Is Tampa Bay ready for an arts renaissance? 

Marketing guru talks about the Renaissance Generation.

They say it's always darkest before the dawn.

For Americans, things probably look as dark as they have in recent memory: soaring gas prices, rising unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, a decline in global dominance. Among those who see a silver lining in this gray cloud is Patricia Martin, a Chicago-based marketing guru who landed in Tampa last week to discuss the possibility that the country's recent plunge into doom-and-gloom actually foreshadows a creative renaissance.

Some of Martin's rhetoric sounds familiar. Instead of a "creative class," à la Richard Florida, she speaks glowingly of RenGen — short for Renaissance Generation — a multigenerational group of savvy cultural consumers who also constitute the country's best chance for continued intellectual and economic relevance as workers. RenGen thrives on knowledge ("learn, baby, learn," is their motto, she says), expects to collaborate in both the workplace and the marketplace, and loves to break the rules when the system is broken. RenGen's ranks — a mash-up of Boomers, Xers and Gen Y — are filled with the mavens described in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point; their ideas and passions inspire a following. (Obama is definitely a RenGen phenomenon, Martin says, without endorsing him.)

Her visit to Tampa was part of a national tour sponsored by MetLife Foundation and American for the Arts, hosted locally by the Tampa Bay Business Committee for the Arts (TBBCA) and the Arts Council of Hillsborough County. Before an audience of about 90 on Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Jaeb Theater, Martin shared her ideas about RenGen — central to her recent book of the same title — in a presentation geared toward both businesses and arts organizations. In a RenGen-driven society, she argues, the arts are poised to thrive.

For museums, galleries and performing arts venues, the RenGen windfall could be two-fold. For one, such institutions have a chance to attract cultural consumers by making themselves attractive to the young and young-at-heart crowd with hybrid, genre-bending events and adventurous art and performance. (The Tampa Museum of Art's Art After Dark parties are a great example, Martin says. This month's installment takes place Fri., June 20, 8-11 p.m., and features African dance along with the current fiber arts exhibition; more info at tampamuseum.com.) Secondly, businesses should be clamoring to sponsor the arts organizations that lure in RenGen — but traditional sponsorships (e.g., quiet gifts of money that yield a logo on a wall) won't do to the trick. Instead, businesses should collaborate — a guiding principal for dealing with RenGen — with arts organizations to develop interactive platforms for engagement that will cut through the clutter of RenGen's busy lives and win attention.

Sounds great, but is the Bay area ready for the age of RenGen? (Like businesses, cites should be concerned about their appeal to the group, who will help catapult a new generation of urban centers to prominence, Martin argues in her book.) After her presentation, a panel of local business and arts-and-culture leaders took on the question of whether the RenGen mentality has already taken root in Tampa Bay — and whether it can. While Martin had praise for Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio as a catalytic leader, panelist Maryann Ferenc, owner of Mise En Place restaurant, suggested that change will ultimately come from people who "aren't in the room" or who are as yet unknown to the city's elite.

"Our greatest asset may be those people who are just under the surface and get it," Ferenc said.

Consensus arose among the other panel members — Nancy Walker of Walker Brands, Dr. Larry Thompson of Ringling College of Art and Design, Thom Stork of the Florida Aquarium, Ken Rollins of the Tampa Museum of Art, Kerry O'Reilly of tbt*, Frank North of Ferman Motors and Julia Gorzka of Brand Tampa — that the time has come for the Bay area's baby boomer leadership to start passing the torch to RenGen's younger members and embrace an attitude of experimentation. If not, Tampa will likely continue to be upstaged by cities like Providence and Savannah.

"It is obvious to us as we travel [elsewhere] that the things right outside these doors aren't being used to their max," North said in reference to Tampa's riverfront.

More than one audience member suggested that St. Petersburg, with its thriving downtown, has been more successful than Tampa in cultivating support for the arts and a live-work-play environment that would appeal to RenGen. As for Tampa's business leaders, other than those sitting on the panel, their numbers were thin in the TBPAC audience, 80 percent of which was composed of people who work in the arts. When asked about the skewed ratio, TBBCA executive director Melinda Chavez offered a succinct explanation.

It wasn't for lack of trying, she told the audience.

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