Asking the Right Questions

During her time as CEO of Creative Pinellas, Barbara St. Clair has always voiced her support for artists

. . .
Creative Pinellas CEO Barbara St. Clair announced that she’ll be retiring from her role at the end of this year. The Creative Pinellas Board of Directors is initiating a national search and expects to have her replacement on board in early 2024.

Barbara’s respect for the artists of Pinellas County has long been apparent from the programs developed under her watch – from grants for emerging artists to funds for children’s attendance at arts summer camps. She’s a hard act to follow.

After her retirement, Barbara will stay involved with Creative Pinellas and will continue to be engaged with the new Cultural Plan, for which she was able to get County funding and support. It will be the first Cultural Plan for the County since 2005, and Creative Pinellas believes it will set the stage for dedicated and expanded funding for the arts — something Barbara has long supported.

David Warner,
Creative Pinellas Board President

My closest collaboration with Barbara is on the Arts In podcast, her vision of timeless conversations with all kinds of artists. The show’s not what you’re getting up to on Tuesday – it’s exploring your creative life, your work and way of working. (Lisa Powers Tricomi here was our first lively episode.)

Since late 2016, we’ve recorded 88 conversations with painters, photographers, dancers, actors, sculptors, composers, muralists, writers, gallery owners, museum curators, social practice artists, a certified Fight Director, a public art tour guide, and visual artists whose medium of choice is fabric, twigs, balloons, cypress seedlings and the city skyline. Before the pandemic, we recorded in a small room full of kids books and a bright red couch up many flights of stairs – which was usually the first thing artists had something to say about.

The phrase I hear most on the recording is, “Good question!” Unfailingly, artists let me know how much they loved talking with Barbara. Even artists who dread talking about themselves realize she’s genuinely interest in their work. And artists burned out from being asked same things over and over are pleasantly surprised by Barbara’s unexpected questions.

These Arts In conversations feel like Barbara glides up in a sky blue convertible and offers an artist a ride. You hop in the backseat as she takes the scenic route, an unhurried wander where the view keeps shifting and the side roads are the most intriguing to explore. By the time Barbara glides to a stop, everyone’s inspired.

Sheila Cowley
Managing Editor Arts Coast magazine

Barbara shares her own thoughts
on the Arts In series
. . .

One of the things that is most important to me in life is learning. I took one of those personality tests recently, that is supposed to tell you what motivates you – money or status, or love or power, security. And for me it was learning something new.

So I always approach the podcasts as a way to learn about the person I’m talking to, what is important to them and why. I find artists so amazing, and I want to know what makes them tick. How they come to see the world? What’s their story? How do they approach their work? Why?

The thing I love about the podcasts is being able to do that exploration with someone and to be so interested in who they are and what they are bringing to the moment, that we create a conversation together.

I never go in with a list of questions. I want the conversation to take on a life of its own and to go where it leads – and both the artist and I can follow together. So I don’t go in with preconceived notions and especially, I don’t go in with an agenda.

I do have a mission though, which is that we both create something together, that feels good to be part of for me and for the artist. And that leads to what has apparently come to be known as my “always surprising first question.”

I once took a writing class, and the teacher was on me (and the other students in the class) all the time about what she called ‘pipe-laying.’ We’d be workshopping our stories and she would say, that’s boring. Nobody wants to read about the land survey, or about putting in the conduit, pouring the cement and sinking the rebar.

They want to see the house and the people in it. They want to look out the windows. Or lie in the garden in the grass and watch the birds flying overhead. Or have dinner with the people who live there.

Put us well into the story, for goodness sake. Don’t begin at the start. Begin after the beginning.”

So that is what I always try to do in the podcast. I try to come to the moment, after the briefest introduction, well past the beginning – maybe even with the artist in the middle of the story or closer to the end. Then we can work our way in any direction we want, to the future or the past or stay in the present.

So part of my work in figuring out what my first question will be, is to make a good guess where the middle of the story is, and to try to discover why? Why is that the middle? Why is this artist where they are?

What’s fun is lots of times the artist knows the answer. But they didn’t expect anyone would ask them – at least not so quickly. And somehow, that feels really good. “We’re in the house. We’re in the story. Good deal. I’m so glad you asked.”  Then we take it from there.

The other thing that is important to me, and it has to do with learning – is that I really want to know.

In my work with Creative Pinellas, I’ve tried to do the same thing I do in the podcasts, although it’s quite a bit more complex. But when we are considering launching a program I want us to find out what is going on and why, and where we are as an arts community or as an organization before we come up with a program or an event or an activity. I want to us to ask ourselves what problem are we really trying to solve? What’s the good that will come out of what we do?

I think some of the best programs we have come up with at Creative Pinellas, like the Emerging Artists Grant that comes with a mentor and an exhibit in the gallery, along with grant funds – or the summer camp grant that lets kids and their families pick out the arts camp where they want to go, then sends them to a camp session of their choice, came out of that same kind of discovery and listening process.

How can we ask the right questions, that gets us to an answer that creates the conversation we are looking for? With each other? With our community? With our creative process.

Barbara St. Clair
Creative Pinellas CEO

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