People talk about the city, with its murals, museums and vibrant creators, as a burgeoning arts destination. But it has been that way longer than many probably realize.
One hundred years, actually.
The proof is the Morean Arts Center, celebrating its centennial this year. An exhibition opening today tells the Morean's story through 100 artists who helped shaped the organization.
"We don't feel like a big, old institution," said Beth Reynolds, director of photography at the Morean. "We just feel like the arts center, doing our thing to keep the arts alive and give people an experience."
The arts center traces its roots back to 1917, when Central Avenue was a dirt road. A group of artists formed the Art Club of St. Petersburg on Beach Drive, on the grounds where the Museum of Fine Arts sits now. It was the only art center south of Atlanta.
In the 1960s, one of its members broke off to form the Arts Center Association. Eventually, the Art Club folded into the Arts Center. In 1996, it moved to the current location at 719 Central Ave.
In the last 20 years, arts center attendance has increased by more than 100,000 people a year, and its budget has ballooned from $200,000 to $3.6 million. The center's new executive director, Michael Killoren, starts in June. Killoren has worked the last seven years at the National Endowment for the Arts.
For an arts organization to enjoy such longevity is not an easy task. The center must rely on grants and donations to stay afloat. In 2005, longtime supporter Beth Morean pledged $10 million to the center, making it the Morean Arts Center. It enabled the center to open the Morean Center for Clay in 2009 and to acquire the Chihuly Collection in 2010, creating the first museum dedicated to works by world-famous glass artist Dale Chihuly.
"Because we've had a lot of rebirths, and had a lot of new ideas come, we've never stayed on the same path," said Reynolds. "We always try to keep identifying what is best for the community and reinventing ourselves and adding to our mission all the time about how to engage the community with art."
Today, clay artists and students work out of a historic train station at the Morean Center for Clay. It was one of the first art studios to open in the Warehouse Arts District, now a hot spot for galleries and studios. And the Chihuly's recent move across the street from the art center has helped with traffic.
The idea for the new exhibition, "100 Years/100 Artists," came about two years ago when curator Amanda Cooper was looking through scrapbooks from the 1930s at the Morean. She began a list of artists to include.
"I looked for artists who were really involved in the center, who were maybe on our board, or our staff, or took a class here," she said. "Some were all of the above."
Many of the artists were important figures in St. Petersburg's history.
Spectator Sport, a piece from the 1930s, is by George Snow Hill, who painted murals in city hall, one of which was famously torn down by Uhuru activist Omali Yeshitela in 1966.
There are also pieces by Mark Dixon Dodd, the architect who designed all of the houses in Driftwood and some along Coffee Pot Bayou, and William B. Harvard, who built the 1973 iteration of the St. Petersburg Pier and the Williams Park band shell.
A few works are on loan from collectors, but the majority are for sale. The exhibition includes current works from contemporary artists, including Michele Tuegel, Duncan McClellan and Tom McCarthy.
The Centennial Celebration continues through the end of the year with master artist workshops and a Masque 100 gala on New Year's Eve. A narrative history is due the first week in September.
Morean leaders say the center takes risks a traditional museum can't. The flexibility to adapt keeps the center relevant on the changing art scene, Reynolds said.
In the words of former director Evelyn Craft, "We're a scrappy organization."