Mitzi Gordon, St. Pete's Creative Scene
Mitzi Gordon talks art washing, car painting and her emotional departure from Creative Pinellas.
On this episode of SPX, Mitzi Jo Gordon gives us a look inside the St Petersburg creative scene. From defending St. Pete against gentrification and art washing to putting our murals on the world stage, Mitzi's unique insider perspective on the role art plays in the St. Pete Renaissance is wonderfully insightful. Mitzi also opens up about her time at Creative Pinellas and the events that made her walk away.
- Mitzi Gordon's creative process is an investigative one. She approaches her work from a journalistic perspective, looking inside and outside of the organization for ways to best convey a client's mission and purpose.
- The Shine Festival is thriving in its third year. Again, the festival will bring sixteen new murals to St. Petersburg in early October. This year, the festival is looking for new ways to engage with the community, and may be partnering with local schools to bring art inside.
- On supporting local artists: "I would say all but maybe five percent of my budget goes toward supporting directly these local creative people. So that's also really gratifying...I can do a lot with a little and that comes from experience."
- Mitzi credits her experience with Creative Pinellas to helping build her structural and administrative skills, "I feel better equipped to know how to achieve the things I want to achieve with some of these [upcoming] projects because of that time."
- On leaving Creative Pinellas: "I’m really happy to say that it was a catalyst...They brought in a new director as well as two other contracted staff so they wound up with a total of four, and they began to put together some granting and specifically fellowship programs which is different from a traditional grant because it doesn’t come with all of the strings attached."
- On the economic impact of the arts in St. Petersburg: "There’s definitely a wealth of cultural assets and everybody in the marketing arena who markets this region as a destination is including those assets and those cultural activities in their messaging, then why not the [arts] funding? Because it would stand to reason that everyone already knows, of course, the arts mean business."
- Mitzi has begun holding Creative Placeholding conversations throughout the region, "And I specifically called it Creative Placeholding as opposed to a more familiar term that you may hear in relation to some of these topics which is Creative Placemaking because I felt that our place is in many ways already made."
- These conversations center on the preservation of St. Pete's "magic", "So what do you do if you know a storm is coming? You identify the things that you want to preserve and you take steps to hold onto those things, and maybe you can’t save everything, but if you save the right things then you don’t tip the balance toward vanilla."
My process stems from my experience as a journalist. So, no matter how creative-minded the work is I always approach it from that research perspective, and so it’s about interviewing, listening, and collecting information, and then starting to see what kind of themes develop from that."
Mural by: J&S Signs
Mitzi Gordon is a long-time advocate for the arts community in Pinellas County, and especially the city of St. Petersburg. As Executive Director of Creative Pinellas, Gordon had a major hand in shifting the scales in arts funding. Her involvement with Creative Pinellas resulted in a hard-fought victory, garnering a grant of $300,000 from Pinellas County Commissioners to support Creative Pinellas’ efforts as an agency, as well as supply project monies to support local artists’ endeavors.
Despite her exhaustive efforts to secure those funds, Gordon found herself staring at a brick wall. Her board at the time was unwilling to agree on how the funds should be spent. Battling stress-related sickness and seeing no clear option forward, Gordon made the emotional decision to step down. Now, she says, that decision was the right one, and it has lead to a stronger, healthier organization with the ability to advocate for Pinellas County’s art scene.
But stepping down from Creative Pinellas has not taken Gordon out of the game. The recent Regional Arts Summit, driven in part by Gordon, yielded some surprising economic figures: local artists pump nearly a quarter of a billion dollars into the local economy. Yes, billion, while the average yearly income of local artists is only $18,000, according to an article by Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. These figures serve to ground Gordon’s positioning of the arts as cultural and economic assets in Pinellas County – assets that the marketing and tourism industries are happy to commodify and sell. Recent Tampa Bay Times articles have addressed the same issue, focusing on St. Pete’s now-famous public mural art.
If, as Gordon says, we are to practice “Creative Placeholding,” to keep the magic of St. Pete alive, and if we agree that much of that magic comes from the creative and artistic feeling of St. Petersburg, one question arises. How can we preserve, grow, and support art and its creators in a way that honors the value they create for the community?
"There’s definitely a wealth of cultural assets and everybody in the marketing arena who markets this region as a destination is including those assets and those cultural activities in their messaging, then why not the [arts] funding? Because it would stand to reason that everyone already knows, of course, the arts mean business."
