From the Guest Editor, Paul Wilborn
What is an arts town?
If you follow most media reports, you might think an arts town is where 18,000 people grab up all the Paul McCartney tickets on the first day it goes on sale. Or where the work of Salvador Dali is on permanent display in a world-class setting. Or where Broadway’s hip-hop hit Hamilton has scheduled a long, road-show run.
And we are blessed to live in an area where all those things are happening.
But I’m writing this piece from New York City, where I’ve come to sample the rich jazz offerings in dozens of large and small clubs. The musicians are mostly residents of one of the five boroughs, or cross a bridge from Jersey to get here.
No one will tell you it’s an easy life, but there is work here and a chance to be seen and heard by people who can make a difference to a career.
New York is a one-of-a-kind place but it is also a city that has a long history of cultivating and supporting its artistic talent – with both private and public dollars.
The Tampa Bay area doesn’t have that history. Growing up here in the 1960s and ‘70s, ours was a place that artists and talented people had to leave to pursue their dreams.
But we’ve made a lot of progress.
This month in Creative Pinellas, we are focusing on some artistic success stories about talented people who are pursuing their art at a very high level and still call this place home.
And that’s what really makes an arts town – when your best local talent doesn’t have to leave to thrive in their chosen field.
And don’t think “local” translates to some lack of artistry or ability – the best artists and performers in our area are competing and winning on the national and international level. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice quality to go local in the arts.
The best part of my job as executive director of the Palladium at St. Petersburg College, is working with our home-grown talent.
I remember the first time I heard Selwyn Birchwood, the blues singer and guitarist. He had just graduated from the University of South Florida and there was a buzz building. But not quick enough. I booked him for our Side Door nightclub and a whopping 41 people paid to see him in a room set for 180.
But Selwyn ignored the empty chairs and put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen – he kicked off his shoes, slithered across the floor, sent stinging notes like arrows from his electric guitar.
I told him that night: I don’t care how many tickets you sold – you are coming back. He did and sold out the next show – he’s appearing for two nights back-to-back in July. His first major label album shot to the top of the Billbaord Blues charts and his second – released this week – will be there soon. Track him on Facebook and you see selfies from across U.S. and Europe. He especially likes to show you the exotic meals he’s enjoying in faraway places.
He’s moved from Tampa to Orlando, but he’s still a local in my book and making a career without leaving for New York, Memphis or L.A.
Nate Najar is another artist who grew up here and continues to call St. Petersburg home. Nate also flies out regularly to shows and festivals around the U.S. and Europe. His albums are earning rave reviews.
But he’s also able to put on shows in his hometown that are way beyond regular bar or club gigs. At the Palladium, he brings in his big-name pals from around the jazz world for shows that sell hundreds of tickets.
In this issue you can read more about Selwyn, and another St. Pete success story, Maestro Mark Sforzini, who is the man behind St. Petersburg Opera.
And the folks behind the Jobsite Theater, where a bunch of actors and directors created a place where they could do the work that excited them.
There are also a whole crop of visual artists, like Duncan McClellan and Catherine Woods, who have chosen this place as their home base. The recent groundbreaking for the Warehouse District Arts Exchange, and the local and state support for the project, are good signs that the soil here is fertile for local artists.
We’ve still got a long way to go. The loss of tax incentives for the film and television industry. state film incentives have driven a lot of the talented filmmakers and crew members to Georgia and Louisiana and other states where there is a recognition that jobs in film and television are good business.
So the seeds we’ve planted for our local artists have budded and grown. But money from ticket sales, gallery sales, and arts grants are the fertilizer that keeps things growing.
What can do when you consider where to spend your arts dollars ?
Think local. You won’t regret it.
– Paul Wilborn, Executive Director of The Palladium Theater at St. Petersburg College