to the nonprofit Eckerd Youth Alternatives when USF St. Petersburg's administration was reorganized. When the Boca Raton job beckoned in 2007, he accepted, a bit reluctantly, made good on his mission to raise several million for its International Arts Festival and resigned.

"Mary Ellen and I realized we're maybe a little too laid-back for the fast lane of the east coast," he says.

When they returned to St. Petersburg in 2009, he opened a consulting firm and rejoined the city's arts advisory committee, a volunteer group in which he led the production of an economic survey and report on the arts' economic benefit to the community and created a branding slogan — Arts Shine Here — to be used for promotion. In 2011, Mayor Bill Foster named him executive director of the newly created St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, tasked primarily with building an arts endowment for the city.

Professional fundraisers (Collins is licensed by the state as one) will tell you endowment money is some of the toughest to raise. It's a long-term investment, and donors have less control over its use; many people want a bricks-and-mortar naming opportunity for their dollars. An endowment for a city fund is even less appealing for donors who want to support specific groups. So Collins hasn't been especially successful with that goal.

What he focuses on is fundraising for specific projects — trolleys for the monthly Second Saturday ArtWalk, for example, which recently posted a record 4,000 visits to the galleries and studios, translating, he says, to about 1,500 people. He's helping to produce the first Sunlit Festival, a 10-day event in March "that will showcase all things literary, from the USF library to a literary bike ride," he says. He's a pragmatic cheerleader.

"I haven't given up on an endowment," he says. "I just think it needs a little time."

Like many people who are involved in the arts, Collins sees St. Petersburg as a wonderful arts place but not a good art market. Local government contributes little to it, though Collins is hopeful that will change, and there are few deep-pocket collectors.

His goal is to build up the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance "so we can hire someone with energy and commitment to take it to the next level. I would love to continue on the board and be a volunteer," he says.

His greater goal, though, is "not to leave St. Petersburg again. There are lots of universities looking for my skills but I decided I wanted to use them as a cultural fundraiser. We have no kids, no pets, so we can live wherever we want and do our jobs. We chose St. Pete."

Contact Lennie Bennett at or (727) 893-8293.



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