The Success of St. Pete’s ArtWalk and its Identity Moving Forward
Local artists and a curator talk about the monthly event, how it’s evolved and what they’d like to see in the future.
Once a month, thousands flock to St. Petersburg — and it’s not for a Rays game or a beer or concert festival.
On the second Saturday of each month, the St. Petersburg Second Saturday ArtWalk draws young adults, families, seniors and everyone in between to around 50 galleries and art venues that remain open after hours.
The city’s Second Saturday ArtWalk has become a tradition that attracts both locals and tourists to the city’s downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods.
The ritual started small sometime around the late 1980s, when it included the area’s museums and a handful of galleries along the Central Arts District, but it has since expanded to include the 600 Block, the neighboring Warehouse Arts District immediately south of downtown plus the Edge and Grand Central districts on the outskirts of downtown St. Petersburg.
Each ArtWalk attracts a steady stream of tourists and locals to opening receptions, which feature ever-revolving exhibits of new works with complimentary wine and cheese.
For those intimidated by the idea of walking into a gallery, the event breaks down those self-imposed barriers between non-artists and the art world. The public strolls in and out of art spaces where they may quietly ponder a watercolor of a pastoral scene or provocative sculpture or experience for the first time a glass-blowing demonstration at Duncan McClellan Glass, a venue that’s become an anchor in the ArtWalk experience. Other standbys include the Morean Arts Center for early evening member shows and the Bloom Art Center for late-night mural and studio work art parties.
“ArtWalk galleries and studios record between 3,000 and 4,000 visits,” says John Collins, director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, the umbrella organization that coordinates the monthly event and provides maps and free trolleys.
“Since most people go to two our three places in one night that means around 1,200 people, conservatively speaking, come out,” Collins adds. “If you multiply that number with what the average person spends on food, drink, parking, it amounts to nearly $350,000 a year in direct impact on surrounding businesses. And that figure doesn’t even include any art purchases, nor those who find wonderful things and then go back to purchase later. Also, studios report receiving follow-up commission work, too.”
Artists participating in the event are usually happy to put in the time and put up with the lookie-loos to keep the ArtWalk going.
“The ArtWalk is a way of helping the artists to be noticed and thus creating purchasing potential too, which creates a magnet for artists to come and work in the area, ” says artist Jenny Bleackley. Incidentally, six paintings of Bleackley’s will be shown at Graphi-Ko Gallery on Central Avenue at this Saturday’s ArtWalk from 4 to 9 p.m. and will be up for a month. The works are part of her water series, Cool, Calm and Collected.
The ArtWalk is not just a boon for artists and collectors but ingeniously serves as a jump-off point to nightlife outings. It’s a reason for many to dress up and feel like they’re experiencing a night on the town, even if their budget is tight and they can only afford a $25 photographic print to take home. With that, they’ve had a night out, most likely cavorted with friends or met some new people, learned about new artists and even purchased original art.
Artist Nathan Beard has worked his share of shows during the ArtWalk and has noticed people even drive from outside the Tampa Bay area for the monthly event.
He shared: “I spoke with one young woman who had driven from Lakeland for the evening because she loved art, and St. Petersburg was the place to see it, adding that the drive there and back was worth every penny.”
According to Beard, the event has become an institution and, surprisingly, is still unknown to many.
“I normally get two responses when I ask visitors about ArtWalk,” says the consultant and client art installer for ARTicles and Leslie Curran Gallery. “The first is that they love planning an evening around visiting their favorite arts destinations — usually includes dinner and drinks, meeting up with friends, or showing family around. The second response I get, from visitors and most surprisingly from residents, is that they haven’t heard of ArtWalk, indicating work still to be done.”
A stroll along St. Pete’s Central Avenue on the second Saturday of the month belies any notion that there are Tampa Bay citizens out there who still haven’t heard of the ArtWalk.
“My last ArtWalk experience was last month, and included live painting and a pop-up art show/sales event,” says artist Jennifer Kosharek, who cheerfully adds that she met a lot of people that night and did well with her art sales.
“I feel like artwalk is the one crazy night a month where you can go to 10 art shows, see a lot of artists and those that support the art scene, and have a great dinner or enjoy a drink,” adds the former owner of eve-N-odd Gallery. “The ArtWalk introduces a lot of people to the arts scene-specific artists, shows, and is one of the founding city events that St. Petersburg has built its arts reputation on. Without ArtWalk, people wouldn’t be so apt to come to show openings.”
Michele Tuegel, the executive director of Florida Craftsmen from 1986 to 2004, curated works during the early years of the event in the late 1980s, when only four or five galleries participated a month. Tuegel, who ran a gallery at 320 Central Avenue up until last year has seen the entire trajectory from then to now.
Her thoughts: The public and tourists love it. They want a unique, new experience, like the paper maps and “free” is important, but, for the most part, many still don’t understand how the free trolley service works.
“Overall, one of the biggest benefits was engaging the non-arts public because the open house atmosphere made walking into art spaces much less intimidating,” Tuegel adds.
“I tell visitors to tackle one neighborhood each month to have time to stop and actually enjoy the artwork — don’t try to breeze through expecting to conquer the entire event in one evening.”
Soft Water Studios, just south of downtown, is among many of the newer galleries and studio compounds that have opened in the decade. Owner Carrie Jadus weighs in via email message with her observations: “I think a magic mixture of things have made Second Saturday so successful. First, being the galleries have maintained it even through the hard times — venues like Craftsman House and Articles. I also think the St Pete Arts Alliance has also supported it by finding sponsorship for the trolleys. There was actually a time when we — artists and galleries — all had to pay up out of our own pockets to pay for the trolleys. Keep St Pete Local has teamed up with ArtWalk as well as the Suncoasters for SPF15 & SPF16 to help spread the word to all parts of Pinellas. Primarily it is due to a wide range of folks holding the Vision and working together as a team despite differences.”
St. Petersburg artist Laura Spencer, a uniquely compelling illustrator and game-changer among the city’s under-35 art demographic, offers some of her thoughts and suggestions on what she’d like to see at the ArtWalk going forward:
“I always look forward to Second Saturdays, because there is endless inspiration and potential, spanning from the downtown waterfront all the way to the Warehouse Arts District and beyond — so much to see and experience! The only caveat — it ends way too early! I think it’s a struggle for a lot of artists and patrons to get downtown early enough to experience Art Walk in it’s entirety. It’s a little disheartening to see galleries closing at 8:30, just when the downtown nightlife is beginning to start up — that’s missed opportunities. If you go to any major city, or even the annual Art Basel [fairs] in Miami, galleries keep their doors open much later, maybe even 11 or midnight, which allows for youthful, edgy, emerging art collectors the chance to mingle and potentially purchase.”
Besides staying open later and attracting younger participants, Spencer says there are other ways to bring more prominence to the event, to elevate it from a breezy central Florida pastime to an event that carries with it an imprimatur in the national and international art world.
“I’ve always felt that St. Pete would benefit greatly from more visiting national/international artists,” Spencer adds. “St. Pete, while we are a budding art community, feels a bit insular, we’ve got to burst our cultural bubble and start integrating artists from much further than just the Tampa Bay area.”