Moving into St. Pete's burgeoning Warehouse Arts District 

A crazy crucible of art and commerce awaits.

Flanked on the left by an art installation dubbed “TV Mountain” and on the right by stacks of completed canvases, Venture Compound founder Jesse Vance sits on a salvaged yellow couch and confidently states one of the goals of his multipurpose art space.

“We want to change the way art and music is perceived, bought, and sold,” says Vance, 27. “We want artists to stay in St. Pete, and we need people to buy their shit.”

Venture’s art director, Bradley Kokay, who’s 34 but looks about half a decade younger, presents the objective even more bluntly.

“We want to open people’s minds like a can of corn,” says Kokay.

The compound — located at 2621 Fairfield Ave S — has been operating in St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District (WAD) for just over a year. But Vance and Kokay’s relentless commitment to the ’Burg and its artists epitomizes what’s been happening within this nearly 700-acre swath of industrial land (contained within First Ave. N, 10th Ave. S, 31st St. and 16th St.) for the better part of a decade now.

The dozens of studios have names like MGA Sculpture Art Studio, U562, Zen Glass, The Space, Soft Water Studios, and St. Pete Clay Company. Their occupants are painters, potters, sculptors, musicians and glassblowers. There’s even a mechanic restoring hot rods.

The stories are manifold, too.

Whether it’s endearing folklore about Dan Painter (the district’s senior resident), a recollection of WAD’s past as part of the Dome Industrial Park, or the high-profile opening of glass artist Duncan McClellan’s new hot shop, there is a rich history still being written and begging to be explored. And come Feb. 9, you’ll have a great opportunity to do so: in conjunction with St. Pete’s Second Saturday Gallery Walk, the district is hosting a free trolley tour.

Mark Aeling, who creates large-scale public art and sculptures underneath the 25-foot ceilings of MGA Sculpture Art Studio, is president of the Warehouse Arts District Association, which is organizing the trolley tour. He sees the WAD phenomenon as emblematic of a particular kind of St. Pete spirit.

“[Studio@620’s] Bob Devin Jones once talked about St. Pete’s ‘magic dirt’,” says Aeling, 46. “Historically, peninsulas are considered places of good health because there is water all around. St. Pete is a peninsula within a peninsula. The energy here is unique, and it draws creative people.”

Venture Compound, for its part, is making sure that the WAD experience is accessible to anyone who wants in. They operate as a non-profit and give 100 percent of sales from artwork directly back to the artists themselves. The work is affordable ($20-$50 price tags are not uncommon), and their art shows are almost always accompanied by live music.

They host open jazz jams that are often attended by younger teenage musicians who can’t get into bars to play. Many shows are BYOB, but Vance stresses that despite the Compound’s seemingly loose policies regarding the “rules” of art, it’s definitely not a place to underage drink or get drunk while seeing a show.

“If you can’t have a good time without substances,” he says, “then Venture Compound is not for you.”

However, the Compound and WAD in general are for anyone interested in supporting artists living and working in St. Petersburg.

“It’s what you see in creative commerce books,” T. Hampton Dohrman tells CL. “It’s a case study playing out in real time.”

Dohrman, 29, is the director of Creative Pinellas — a non-profit founded in 2011 to connect and fuel the creative community of Pinellas County. He applauds the collective experimentation of the district’s artists as well as the variety of arts it offers. He sees it as an alternative to the shinier storefronts and galleries of downtown St. Pete and Beach Drive. He even thinks the area can avoid the fate that often befalls such districts — the artists make the area cool, then the landlords price them out — by focusing on the continued “organic, passion-driven” growth it is already experiencing.

Still, the prospect of rising rent is something that may eventually hinder the flourishing community as its profile rises.

Maryann Lynch, who owns several properties in the district while also operating Station Number Three — a fire station turned art gallery — has no plans to raise rent and even lowered it for several tenants during the recession.

It’s not certain whether every property owner will follow suit, and there’s no crystal ball to predict WAD’s future, but one thing is for certain: the district is waiting, ready to be embraced.

“This is our artistic home,” says Mark Etherington, who recently opened a multi-purpose community center called Black Valley Collective.

“That’s the beautiful thing about this place. Every warehouse could have something going on and not only would you not know it, but it’s usually something you’ve never seen before,” says Etherington, 25. “How often can you see a psychedelic rock and roll show and go across the street where someone is blowing a huge fucking vase? It’s pretty wild.”

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