Duncan McClellan, Glass Artist
Through the looking glass: Placemaking and the business of art with St. Pete's own Duncan McClellan
On this episode of SPx, our host Joe Hamilton is joined in studio by local glass legend, Duncan McClellan. Nearly a decade ago, McClellan famously moved into what is now known as the Warehouse Arts District, creating the first live, work, and show gallery in St. Petersburg. At the time, people called McClellan crazy. Now, he has had a leading role is transforming the district into an arts destination. McClellan shares the origins of the gallery, his thoughts on the business of art, and how St. Pete can build its brand while staying true to its charm.
- On this episode of SPx, Joe welcomes Duncan McClellan, famed local glass artist and studio owner to the podcast.
- McClellan opened his gallery in what is now St. Petersburg's Warehouse Arts District nearly a decade ago, after repeated bad experiences with other galleries.
- McClellan found a home in St. Petersburg because it was one of the only cities where he could live, work, and show all in the same place, according to city code. " I wanted a particular place because we are a collection of all the things that we've done in the past and that we like doing. So, I wanted to be a farmer, I wanted to be a restaurateur, I wanted to have a gallery, I wanted to help other artists in the path."
- Duncan's vision for his gallery: "What I wanted was a building that looked like a church. I wanted it to be that experience when the doors open and you're seeing all this well-lit glass - and it's incredible the artists that we are lucky enough to represent - that its kind of gives that wow experience."
- "What I like about glass is that it can be approached from every angle, from a four year old just loving that blue cobalt color, to a more concentrated quest of looking at what that artist was trying to say or what the viewer gets out of it."
- When McClellan was first learning about glass art, there were no hot shops in Tampa Bay. He had to travel to New York to work.
- "That's why it's so important, I think, to have a hot shop, a professional hot shop not only for people to work out of, but that we can demonstrate to the public and get that excitement, but also the knowledge base. It's really important that the person that is purchasing a piece has a true understanding of how it's made. I think that's half of the enjoyment."
- McClellan's emerging artist and residency program: "Part of their six-week training will be mentoring them on pricing and where to show the work and what to expect out of galleries and what is expected out of them to hold up their side of the bargain."
- "The average glass artist whether they're emerging or top of their game, are really making about 15 to 20%, they're not getting rich."
- On pricing: "It's a formula that every artist works it out for themselves whether they know its algebra or not. Adding up the cost, the final number of output of pieces, and they put a price on their life on what it cost them to create that work."
- "The only time that we weigh in on a pricing and typically it's an emerging artist that really doesn't have a clue. And they're way underpricing what that piece should sell for."
- "A very smart artist that we represent typically his work is incredible demand. But he didn't double and triple his prices, what he does is he every year they go up about 10 to 12% and that's enough to get that person that was looking last year to go I better buy it."
- The future of arts in St. Pete: "f you have a 100-year view, St. Petersburg is going to be known for the city of the arts for many, many years as long as they run it right."
- On art in St. Petersburg: "It's not an add-on, it's not a fringe, it's part of the fabric."
- "I would love to see fast transit from downtown, we have something no other city, or not many cities have. We have a first North and we have a first South. From my studio I could be downtown in four and a half minutes, I can be out at the beaches in about eight, that's brilliant."
- McClellan's shout out: "Katie Deits from Florida CraftArt who has incredible dynamo personality and has really done great things for that organization. She is the hardest working person I know."
"I see it as an equilateral triangle between the gallery, the artist, and the collector. And when it changes shape and it goes to another form of a triangle, that's where the problem is."
"I really think every artist needs to wear every hat, the accounting hat, the marketing hat, the making hat. And in glass it's not a one-man band. So, management skills are really important."
Table of Contents
(00:53 to 1:30) Introduction
(1:30 to 4:00) Opening the Gallery
(4:00 to 05:55) The Wow Factor of Art
(5:55 to 8:30) Working With Different Art Mediums
(8:30 to 9:43) Experience with Galleries
(9:43 to 15:41) Gallery Ethics And Pricing Artwork
(15:41 to 18:16) Creating Market Pricing
(18:16 to 21: 43) Equilateral Triangle
(21:43 to 25:00) The Artist Brand and Marketing Work
(25:00 to 27:45) Being Successful As An Artist
(27:45 to 29:25) How Artist Are Defined
(29:25 to 32:26) St. Pete And The Glass World
(32:26 to 36:05) Gentrification
(36:05 to 38:55) The Role of Museums In The Community
(38:55 to 43:40) The Future of St. Pete and Art
(43:40 to 45:05) Conclusion
Joe: Joining me on SPx today is we’ll say local glass legend.
Joe: Duncan McClellan, welcome sir.
Duncan: Hi, how are you?
