On the homestretch of a 32-year career as executive director at the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, Art Keeble recalls the arts scene when he arrived in Tampa. • "No performing arts center, no children's museum, no photography museum, no history center, no aquarium. We've come a long way, baby," said Keeble, 72, applauding bricks-and-mortar growth while regretting a lack of independent studios and galleries. • A national search is now under way for Keeble's successor, who will take over in September. Tampa Bay Times reporter Amy Scherzer recently sat down with the departing director, who shared memories and forecasts for Tampa's cultural arts.
Does it bug you, or surprise you, that St. Petersburg is building a more vibrant arts economy than Tampa?
They've created a fertile environment for artists to put down roots. You know the adage, a rising tide lifts all boats. One or two good things happen and everyone benefits. For one thing, St Pete has a marketing department and we don't. Why? Ask the mayor. Ask several mayors.
Another reason St. Pete has done so well is the city got out of the way. They offered incentives, like a reduction of fees, for leasing space to cultural organizations in the downtown area. Ybor had that potential at one point … That's too costly now.
What would you like to see? What is Tampa missing to optimize and capitalize the arts?
We've seen the growth of arts facilities downtown, but no spaces for individuals. St. Petersburg has critical mass on Central Avenue and the Warehouse District. We have sprawl. You can't point to one area in Tampa and say, "That's the arts district." But build it they will come is not the answer.
I would like to see a really exciting, vibrant visual arts center along the lines of a Morean Arts Center or a Dunedin Fine Arts Center focused on the study and creation of art. From your mouth to Jeff Vinik's ear.
Toot your horn a bit now. What stands out among your top accomplishments?
Passage of the Florida Arts license plate has brought Hillsborough County more than $500,000, and we don't lead the state by a long shot. I led the charge, getting 40,000 signatures to get it approved.
When I came here, we had no contact, provided no services, to individual artists. Today we have a list of close to 4,000 who receive info from us on a regular basis about grants projects and workshops on business plans, taxes, social media and marketing.
We've helped some incredible talent take the next step. Some have gone on to world renown. One is A. Manette Ansay, who got a grant from us for literature and went on to win some huge book awards.
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You're sure you're really ready to retire? What will you do now?
It's time for someone else to get bruised … time for a new vision. A lot of the spark is gone, but not the passion. I had no idea I would last 32 years. I thought five or six maybe, then I'd find a better pasture and move there. Well, I found my pasture and I can't imagine living anywhere else.
I can't wait for the Al Lopez baseball museum to open. I want to work there, and I hope to volunteer at the entrepreneur collaborative in Ybor City and continue the Saturday Market there that Jan Platt and I started 17 years ago. It's still going strong.