Mural by: Pixel Pancho
Table of Contents:
(0:00 – 1:29) Introduction
(1:29 – 2:47) Current Projects
(2:47 – 4:05) Creative Process
(4:05 – 5:14) Green Bench Monthly
(5:14 – 9:43) The Shine Festival and Carmada
(9:43 – 11:11) Creative Pinellas Pt.1: Life After Leaving
(11:11 – 16:01) Creative Pinellas Pt.2: Time as Director
(16:01 – 18:59) Creative Pinellas Pt.3: Changes Since Leaving
(18:59 – 22:32) Creative Pinellas Pt.4: Original Board Formation
(22:32 – 23:34) Creative Pinellas Pt.5: Legacy and Influence
(23:34 – 37:13) Creative Place-Holding
(37:13 – 38:48) Gentrification Today
(38:48 – 43:09) Shoutouts
(43:09 – 44:11) Conclusion
Joe: Hey this is Joe Hamilton. I’m here with Mitzi Jo Gordon. It’s great to see you, it’s been a while.
Mitzi: Hello, I am happy to be here. It’s good to see you too.
Joe: Mitzi has a reputation for being involved in a lot of stuff. She’s a high capacity, high functioning person and now the involvement has gotten so big that she actually has a book in front of her with all the things that she’s doing written down just so she can keep track. When is it too much?
Mitzi: I’ve asked myself that. It’s important to keep a lot of lists.
Mitzi: You keep lists, you can do much more with your time and, you know, there’s definitely a priority system in my list. Some of the passion projects maybe wait a little bit longer than others.
Joe: And to your classic style, it’s actually a proper journal book and not Evernote or something like that.
Mitzi: Yeah, it is a hard copy book, well-worn. Started out as kind of a sketch book, but being a person of words it just naturally morphed into this. But I do admittedly have a hard time saying no. As a creative person, I get inspired by things.
Joe: Yeah, I hear you. Cool so, let’s start going down the list. What’s taking up the most of your time right now?
Mitzi: So, primarily my work. The things that I do get paid for, because I take on a lot of volunteer projects as well. But I’m working with a couple of different people to write copy for their websites to find their missions. So, kind of this space between copywriting and consulting. It’s not just about the text, but about getting into the concept. So working with the Nomad Art Bus to redo the content on their website and have it be more focused on what’s actually going on with them and the impact. Like I think their language had been kind of more general and I want to help them tell their story, their story is so rich and interesting. Also Pep Rally is a creative firm that’s based in Tampa that I work with a lot on individual client projects. And it may be anywhere from writing the mission and value statement, press releases, and website content for a new business that they’re helping by creating a logo and designing the interiors, a kind of come on to their team as a writer and apply my skills to the different projects that they take on. And I like that because it’s always something different.
Mitzi: Every month it’s a new challenge and I think I need that.
Joe: Do you have a Process that you can speak to? A creative process when you go meet with Nomad Art Bus folks?
Mitzi: My process stems from my experience as a journalist. So, no matter how creative minded the work is I always approach it from that research perspective, and so it’s about interviewing and listening and collecting information, and then starting to see what kind of themes develop from that. Also, there’s outside research. So, not just speaking to people within, whether it’s the client within the company or within the organization like Nomad, but also doing my own outside research. Looking at similar projects, thinking about how these clients may be different and, you know, where they fit within the market. So yeah, a lot of research. I tend to collect way more than I need, and then start to whittle it down. That’s when the editor hat goes on.
Joe: And Carrie she’s doing…I think she’s doing some things with Ridge now…
Mitzi: She is.
Joe: …which is interesting. Yeah, Ridge is a cool company.
Mitzi: She’s a visual recorder, a really talented one and she now flies all over the country doing awesome on the spot drawings for them.
Joe: Very nice.
Mitzi: Yeah, yeah, really fun. So yeah, mostly in that area, my background is in journalism but I tend to prefer to work in these arenas. I don’t so much do journalistic writing anymore. Probably going to start doing a little arts coverage for a local direct mail publication called Green Bench Monthly.
Joe: Great. I read some of the stuff they’re selling.
Mitzi: So, I’m excited about that. They’re new and I love new projects.