Joe: Doing well. So, first, props on a beautiful gallery. You’ve made it a great space there. You moved into an area before it was as hot as it is now and played no small part in making that place as hot as it is now.
Duncan: Who knew?
Joe: Who knew? [Chuckle] Maybe you did.
Duncan: Well, kind of. If I had known more, I would have purchased more around me if I had more money. But it has been a real interesting 10-year journey.
Joe: Let’s just dive into that. When you were looking to open a gallery, what were you looking for? What other places did you consider? And why did you ultimately choose that location?
Duncan: Well, I think a lot of artists can relate to this. The first thing I was looking for was an honest gallery, you know, the typical artist – and I deal with a few – that are terrific. But then there’s other galleries that don’t take care of the artist as well or their end of the bargain. And having experienced that just two weeks prior from two galleries I decided it was time to open my own.
Joe: So, you were actually driven by necessity just to have a fair gallery experience to open your own?
Joe: All right, so then when you actually thought about that gallery at that time, how did you envision it? How were you deciding which location in the city to choose? Why did you choose St. Pete at all?
Duncan: Well, first of all I tried to do this idea in Tampa, but I wasn’t getting the governance getting behind it as much as I needed them. I wasn’t looking for financial help, I was looking for allowing things to happen. And over here we had a governance that really cared about it. Particularly at the time Leslie Curren who owns a great gallery here in town and Jeff Danner and they got behind the effort of the arts. And I wanted a particular place because we are a collection of all the things that we’ve done in the past and that we like doing. So, I wanted to be a farmer, I wanted to be a restaurateur, I wanted to have a gallery, I wanted to help other artists in the path. And it took about two years even over here looking that I found the particular type of building I was looking for. What I wanted was a building that looked like a church. I wanted it to be that experience when the doors open and you’re seeing all this well-lit glass and it’s incredible the artist that we are lucky enough to represent that its kind of gives that wow experience. And I would like to say that there was a total master plan, it’s evolved. And really proud of what we’re becoming and what we have done already.
Joe: So, churches have a wow factor, they have throughout history, but the wow factor is meant to tie to something bigger philosophically, can you dig into what the philosophy behind the wow factor of art is for you?
Duncan: Well, the reason I got into glass, even though I had previous experience in other mediums, was that I was so interested in seeing what these people were doing, I had no knowledge of it. So, I wanted to learn not expecting to be a glass artist. I remember my teacher, John Brekke, who I felt was not as represented as he should have been for the incredible work that he does, the content, the technical expertise. And wanted to find out more so that I could help him sell his work. And then seeing all this other work from artist, very exciting. And it’s more from an ignorance that I wanted to get more knowledge about glass itself.
Joe: Well, let me phrase it a different way. What do you see in glass that makes it a special medium? And what do you think most people don’t see in glass that they should?
Duncan: Well, what I like about glass is that it can be approached from every angle from a four year old just loving that blue cobalt color, to a more concentrated quest of looking at what that artist was trying to say or what the viewer gets out of that, and many media can do that. What I like about glass is that it’s so versatile. It can be translucent, it can be opaque, it can be hard, it can be looking like it’s just the softest thing. And there’s so many things about glass that you can never probably get to a point where you can say I’ve made a perfect piece. Even though we have many examples of what I think are perfect pieces.
Joe: Of course, that’s all relative and subjected to at the end of the day. How much do you get into the science of glass? Understanding it at a molecular level?
Duncan: It’s very interesting to me, but there’s artist that we bring in such as the guys from MIT that take it to the nth degree that they are really working on the science of glass. I approach it in a more basic way.
Joe: Right, so having gone through a couple of different mediums, you had leather, clay, even some work in candles?
Duncan: Oh, I’ve been making things since I was 14 and selling them in boutiques and stores. I had a line of leather belts when I was a kid that we sold to five different boutiques and then got into the during the Carnaby Days, before your time, and made candles and got into clay. My mother was a potter, but it wasn’t as satisfying. And then luckily, I had the opportunity to try glass, but there were really no places here to blow glass. So, I would have to fly to New York. I found New York experimental and found some teachers up there. That’s why it’s so important, I think, to have a hot shop, a professional hot shop not only for people to work out of, but that we can demonstrate to the public and get that excitement, but also the knowledge base. It’s really important that the person that is purchasing a piece has a true understanding of how it’s made. I think that’s half of the enjoyment.
Joe: So, did you choose glass? Or did glass become the central medium in your life because of success you had with glass? I mean, had you clay work taken off could we be just as easily be sitting here talking about clay. Glass, you chose glass.
Duncan: Because I was successful in clay, but I went onto other means of sustaining myself. I worked for a circus, I had retail stores in the Tampa airport, ran restaurants, went to restaurant school. What captured me was the material itself and the people around it, those two things.
