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    How cultured are we?

    Many events lure us, both cultured and, well, not. But a free fest always does the trick.

    By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 21, 2002

    TAMPA -- With $50-million being raised for a new Tampa Museum of Art as the centerpiece of a cultural arts district downtown, a nagging question remains: Will anyone go?

    Since the past informs the future, the St. Petersburg Times looked at the events that capture our community's interest. What is the taste of Tampa Bay residents? What are the more popular shows and events?

    We asked many of the major venues around Tampa Bay to give attendance figures for their greatest hits in the past four years -- whatever they might be: a concert, a religious event, a symphony.

    We wanted to look at how cultured we are, by the numbers.

    We didn't care if the event or show or exhibit lasted one day or months. We wanted to know what drew people in droves.

    Specific numbers were used whenever possible, although many non-ticketed outdoor activities use only crowd estimates. First-time events were left out (sorry, Tall Ships).

    And the winner: This year's Florida Strawberry Festival, pulling in nearly a million people. The 11-day annual festival features country music, pig racing and thousands upon thousands of servings of strawberries and cream. Admission is cheap, only $8.

    The unscientific survey found Tampa Bay loves free events. No. 2 on the list was MacDill Air Force Base's annual open house, Air Fest. We also love monster trucks, country music, boy bands and Bucs games.

    The Suncoast Gun Collectors show held over a weekend at the Florida State Fairgrounds pulled in more people than the four-part Verdi Requiem Masterworks series, which played at the three major performing arts halls last March. The Abba-inspired Mamma Mia fared better in total attendance at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center than Les Miserables.

    Broadway musicals are popular here, said Judith Lisi, president of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. "In terms of more cultural events, like opera or dance, the community is learning about it."

    "We are evolving," said Ron Jones, dean of the college of visual and performing arts at the University of South Florida. "What we do know is that every city you want to aspire to values the arts."

    With the arts comes urbanization, he said. And with urbanization comes sophistication.

    "This sounds really snobby," said Jones, "but with the arts comes refinement in taste."

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