Canvas for a city arts district unfinished
By SHARON TUBBS, City Times Editor
Published July 6, 2007
You can tell that the massive three-story building in the Channel District used to be a warehouse. Its hallways stretch forever. Brick peeks through the white paint. Birds could fly beneath the high ceilings.
In time, it was transformed to a collage of art studios and galleries, an office and kitchen area. The letters outside spell Artists Unlimited, the nonprofit where local artists have rented work space and held art shows for years.
After Ray Paul moved here from Cincinnati in the early 1990s, it was about the only organization with studio space.
This week, Paul - stained in vibrant yellows, reds and greens - stood in a corner room before a wall canvas, listening to blues and touching up one of his abstract masterpieces.
It was exactly the scene Bill and Genie White hoped their efforts would create. They established Artists Unlimited in 1993, then moved their home to one portion of the building in 1995.
Artists Unlimited, they hoped, would become a major outlet for local artists and transform the Channel District into Tampa's premier art district.
That hasn't happened - at least not completely, not yet.
But the couple is preparing to move on. It won't be right away - five or so years - Genie says. But she knows they can't make it here too much longer.
What happened? Let's go back 15 years, when the Whites moved to the Channel District, that swath of a neighborhood off the Port of Tampa, with Ybor City to the north and downtown to the west.
Back then, the area was bare of anything that mattered much. "Nothing was here, just warehouses, " Genie says.
They expected that to change as official-types talked of developing the area and land values went up in downtown and Ybor City. Change would be a good thing, they thought. The more people who came, the better exposure for artists.
The Whites formed the Channel District Council neighborhood association and stayed up to date of the happenings around them.
But they thought too small when it came to development. They hadn't envisioned the high-rise towers, the townhouses and condos. Soon, buildings and construction crews gobbled up parking around them, a reality that made the large art shows they used to have impractical. People won't come if they can't park.
Artists Unlimited doesn't have juried shows and its Friday night gallery events anymore. And about two years ago, the Whites stopped offering their summer art program for school students for the same reason, no parking.
The budget for Artists Unlimited plummeted from about $300, 000 in grants, donations and rental fees to its current $20, 000, mostly from studio rentals, Genie said.
Meanwhile, property taxes quadrupled; insurance more than doubled. Instead of the organization supporting itself, the Whites had to pay many of the bills themselves. Bill, 66, is a retired salesman. Genie, 67, is an artist.
And then there's the building's age. Without the organization pulling is own weight, the Whites say they can't afford the upkeep.
Still, they won't let their vision for artists die.
Genie started negotiating with developers, persuading them to reserve spaces in their towers for artists. Already, she says, she has secured space for artists in the Grand Central condo building. She has talked with other developers as well.
"The soul of Artists Unlimited will continue, " she said.
Instead of having artists in one massive building, they will be spread throughout the district.
"We're having to adjust the vision to get the artists into the properties that are being built, " Genie said.
She hopes someone will take on oversight of Artists Unlimited when they move away.
The Whites say they aren't looking for glory, that it's the artists in Tampa who should be recognized.
But the truth is, without people like them forcing recognition for artwork, this city would be even further behind the easel than it is now.
They sing a familiar tune. Many in the art community say Tampa is more concerned with sports and nightclubs than paintings and sculptures. Several galleries have closed this year, Genie said. They don't get the support they need from the government or from the public.
Paul said things are a little better for artists than when he came here in 1991. He has joined others in independent group shows around the area.
"I think there's a lot of artists, but it's kind of fractured a little bit."
In the meantime, the Whites say they still enjoy what they do.
The "fun" part, they say, is providing a place for artists like Paul.
"I guess I'm just an aging hippie, " Genie says. "People don't believe some people just want to make the world better."
And in her eyes, that better world always includes at least a painting or two.
What do you think about Tampa's art community? Is it adequate or should more be done to support local artists? Send your comments and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Letters to the Editor c/o Sharon Tubbs, St. Petersburg Times, 1000 N Ashley Drive, Suite 700, Tampa, FL 33602.
[Last modified July 5, 2007, 08:10:28]
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