Joe: Yeah, that’s interesting because there’s a few things that look like you’ve done out of sort of pragmatism. Yeah, you had a bad gallery experience, so you opened a gallery, you got into glass helping somebody else be appreciated for their glass, and you also started a hot shop because people needed a hot shop, right? So, there’s a lot of interesting pragmatism of what’s driven some of your decisions. Let’s go back to that, can you talk about the bad experience you had with that gallery? Is that indicative of galleries? I mean, what is that sort of relationship?
Duncan: No, it’s not indicative of galleries. There are agreements that are pretty basic. Of course, we have a contract with artist, but it’s all based on a handshake because the paper is worthless unless we follow through. And it was that experience that led me to believe that there was a better way because I sustained myself for many years doing outdoor fairs. Part of our DMG school project, for an example, we just started emerging artist and residency on Monday. And part of their six-week training will be mentoring them on pricing and where to show the work and what to expect out of galleries and what is expected out of them to hold up their side of the bargain. There’s a whole set of ethics that are really important and if an artist kind of bends those rules, it makes it very difficult to represent them. Luckily, we have ethical and wonderful artists to work with.
Joe: That’s sort of been an imbalance in a lot of different places throughout time is whether it’s the record company taking advantage of the band who doesn’t have the acumen or the gallery owner who obviously has business acumen. And, you know, putting an artist in a non-advantageous positions. So, can you share some of the- especially, I’m interested in the pricing, so how do you talk to artist about how to price their work?
Duncan: Well, for an example, the standard with all galleries is it’s a 50/50 deal.
Duncan: A gallery needs to provide for their percentage because the way I see it glass is a very expensive medium to work in. And in reality, the average glass artist whether they’re emerging or top of their game, are really making about 15 to 20%, they’re not getting rich.
Duncan: And they also, if you can compare it to a painting, they are weaving their canvas. If their canvas has any flaw, it’s thrown out. It’s not painted over. So, there’s less output from a glass artist than there would be or could be from artist in other mediums. And then what a gallery should do is if there’s any offering of free shipping or a discount on that piece or taking care of the client cost money. You know, every opening on a weekend we’re spending almost $10,000. So, there has to be a return, but that is incumbent on the gallery, not on the artist. The artist did their job. When they get into a gallery it’s then the gallery’s job to take over, make that sale, and provide communication with the artist to let them know the same day, hey we sold this piece.
Joe: So, all the expenses up to delivering the piece to the gallery belong to the artist. And all of the expenses of selling the piece after it’s in the gallery belong to the gallery?
Duncan: That’s the way it should be. And when it’s done that way it’s very fair because that’s about what a gallery ends up with, the same percentage as the artist.
Joe: Right. And what about the overall asking price? How do you start to build what that is whether it’s a $10,000 or a $20,000? I mean, you touched on some thinking that’s more traditional cost of inputs, right? But obviously art, the value of art, is in the vision and the execution of the cost of the input. So, that’s a softer area of pricing and intangible value. So, how do you talk to them about figuring that out?
Duncan: Well, that comes in last in the equation because like we do a lot of school kids coming through. And the first question they ask is: Do you get burned? Second question is: Why does that cost $10,000? And you show them it’s algebra, that it’s a formula that every artist works it out for themselves whether they know its algebra or not. Adding up the cost, the final number of output of pieces, and they put a price on their life on what it cost them to create that work. And most artists are really just they’re looking to stay in the life, that’s the main central theme for each artist. And what we don’t do is weigh in on the price.
Duncan: The only time I’ll weigh in on the price- See, I have the advantage in the fact that I’ve worked in the medium. So, we don’t have somebody coming in with a broken lightbulb saying that that’s $10,000, I know better. I will tell you that it’s very few times in my career have we said, “You know what? I like the work, it’s not worth that much money, I won’t carry it.” So, that’s my criteria that I have for the gallery. I can walk you through my gallery and I can defend every price on those pieces because I know what that artist went through. Now, yes, an artist does add a certain amount of money which is their due on, yeah, some 20 major museums there’s a demand for my work, but it’s the same that any business goes through.
Joe: So, you know, for me, and this is my perspective, and this could be completely wrong, you know, I see the input cost and the time as taking it up to a certain level. But then I see the big swings up and down in value going outside of those more into the intangible world. So, like I would say if you told me that I could take one piece, put it into a nice gallery in Miami or South Beach, or wherever the galleries are there, and put $30,000 on it. And then take that same piece and take it to more of a touristy gallery or whatever, a smaller market we’ll just say, and put that same piece out there for $1,200 that it may sell five times for $30,000 in that environment and not sell once for $1,200 in the other environment.
