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North Pinellas forms arts alliance

Published Nov. 5, 2015

There are Safety Harbor's firehouse murals and Art Park. There are the Dunedin Fine Art Center and the dozens of artists who consider Dunedin their base. In Tarpon Springs, the city has the Leepa-Rattner Museum displaying its expanding collection of 20th and 21st century art as well as the new sculpture, Ama the mermaid, by French artist Amaryllis near Spring Bayou. And in Clearwater, there are Ruth Eckerd Hall and the recently refurbished Capitol Theatre.

St. Petersburg may be considered a modern-day mecca for the arts, however in North Pinellas, "the arts are thriving, too," said Colin Bissett, whose resume includes stints as director of both the Mahaffey Theater and the Largo Cultural Center. "It's time we get the word out."

In an effort to promote arts and culture in the north part of the county, Bissett has joined forces with about 20 art-minded individuals to create the North Pinellas Cultural Alliance. As the executive director of the nonprofit organization, Bissett is joined by the likes of artist Junior Polo, whose work graced the 2015 Clearwater Jazz Holiday poster; Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves, owners of VOICExperience Foundation based in Palm Harbor; Ken Hannon, the vice president of the Dunedin Fine Art Center; and sculptor Jim Smith, owner of Gallery 1356 in Clearwater and former Pinellas County property appraiser.

Bissett — whose wife, George Ann Bissett, is the head of the Dunedin Fine Art Center — stressed that the alliance has not been created out of jealousy but admiration.

"Oh no, it is not envy. It was more like, 'Oh my gosh, if only we were so organized. It's a buzzy area with lots of arts organizations in the various districts," he said. "So, we want to pull everyone up here under one umbrella and promote the heck out of it."

With its major focus on marketing, the North Pinellas Cultural Alliance in the coming months will launch a website touting art events in the targeted districts that include Largo, Belleair, Clearwater, Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Oldsmar. And although a location has not been announced, alliance members also are planning its first event for early 2016.

"We will call it something like 'A Cultural A-FAIR: Where you will fall in love with the arts.' It will include artists, museums, historical societies, dancers, singers and culinary artists, and they will be showing off what they have," he said. "We're thinking of Coachman or Pioneer Park or Largo Central Park, but in the future, we'll do it again in another place. ... This all must be a moveable feast."

The idea was cemented last May after several art groups and the city of Dunedin hosted a summit. The takeaway from the gathering was that an official team covering the entire northern portion of Pinellas County needed to be built, Bissett said.

In September, members of the alliance, whose administrative office is located inside Smith's gallery in Clearwater, met with several of Pinellas County's city managers at Largo City Hall to share their plans.

"We told them what we were doing, asked them for support and to consider helping us with funding," Bissett said. "We're hoping to see a total of $20,000 from the municipalities to do this."

Matt Spoor, Safety Harbor's city manager, was at the meeting. He believes such an organization can be "a leader for the growing number of art and cultural groups that exist," he said. "I think all these groups that are forming or have formed up here — museums, artists, so many different ones — are looking for an overall leader that can combine public and private interests."

And although he could only speak for Safety Harbor, Spoor believes the group's request for municipalities to pitch in a collective $20,000 is fair.

"This is a startup organization that has many goals, and at first blush, I don't have an issue about Safety Harbor's portion of that."

So, how does the St. Petersburg arts community feel about this?

John Collins, the head of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, believes the group has value to the arts community, and since governmental support for the arts is limited, an alliance like this has a particular value.

"When you look at it, there's a lack of service leadership at the county level to help support art groups, so there's a need for these place-based types of groups," he said. "They are homegrown, and hopefully, the (North Pinellas Cultural Alliance) can provide services that are not otherwise being provided."

He also listed some of his favorite art spots.

"In North Pinellas, I personally think first of the performing arts and all that Ruth Eckerd Hall brings to the area. But from Tarpon Springs to the Dunedin Fine Art Center, there are some major wonderful beacons of art in north county," he said.

Contact Piper Castillo at pcastillo@tampabay.com. Follow @Florida_PBJC.

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