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How St. Petersburg became the cultural center of the west coast of Florida – Part 1

This post is part of a series that looks at how St. Petersburg, Florida became the cultural center of the west coast of Florida.  This series is an update to a presentation to the annual Florida Association of Museum’s conference in 2008.  A little background on myself during the time period that this historical perspective takes place is important to understanding the series and it is important to understand that this is one person’s perspective.

From 1989 to 1997 I served as Director of Marketing for the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg followed by three years with the Florida International Museum creating and promoting blockbuster exhibitions.

I lived in downtown St. Petersburg’s Uptown Neighborhood for eight of those years and was active in many downtown-focused activities and built the first single-family home in the downtown area for many years.

During this time I was responsible for over 3 million guest visits to a downtown St. Petersburg Museum.  Being involved in the neighborhoods and the arts business downtown afforded a unique perspective on how this story unfolded.

Historical Perspective of St. Petersburg and its Museums

To understand what St. Petersburg was like in the late1980s you would have to have been there. But there are some key points to understanding it for those who were not. Firstly, it was the brunt of many jokes relating to retirees. It was known for them, though by the 1980s many of them had long since left for the suburbs and less crowded parts of Florida. Many of the rooming houses that catered to the snowbirds had become home to prostitutes and drug dealers. This, of course, forced more of the stable retirees out of St. Petersburg and left an abundance of two bedroom, one bath homes that had little appeal to working families.

In fact, let me quote from a 1992 (July 22-28) issue of Creative Loafing, a Tampa Bay alternative weekly publication, on what the writer, Steve Baal, pondered the image of St. Petersburg:

Somnambulant septuagenarians scuffing along stark, silent streets; their gait, a strange two-step, choreographed by age and arthritis, measured by the stabbing stretch of aluminum walkers? Or maybe, row upon row of sturdy green benches, populated by gray-manned ghosts in waiting, periodically pitching popcorn to the pigeons?

The article was focused on the possibility of major league baseball in downtown St. Petersburg and what was already there from an arts and culture standpoint. The point was that there was a lot of art and culture already centered in downtown St. Petersburg and that many of the art executives believed it just needed packaging.

A 1992 story in Creative Loafing focused on downtown St. Petersburg.

A 1992 story in Creative Loafing focused on downtown St. Petersburg.

Continuation of the 1992 story on downtown St. Petersburg in Creative Loafing.

Continuation of the 1992 story on downtown St. Petersburg in Creative Loafing.

This is just a short background to place the reader in the time frame of the 1980s when the story of cooperative marketing started with the cultural facilities of St. Petersburg. Let’s take a look briefly at the history of St. Petersburg’s museums.

The first Museum to appear in St. Petersburg did so in 1920 when the St. Petersburg Historical Society (now the St. Petersburg Museum of History) was founded by Mary Wheeler Eaton in a small stucco building that formerly held an aquarium. It was only the third museum to be founded in the state.

The Museum of Fine Arts, along St. Petersburg’s bay front, has been an institution only since 1965 when it was founded by Margaret Acheson Stuart. For more than a decade these were the two institutions that comprised the Museums of St. Petersburg.

Then in 1980, a St. Petersburg Attorney, James Martin, read and article in the Wall Street Journal that featured a couple who had the largest collection of Salvador Dali’s works in the world. His thought was to have that collection in St. Petersburg and then assistant city manager Rick Dodge assembled a team of community leaders and convinced Reynolds and Eleanor Morse to locate their collection in Florida. The State, under Secretary of State George Firestone, also cooperated and assisted in the financial matters to get the facility started.  It opened in 1982 and drew approximately 65,000 visitors a year for most of the 1980s.

In 1988, another museum, founded by the Junior League of St. Petersburg opened adjacent to the Dali Museum.  Great Explorations, The Hands On! Museum, as it was known, was within blocks of crack and prostitution problems but it was adjacent to the Dali Museum. These were both located on the south side of downtown St. Petersburg in an area that had a bad reputation.  The two museums operated and attracted visitors to the area while sharing less than 5% of their total attendance making for some great opportunities.

The birth of the Florida International Museum meant big things to St. Petersburg. Organized in 1992, it opened its doors to its first major exhibition, Treasures of the Czars, in 1995. It occupied a former Maas Brothers department store and the success of downtown St. Petersburg has since caused the building to be razed and the museum to be re-located and re-positioned as a far less risky facility that does much smaller exhibitions and was part of St. Petersburg College until it was closed.

The Florida Holocaust Museum, one of the largest of its type in the country, relocated from Madeira Beach, where it opened in 1992, to downtown St. Petersburg about five years later.

In addition to the museums, a number of galleries were operating in the downtown area in the same time period. Notably, Evelyn Cobb Galleries and P. Buckley Moss Gallery were very active in the cooperative marketing efforts. The fact that Haslam’s Bookstore billed itself as Florida’s Largest Used Bookstore also created a further reason to visit downtown St. Petersburg. The result was it attracted the same cultural tourists as the museums. Those interested in arts and culture are frequently collectors and the Gas Plant Antique Arcade, which billed itself as the largest antiques mall in Florida, further contributed to the critical mass needed to attract cultural tourists and appeal to culturally attuned travel writers. They all helped St. Petersburg rise above other destinations and became part of the cast of cultural characters.

The Arts Center, which traces its history as an arts club in the city to 1917, and Florida Craftsmen Gallery, which is a state-wide organization headquartered in the city that features exhibits and a unique arts-oriented retail gallery of Florida artists works both added weight to the cultural destination portfolio.

The state headquarters and gallery for Florida Craftsmen is located in the Central Arts District of St. Petersburg.

The state headquarters and gallery for Florida Craftsmen is located in the Central Arts District of St. Petersburg.

The performing arts also contributed in many ways with American Stage being the only professional acting company in the Tampa Bay area and it was, naturally, located in downtown St. Petersburg. The Mahaffey Theater and the historic Coliseum, purchased by the City of St. Petersburg in 1989, followed by the Palladium in 1998, further solidified St. Petersburg’s position as a cultural destination though those facilities mostly catered to locals but their programming often was sufficient to stand out from other cities.

Another early part of the renaissance was the re-opening of the State Theatre into a venue that was both historic and located in another area that was starting to build cultural significance that was anchored by Florida Craftsman Gallery, Art Lofts and the Arts Center.  Today, years later, this area of St. Petersburg is known as the Central Arts District.

Continued in Part 2

The State Theatre, St. Petersburg.

The State Theatre, St. Petersburg.

Continued in Part 2

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