Duncan: That doesn’t happen too often in glass. First of all, there’s an association of glass collectors worldwide, which kind of doesn’t control the pricing, but you’re not going to get away with it. That’s the one thing that I demand out of my artist that if this piece is $8,000 in x, y, z gallery, it’s $8,000 here, not $9,000, not $7,000.
Joe: That’s a strategy for making the market, right? That’s a strategy for pricing consistency to keep the optics of the market pure, right? So, people can trust that the value is there because everywhere they look it’s that same value-
Joe: -but still you deciding that, right? So, you’re making the market or suggesting that.
Duncan: Well, the artist decides the price. The only time that we weigh in on a pricing and typically it’s an emerging artist that really doesn’t have a clue. And they’re way underpricing what that piece should sell for.
Joe: And I didn’t mean choosing the price, I mean choosing the consistency, pushing for the consistency.
Duncan: Oh, okay.
Joe: Yeah, and so that shows a wisdom to keeping the market healthy, right? So that people say that okay, I’m seeing this value, I used to sell music collectable for a band that there wasn’t really a market for, and this was also partly— Because this is when the internet was emerging— And I became the first place where anybody in the country could go and see collectables for this band. And, you know, I essentially went through the process of making that market. I sort of had a judge of what I thought was rare, what I had trouble because I would spend my Sundays looking up record stores around the country-
Duncan: You did your homework.
Joe: -and say, “Hey, do you have any of these in stock?” Because nobody knew at that time what they were worth. So, you know, they may have an album in their normal bin for $7.99 that I knew that I could sell for $500. But because the market wasn’t there and that sort of centralized pricing mechanism wasn’t there, I could find those anomalies in stuff. And so, you know, I scooped up, and of course eBay and the internet changed all of that because that’s essentially what it did, it put pricing out there to the world, but it doesn’t still even though it’s now easier to do that, but you’re still making the market, right? You’re still the leading people in the market are setting the top end of the price range in sort of a symbiotic relationship with the art collectors because it’s actually in their best interest for the value of the stuff to go up too, and then that trickles down to all the other levels of art.
Duncan: I see it as an equilateral triangle between the gallery, the artist, and the collector. And when it changes shape and it goes to another form of a triangle, that’s where the problem is. And every gallery has to have a set of ethics of even though I think this is underpriced, I’m not going to raise it and keep that differential. If we talk to the artist and say to him or her look, you just worked a whole month on a piece, you’re only paying yourself $300, you know? You can’t live on that. So, we do adjust them up, but we don’t adjust them to the fair value right away because you’ve got to build that market. So, a very smart artist that we represent typically his work is incredible demand. But he didn’t double and triple his prices, what he does is he every year they go up about 10 to 12% and that’s enough to get that person that was looking last year to go I better buy it. It gives him more money that he’s finally getting to a point where it’s more equitable in the amount of work that he does for what he receives for it, but he’s earned that right by getting not only better, but getting the word out on his work over and above what a gallerist does for him.
Joe: So, with that equilateral triangle if it skews, who usually drives the skews? Usually the gallery that tries to drive the skew?
Duncan: It depends. I think there’s equal blame and equal kudos to all three sides of those. You know, if a client wants to beat you up on a price, it doesn’t work because the gallery goes out of business. In our case the artist would get the same amount, but I’ll go out of business. So, I won’t be bringing the emerging artist to keep the interest going, so, ultimately, the collector loses. And do you really want to buy something that you just devalued; you know? If an artist doesn’t keep the pricing consistent and he’s all over the map he might have a few collectors, but he’s not going to have the galleries. And if the gallery ends up not being fair to the collectors and taking care of them and not taking care of the artist, they’re going to collapse but so will those other two entities.
Joe: And you used the word kudos too, which was interesting because I did imagine a scenario, you know, you assume that the gallery breaks the triangle strategically by raising the prices because the buyers are kind of the litmus test if they go for it than all of a sudden that’s how you sometimes get to a bigger triangle, right?
Duncan: Well, yeah, but say we’re not the ones that are pushing the triangle. I let the artist tell me, “No, we’re raising the price.” Or, “This is a new body of work and it was this much more effort.” Or, “It’s this point in my career.” We are not the driver of that price.
Joe: But the gallery may be.
Duncan: No, not the gallery.
Joe: Oh, the gallery won’t. So, you’re saying we as the gallery.
Duncan: I’m saying the artist. It’s schizophrenic here because I’m an artist, I’m a gallerist, and a collector. [Chuckle] And that’s why I see it as the equilateral triangle.
Joe: You know, it’s a neat market because essentially everybody has an incentive for it to get better, right? So, it’s just that who does it first, who is willing to go up a little bit or do a little more, but the whole thing grows because everybody wins when it grows.
Duncan: I think it’s got to come from the artist first.
