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The arts begin slow soak into city's soul

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 17, 2003


The first thing that caught my eye in the window of Brad Cooper's gallery was the liquid-looking, rose-colored vase with gilded tendrils threaded along its length.

In the gallery, hanging on one of the white walls, was a painting of a woman. She was nude, seated in a chair with her hands before her. One hand was clenched and the other was open, as if she wasn't sure what she wanted to be.

You have to go out of your way to see this woman. Cooper's gallery is in Ybor City. Among the bars and the tattoo parlors, the gallery stands alone, a little cultural oasis, and a symbol of Tampa's struggle to open its arms to the arts.

There was a time, in the '80s, when Ybor City was going to be the city's arts district. Painters, potters, actors lived in Ybor, in the crumbling storefronts along Seventh Avenue that had been the commercial strip for the neighborhood's cigar workers a hundred years ago.

But Ybor was sold, more or less, in pieces, to the highest bidder, people with fat wallets and liquor licenses. Ybor got so cheesy there was talk it would lose its spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

The designation was not lost, but the artists were. They were forced out when rents got too high.

Cooper remained, through thick and thin -- and as the bars popped up around him, it was mostly thin. His attachment to art, and to the business of selling art, was deep and profound, life affirming in its way.

He had been a student at Hillsborough Community College, studying business, when he was diagnosed with cancer. Cooper, now 47, was only in his 20s. He beat the cancer but the cancer transformed him. He dropped out of his business classes and went to USF to study art. He became a painter. Then he opened his gallery.

Over the years, Cooper talked himself hoarse trying to get Ybor cleaned up. Only a couple of Saturday nights ago, an artist giving a speech at an opening -- the same artist who painted the nude -- was repeatedly disrupted by the roar of a motorcycle parked outside the gallery, Cooper said.

This would be enough to make anyone throw up their hands, but not Cooper. He has a stubborn sort of patience. He has worked too hard and too long to give up.

And anyway, the situation is about to change.

Art is suddenly hot in Tampa. It may be too late for Ybor, but it's not for downtown. After years of plunking down all our cash and exercising all our passion on sports, of not caring whether the painter can be heard over the biker, we are looking in a different direction.

Mayor Pam Iorio has promised to follow through on the work begun by her predecessor, Dick Greco, who proposed a new art museum, history center and park space along the downtown riverfront. Iorio predicts it would take two to three months to find a cultural official to head the effort. A national search will be conducted.

"I want somebody who has demonstrated experience of raising a city to a whole different level in terms of its contributions to arts and culture," Iorio said Wednesday. "It's not just about completing construction. . . . I want someone who can bring new ideas."

Brad Cooper, the gallery owner, warned me that you can't build a cultural district, and develop a reputation for the arts, overnight. Artists have to produce their work. It has to be displayed. The community has to come to appreciate it.

In this case, there's also the bread and butter problem of money. As much as $15-million in private donations is needed, and construction won't start until the money is in hand.

So we could end up waiting a while for this grand dream to take hard, honest shape. Patience will be in order.

If you want to know what this feels like, ask Brad Cooper.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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