Wednesday morning, a standing room only crowd packed into St. Petersburg's Studio@620 to hear from the city council and mayoral candidates on the subject of art. The debate focused on the candidates vision, perception and funding plans for the arts in St. Pete.
Some of St. Petersburg's longtime unofficial artists in residence were in attendance, including photographer Herb Snitzer, Pale Horse Gallery artist and owner Chris Parks, and half of Spathose's industrial art team George Medeiros. Everyone there was hoping for answers to pressing questions as the city potentially welcomes a slew of new elected officials.
"Each city has its own DNA," said Roy Binger, who sits on the Museum of Fine Arts and Palladium's board of trustees. "We've got Central Ave., Beach Drive, Fourth St., and Tyrone. Each has its own target. We need to bring this mosaic of art together in a seamless way."
Mayoral and city council candidates had their work cut out for them. None are as notoriously supportive to St. Petersburg's burgeoning art scene as exiting city councilwoman Leslie Curran (who was in attendance), who's credited as one of the movers and shakers behind the city's 600 Block arts revival.
St. Petersburg City Theatre Executive Director Deborah Kelley moderated, leading off with "we are going to ask you who you are, who we are (the art community), how you view us, and how you will support the arts community."
Lorraine Margeson, candidate in District 2, decided to highlight her nine years spent teaching students about Japanese Taiko drumming with her group Yuko Daiko in both Pinellas and Hillsborough county schools.
"I taught art and Japanese culture to upwards of 250,000 children," Margeson said. "I know art. I care about art."
For Sharon Russ, District 6 city council candidate running against incumbent Karl Nurse, she recounted being a single mother to three children, "I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and that takes artistic too." Russ noted the Royal Theatre in Midtown as a success story for the arts in her district, but says St. Petersburg needs to share the arts more equally in Midtown.
"I want to see arts in the community become more well-rounded," said Russ. "Especially in Midtown, we have artists all over this community."
But some of the candidates answers felt arguably flat when they spend their talking points on stories of their own (or their parents, children, siblings, current or former significant other's) artistic merits.
District 8 city council candidate Steve Galvin brought a singing pirate toy and Yamaha motorcycle calendar to illustrate his own diverse career in the arts.
"You never want to follow children, animals, or singing pirates," Mayoral candidate Rick Krisemen said of Galvin's props. Kriseman said of the arts in St. Pete, "there's a quality of life we cannot ignore that comes from the impact of the arts."
Mayor Bill Foster, who isn't shy about his recent education in the arts, admitted, "four years ago, I stood on the same stage and dreaded this same debate...," saying he went from being a sports guy to "arts junkie," since taking office.
Several attendees, including Kriseman, made the rookie mistake of parking in the Studio@620's adjacent lot. If you've ever been to the Studio@620, it's rule number one (after "the answer is always yes") that parking at the convenient lot next-door is a quick way to get your car towed.
Unfortunately, a hardball question noting the city's recent loss of Mindy Soloman's gallery to Miami, a broken contract with world renown architect Michael Maltzan, and an uncertain trajectory on arts in the city yielded little in the way of substance. The question ultimately asked how each saw themselves as a visionary for the arts and what being the number one (mid-sized) city for the arts really means. But what the audience got was a 15-minute detour into the Pier/Lens debate.
Sitting councilman Jim Kennedy (District 2), who is running against Lorraine Margeson, defended the process used for the Pier design competition. "It captured the spirit of the community and I believe we had a good process," Kennedy said.
City councilman Karl Nurse, District 6, disagreed. "The Lens' form was disconnected from it's function. What functions do people want?"
Others continued to chime in. Some got somewhat back on track in answering the question.
District 4 candidate Darden Rice, who's running against Carolyn Fries, noted that many artist-friendly cities offer free healthcare to local artists.
"St. Petersburg is known as an arts destination," said Rice. "So what can't we offer healthcare to people in the arts? City Hall needs to re-imagine how we engage with our citizens."
City council candidate for District 8, Amy Foster, made mention of local Katie Talbert's success with her Operation Coexist campaign.
"One of the things that can help us is working with other people who have visions," Fsoter said. "There is a woman named Katie Talbert launched CoExist, which hosts music shows to raise money to support arts education. Those are the types of collaborations I'd like to see more of."
Mayor Bill Foster said his vision for St. Pete is "to turn people like me who were art ignorant into people like you who always understood art," Foster said. "You make sure [children] recognize at a young age, the importance of art...Well-rounded students turn into tax-paying citizens."
Kriseman said he'd like to see more investment in public art, not just downtown, but all over the city.
"Art is in the eye of the beholder...some people see it and say what's this all about?" Kriseman said. "That's what art is all about."
But Mindy Soloman's departure was never addressed.
"There's a gap between the Dali and the 600 block," Margeson said addressing the second question of the debate, where candidates were asked to distinguish the differences between the 600 Block, Dali, and Florida Orchestra.
"Once we get them [visitors] to the Dali, we need to steer them down towards the 600 Block," agreed Carolyn Fries. A missing link between the 600 Block and the Beach Drive arts scene is something echoed by businesses on the 600 Block, like Chris Parks at the Pale Horse Gallery.
"How do you bridge between what's considered art (he said pointing to the mostly older arts crowd in attendance) and those that are really trying to do it at a local level," Parks told CL.
On the final subject of funding, there was talk of hiring a full-time grant writer. Mayor Foster and others mentioned taking money from the Weeki Watchee fund (which could be used on a variety of projects like skate and dog parks) and using it for an arts endowment.
"Not everyone skates, not everyone has a dog, but everyone loves art," Foster said.
But Rick Kriseman's answer was the only that garnered audible cheers and overwhelming applause.
"There's a lot of different avenues we could be looking at but the bottom line is this, budgets reflect what your values arte they reflect what your priorities are, and they reflect who you want to be as a community," Kriseman said. "That's the document that reflects what you really stand for. So if you don't have that defined revenue and you don't put it in your budget, then obviously it isn't a priority."
On the whole, Chris Parks said he still sees St. Petersburg as an arts city in it's very early stages, "we're just dipping a toe in the water." He says that while he does work for Nike and Mini Cooper, he rarely breaks even from a gallery show and usually has to go south to Miami or elsewhere online to sell his artwork. "Funding for artistic projects would be great, instead of having to stop working at your day job to do your own pieces."
The next St. Petersburg debate is Tuesday, September 17, from 6-8 p.m.,at NOVA 535, 535 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N., hosted by Keep St. Petersburg Local and moderated by Creative Loafing's own Mitch Perry.