Joe: Yeah, you know, I go back to the fact that there’s so much of that intangible stuff, that’s what’s so interesting about art because a personality can make someone’s art more attractive. And a story makes an art so much more attractive. And you know, me, you know, I approach things probably more from the branding first coming from a marketing background or whatever, and so the number of levers and the possibilities that would almost be oppressively expansive in how many different things you could do or be. And ultimately it needs to be authentic, but where do you draw the line between awareness of how your actions drives your art prices, and how your brand, and your story, and your interaction with the community, obviously you know this, you’ve been a big steward of- Yeah, you’ve seen it you’ve lived it because how you’d interacted and what you’ve given to the community has come back to you in success that you’ve seen in additional to the quality of your work obviously,
Duncan: Well, I think keeping that quality up is absolutely important and supporting the other aspects that collectors and the artists themselves. But ultimately, it’s the artist that drives that and we want to support that. It’s part of our whole training in the gallery for these emerging artists is talking about those same things.
Joe: How much of that is the perfect balance? A lot of this is driven by necessity, but what’s the balance that an artist should have of that knowledge themselves and be responsible for, and then where does it start to detract from their art, and they need somebody else? I think of like an athlete, right? So, they’re not negotiating their own contracts, they’re not out there looking for their own deals with the shoe companies or whatever. They are conscious of their brand, but a lot of times they’ll bring in help with their brand, they’ll bring in PR, they’ll bring in marketing, they’ll bring an agent to negotiate the contracts. And they have this sort of it’s clear to them that their responsibility is to be in game shape and to kick ass out on the field-
Duncan: That’s their job.
Joe: Right, but with a lot of artists, I guess the difference is you don’t have that opportunity for small athletes, but you do have that opportunity to some extent for small artist to sell. You know, how much of that should be in them and at what point, then, should the art infrastructure come in and say, “We’ll take care of your branding, we’ll take care of your contracts, we’ll take care of some of these things.”?
Duncan: Well, I think there’s a danger in letting- First of all, not having the knowledge and letting somebody else tell you, “we’re your savior.” I’ve always run away from people that say, “We’re going to save you.” And for the artist, even the most established artists that we represent, they are excellent marketers. In most cases they probably don’t need me at all, they’re doing me the favor by allowing us to represent them because they can’t be everywhere at once. For an example, when I was doing outdoor shows, I happened to like Midwesterners a lot-
Joe: What’s not to like?
Duncan: Some of my best friendships, some of my closest collectors, and artist friends came from doing that. And so it was the other coasts that I knew that I wasn’t going to travel to that I could get my pieces out and they could sell them and it would help me in the Midwest because they would be in San Francisco for an example and see one of my pieces. It just elevated their appreciation of my work just in the locale. I mean, part of that is marketing. So, I really think every artist needs to wear every hat, the accounting hat, the marketing hat, the making hat. And in glass it’s not a one-man band. So, management skills are really important. I hope by the end of my life that I become a good manager. And I think all my employees would agree. I think they have to have the basics. Now as they get bigger and as their operations get bigger i.e. a Chihuly, they can’t do everything, and they’re not good at everything, they can’t be. But they can hire the people that can help them. But I think if Mr. Chihuly didn’t have a good command of marketing when it he first started; he wouldn’t be where he is now. You know, he was able to think outside of the box and take it to a completely different level.
Duncan: And so, always, artists need to be marketing and handling a lot of that themselves, and to make sure that it’s being done in the method that they agree with.
Joe: Right. So, this is sort of asking the same question again, but I’d just be interested to go this way with it. Do you think there are artists who are equally talented as Chihuly, and who are equally as innovative, and do a lot of the same things that he has done and never get anywhere? And if you could assume that’s true, what would be the main reasons why?
Duncan: Saying that two artists are equal-
Joe: There’s a Chihuly clone out there, slightly different, so it’s not the same-
Duncan: Right, but without the marketing skills and everything else.
Joe: What are the skills? You know, if you have two people as talented as Chihuly and one becomes Chihuly and one becomes managing a Hertz rent a car, why did that happen?
Duncan: Real easy, show up. Showing up matters, creating those connections with other people. And being interested in other people not for what you’re going to get out of it but expanding your knowledge base. Does that answer your question?
Joe: Well so, does that mean it’s a clever exposure? I mean, you mentioned the fact that you know the Midwesterners see your piece in San Francisco, so it’s sort of by triangulating your pieces if they get multiple inputs – Like in the marketing world you say you want people to see you three times, right?
Duncan: Yeah, the branding.
Joe: If they see you here once, they see you here a second time, a friend mentions you, you’re in a good spot, right? You’ve got a good shot at getting them. And so, you know, you kind of said a similar version of that, they saw you at the outdoor thing, they saw you had a piece in San Francisco, they saw you at the gallery online, whatever, and all of a sudden you’ve got something going there. And then the network effect kicks in and they tell somebody and so on and so forth. And so, when you say showing up is that part of being a participant in the community?
Duncan: Yes, because if you’re a recluse, how is anybody going to know about what you do unless somebody else is doing that for you? But again, I do think that every artist needs to have a certain amount of that skill. And yes, you can take one artist that is particularly good at showing up and engaging the public and that type of thing. And actually, sell more work then another artist that could be much more talented because he or she isn’t getting the word out on what they’re doing.
Joe: Right, so it’s almost like you have to set a basic leveling of you know they’re going to be talented, you know they’re going to be personable, they’re going to have these basic skills, those people all get to one level and then really ideally the talent is what takes them to the next level with all these basics in place.
Duncan: It gives them the stage. They’ve created a stage for themselves.
Joe: You know, and then I look back historically – And this is where I kind of said before the opportunities can be mind-blowingly expansive. You know, I’ve always been a fan of the Beats, right? And Kerouac and Ginsberg and I was a Hunter S. Thompson guy. Hunter S Thompson was not liked by the people who were around him at the time, he was difficult to work with, not a good friend. And then to some extent even some of the writers were odd and some were reclusive –
Duncan: Pollock [Chuckle]
Joe: Yeah, exactly, right? But the stories that are told about them is what makes it. You know, it’s that writer, you know, there’s a Electric Koolaid Acid Test, and there’s On The Road, and these people were made legends by the stories that were told about them. You know, the romantic Dylan playing out of Soho Cafe or Ferlinghetti showing up at a City Lights bookstore and the way those stories are told. So then, knowing that in the marketing world you can manufacture that, right? And then feed that back into the fact that you had mentioned earlier that the limited editions, how many pieces you made. It’s like a manufactured rarity in there as well. So, all of this stuff you can historically of how all this stuff has worked and you an deconstruct it and if you have the right mindset you can do it.
Duncan: And follow the plan.
Joe: Yeah, and follow the plan, yeah.
Duncan: With what fits your personality best. You know, mine has always been being short, I’m loud, you know? And I don’t mind doing that and that’s part of my fun, too.
Joe: Yeah, well I mean, all the best. You know, Hunter S. Thompson, you know, for whatever he was glass is probably not as controversial of a medium as like music.
Joe: Marilyn Manson, first example that comes to mind is kind of, you know, unless he does a massive re-branding, he’s kind of trapped by being Marilyn Manson forever. Are you trapped by being short and loud? [Chuckle]
Duncan: [Chuckle] It’s what they expect, but I’m also 64. So, how much more time am I going to have to change that persona?
Joe: If you show up at an event and decide to sit quietly and demurely in the corner-
Duncan: I don’t get that opportunity.
Joe: You don’t. I get it, no, you’re forced, you’re trapped, then. [Chuckle]
Duncan: I hide sometimes when we have our opening for a little bit just to have a little bit of peace for a minute.
Joe: So, let’s get into St. Pete a little bit. St. Pete has become a mecca for glass and you play no small part in that. Tell me your feelings about St. Pete’s place in the world as in the glass world?
Duncan: What is amazing to see how this synergy has been created and what we’ve been able to attract. I mean, we just attracted an international conference, which is pretty astounding when last year it was in Moreno and next year it’s in Sweden. St. Pete is growing up, and again, it goes back to the governance. In some cases, the governance allowed things to happen, for an example in my neighborhood I get to live, work, and show. That is huge. I’ve been talking to other communities about you want to revitalize an area and make it go from a dangerous area to a cool area that houses went from $19,000 to $450,000 in five years. You want the tax base to go up then allow for certain things to happen and then have a long enough range of time to not allow other businesses to come in that will ruin that nucleus of what you’re building to bring the tax base up even higher-
Duncan: -because you’ll price out the artist, you will lose the cool thing that made that neighborhood safe. I can point to Ybor, it went from where I worked as an artist pretty derelict, but pretty relatively safe, to where it became nightclubs and it definitely went downhill from there. I mean, just looking at the amount of police they have to have versus the amount of police they had prior to art coming up, became cool, nightclubs moved in, and then it went down.
Joe: So, that’s not a classic example really of gentrification, that’s more of they used a vibe to bring in a business style that killed the vibe.
Duncan: They allowed a business. I’m not blaming governance in particular, but they allowed developers to do it. For an example I’m dead set against that in our neighborhood. And then sometimes, for an example, I was against breweries.
Duncan: I was wrong. They are craftsmen, they have a place in the warehouse arts district, a very important place. And it was kind of funny because I was having a meeting about me being adamant that no, I don’t want to see this in my neighborhood. I decided to go to a brewery, and I saw that I was completely wrong, that this was not 10 beers for $10. The only difference was the demographics were a bit younger and they were appreciating the beer just as someone in a wine bar would appreciate a glass of wine. But I would be dead set against nightclubs moving into our area because I think that changes the element and the thought process of what that neighborhood is about.
Joe: Okay, so going back to gentrification. You know, traditional definition of its nightclubs changes the vibe, what about these 12, 15, 20 story condos that are $400,000 for a one bedroom?
Duncan: Well, for an example, I would love to see more of that in other neighborhoods than mine. [Chuckle]
Joe: Got it. [Chuckle]
Duncan: There is such a need worldwide, not just the United States, for workforce housing.
Duncan: I see it with my employees, but there’s places for that, that can be on the edges of this. But if you ruin that initial thrust, you’ll be able to have it grow over 10, 15 years, but the rest of the time you’re going to be fighting the elements that came in. Whereas if you have a 100-year view, St. Petersburg is going to be known for the city of the arts for many, many years as long as they run it right.
Joe: Right. So, it’s interesting, so the key what you’re really bringing out here is you have to let it incubate long enough to really put its roots in?
Joe: Yes, okay.
Duncan: And allow ownership.
Joe: Right, and sort of gentrification in the long-term is somewhat inevitable, but if you do it right you can at least gentrify in a way that doesn’t kill the character.
Duncan: Well said. [Laugh]
Joe: Okay, because you’re pointing at me and smiling but you can’t hear that on the podcast, so.
Duncan: Well, I’ve got to tell you that’s well said because they could kill it.
Duncan: I don’t think they will, I think that because they’ve done things like the live, work, show, which are brilliant. You’ve got to follow codes, so that’s absolutely mandatory, but you can allow for things to happen and not try to regulate every square inch.
Duncan: Because artists do need the freedom to be able to do some of that to make it a cool place.
Joe: Again, it’s just like one of those levers where it’s like if you make it cool, but in a slightly unattractive way, you know, you’ll stave off- Because the cooler you make it, the sooner the $450,000 condos get there, you know, that’s just then and there’s a speed to that. And if you can keep the grunginess as long as possible as the sort of incubation period, you know, then you have the best chance of putting the deepest roots in so that you can be a city of the arts for, you know, when you eventually get to the point where you’re bussing the starving artist over to the 10 beers for $10 back to their affordable housing. It’s like 40 minutes on the bus route.
Duncan: But you can attract, I mean, I have a neighbor that is doing a large project there all based on arts and entertainment. Daddy Kool is moving there which is really great. I mean, it’s everything I wanted to see. So, it’s getting the right-minded developers, the right minded governance to be able to keep it that targeted so that 100 years from now people coming to St. Pete- Do you know that 20.3% of the visitors to St. Pete come here to go to some cultural event whether it be music, or museums, or art galleries, or art festivals, or whatever? And the city is coming up so I’m very grateful for what they’re doing, but there was a time period where we were getting very little money, if any, for the arts. And we were getting a reputation as an arts town, like you’ve got to support that. And I think they’re really trying on a state level they need to certainly try. Under Governor Scott – prior to Governor Scott – cultural institutions got to share $200 million across the state. That fund is now $2 million.
Duncan: So, it’s very difficult for the museums in particular to sustain all their outreach, all the free things they do in a community when they don’t have that income. It’s really tough on them.
Joe: I always find that interesting. Museums are aggregators of content and there are really very few if any examples of those entities that can exist without either government or private philanthropic support. There’s few that can say I have this brand I built, I have this art, I charge an admission, you know, like Busch Gardens, right? Busch Gardens can support itself without philanthropy and without government assistance because, you know. And I don’t think there’s anybody that doesn’t agree that art is vital to a healthy community. So, how did we end up in this place where aggregated art and these beautiful buildings isn’t self-sustainable?
Duncan: But it’s never been sustainable, and it always required people stepping in both government and individuals to supplement that. Because you mentioned Busch Gardens, well it’s not $89 to go to the MFA, you know? It’s $10. And you get an incredible experience. And so, the money has to come from somewhere because the amount of cost of bringing in a show and sustaining a show are astronomical.
Joe: But, you know, if that was the case for a concert and they were going to bring in artist X and that same logic I’m sure they just wouldn’t have the concert, right?
Duncan: Right, well because museums and some of the other institutions, I mean, that’s what makes our mark on the world. It needs to be supported from that aspect because not everyone can afford to go to a particular concert, but they can hear it on a radio. But with the museums they have an important place in our community. And they need to be supported on all levels whether it’s individual level, corporations, and because this is what makes your mark. It’s not just making it a nice town to live in, this is what makes businesses money to want to move here are those things that the quality of life issues.
Joe: I mean, that’s the conversation always is as much as we say education is important, if we didn’t educate people, they wouldn’t have the skills to be in the workforce to drive the economy and art is just an equally valuable piece of that whole engine.
Duncan: Yeah, it’s not an add-on, it’s not a fringe, it’s part of the fabric.
Duncan: It’s really important that people understand how important it is to their job even though they’re not related to it that a visitor here or that you attend, and you support the museums not just by donating money but showing up.
Joe: Right. So, we’re doing great in St. Pete, what can we do better?
Duncan: Advertise it more nationally. For an example, I opened up the Wall Street Journal today and there was a quarter page ad talking about Texas and the arts. It was showing a mural, it was showing a woman shopping, but that instant picture, it’s that kind of support. There’s a tremendous amount of money that comes in with the bed tax money. And I’ve been really working hard to put my voice in that when they’re advertising the arts and they put a one-inch square of image of the Dali and maybe an one inch square of the Chihuly collection in that, that’s not telling the world that St. Pete has art. It’s not making it the arts destination. For an example, when we had the BP scare of the oil, the beaches lost a tremendous amount of business, 30 and 40% I think is the figure. Downtown saw a lot less because there were people that were coming here just to go to the Dali, and the MFA, and Florida CraftArt. And they were coming here just for that. So, it didn’t affect them going out to the beach. Do we want the tourists to come in and get burnt on the beach in three days and then go why am I here for the rest of the four days?
Duncan: No, we have something to show them and to relieve their sunburn. Come downtown. And I would like to see, again, Jeff Danner proposed this, I would love to see fast transit from downtown, we have something no other city, or not many cities have. We have a first North and we have a first South. From my studio I could be downtown in four and a half minutes, I can be out at the beaches in about eight, that’s brilliant. Compare us to any other community around us, I mean, do you really like driving across the bridge or North on 19? Not really. We have something that could be a mass transit and what I would really like to see the city get is a cultural center that John Collins – who is such a bargain for the city – if there could be a cultural center and a conference center combined, not a convention center, something that we can house 2,000 people. For an example, with the conference that was just here last week, that was one of the sticking points, are we going to have enough space to bring the whole conference together for particular events, opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies. And we made it because of the Mahaffey, but we lose business because we don’t have that conference center here. I’ve been told that hotels were the problem. Well, we’re seeing more hotels being built downtown, but we have a bunch out at the beach. So, if there is a way to bridge that gap and Jeff Danner suggested that and has been working on getting that mass transit. And so now we’ve just opened up a lot of hotel rooms, we’ve exposed tourist or visitors here not only to our beaches, but the culture downtown, but what if they had to walk through a cultural center to get to the conference center? Then every entity, every musician, every organization, the dance, Helen French’s group, our group, the Chihuly would have exposure and space to teach, to have live performances, to do all these other things. So, we need the space to do that and the will to make that happen.
Joe: That’s a great idea. And really right now the land up and down central is still affordable and there’s plenty of good big plots.
Duncan: I’m thinking a little bit more, you know, that way.
Joe: A little bit towards the Morean…
Duncan: Yeah, there’s a big parking lot that is filled today, but will it be in seven years?
Joe: About 82 acres worth that’s what we’re talking?
Joe: That feels like it’s in the works and the renderings that I’ve seen certainly have some conference base.
Duncan: Well, they’re talking conference and they’re also talking cultural, but they’re not talking a combined effort which I think would end up attracting more money from the bed tax money that could be pulled in, more tax money from the state of Florida, and bring more visitors here to St. Pete.
Joe: That’s a great idea. Well, I’ve enjoyed the conversation.
Duncan: Thank you, I hope I didn’t talk too much.
Joe: You didn’t.
Joe: We end each show with a shout out, someone that’s potentially under the radar a little bit that’s doing cool stuff that you want to give some good attention to.
Duncan: Katie Deits from Florida CraftArt who has incredible dynamo personality and has really done great things for that organization. And that is the hardest working person I know. I have seen her at 7:00 in the morning breakfast meetings and on the same day 10:00 at night finishing up where having hit all these different things during the day. So, Katie Deits I would say the director of Florida CraftArt.
Joe: Wonderful. And I want to give some appreciation to you, understanding your marketing and business acumen and how you’ve brought that and really worked hard to give that to other artists in addition to giving them the space and addition to giving the community a great entity in a cool spot. You’ve made that place, you had a big part in making that place, and I think you’re doing everything right and it’s very, very valuable to St. Pete.
Duncan: Thank you. I don’t know that we’re doing everything right. We’re faking it until we’re making it. [Chuckle]
Joe: That’s right too, that’s right too. Thank you, sir.
Duncan: Thank you.
[End of episode- 00:45:02]
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About the host
Joe Hamilton is publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst, co-founder of The St. Petersburg Group, a partner at SeedFunders, fund director at the Catalyst Fund and host of St. Pete X.