Joe: What do you know about the origins of it? I know that the folks there, the ownership agreement, they’re investing or they’re part of a Et Cultura I think a little bit or…
Mitzi: She did mention that, yeah. so I just met with Ashley. They’re a couple that owns the publication. They’ve had it for about a year.
Joe: Are they tied to the brewery?
Mitzi: They’re not and I did not have an opportunity to ask her how did that shake out just in terms of a branding issue or, you know, is there some sort of copyright issue? But, as I said, they’ve been around for a year, so I’m sure it’s already come up.
Joe: Well, the Benches have been around longer than the brewery anyway, so…
Mitzi: Right, so there’s that. She did mention Et Cultura. She specifically brought me in because they’re interested in arts coverage and they’re looking for somebody that has their hands in a lot of projects like me to be able to bring information to them from the community. So they’re excited about the festival. They’re going to be sponsoring it and I don’t know to what to degree so I don’t want to speak to that, but…
Joe: Oh, so you’re committing to a major sponsorship from them, I appreciate that. Just teasing, just teasing. And then, you’ve got The Shine Festival is a big piece of your time as well?
Mitzi: M-hm, and we’re a volunteer committee that I’m really happy to be on. We’re going into our third year and again are going to bring sixteen new murals to the city. The date has pushed back some. This year it’s going to be October 5th through the 14th for a number of reasons, weather and scheduling with other activities going on within the city. So that’s nice cause it gives us a little bit more time to work with. So, we’re out meeting with some potential sponsors now as well. My area on the committee tends to focus on traditional media. So, press releases, scheduling television appearances, that type of thing. And then off paper I also, because I can’t help it, get my hands involved with the community projects. So, looking at putting a mural in a St. Pete school, hopefully, with Pep Rally and possibly some other just fun colorful event based stuff like bringing the Carmada Art Car Program in for a parade, or maybe just like a parking lot party connected to… you know, last year we painted the street intersection. Carmada is a fun kind of connection to that idea. Again, taking the murals and putting them onto these objects or these unusual surfaces. My other passion project of, going on five years now, is continuing to grow in Tampa, so that’s where the primary festival now takes place every year. During Gasparilla Festival of The Arts we had the biggest footprint so far just this past March in terms of our presence in Kiley Garden and how the Art Car show was integrated with the overall festival, because when it started we were working with grant money from the arts council of Hillsborough County. I was specifically designated for expansion of the festival footprint in a way that incorporated local creative people and I had just had my car painted as an art car around that time and that was what gave me the idea. I was like, “I know there’s more people that are out here doing this. It’s got a fun like Florida vibe, you know, painted cars and so let’s give it a try.” The first year it was literally just like six art cars, two being painted live up in Kiley Garden and kind of nothing else going on around us and, you know, fast forward four years later this past March the festival actually relocated the entire emerging artists area up into Kiley Garden and because they moved it we’re able to add more emerging artists. So, normally they host ten and this year they hosted fifteen. Also, the art collectors in training and children’s activities tents were moved up into Kiley Garden. And signage, balloons, and more connectivity between that area and the main festival which just has the artist tents down in Curtis Hixon Park. So, that was really gratifying to see our growth and see it reach that point where it’s being fully embraced and really feels like a part of the festival that’s important and that has achieved its goals, you know, because it’s enabled the festival itself to expand and adding even just those five tents in the emerging artists section represents a significant opportunity for those artists.
Joe: Fifty percent growth. Anybody is happy with that.
Mitzi: Yeah. So, really excited for 2018 and hoping to bring in some new partners and have even more crazy art activities going on up there. We had six cars being painted live this year and that was a spectacle and they all came out incredibly. We have this really fun moment at the end of the festival, we are the first ones to leave the park actually because otherwise the cars would get trapped while all the people in the tents are trying to break down for hours and hours. Kind of once they clear the aisle they let all the Carmada cars down out of Kiley and it’s this little mini parade and it gets a little wilder every year, so that’s been fun.
Joe: That’s fun. That’s really great. It feels good to create something and see it just grow and…
Mitzi: Yeah. And to help artists even in a small way because, you know, the grant funding is still coming from The Arts Council of Hillsborough County to help support that ongoing program and I’m, from that grant, given a budget that I use to pay artists to paint cars, to pay a DJ to provide entertainment. I would say all but maybe five percent of my budget goes toward supporting directly these local creative people. So that’s also really gratifying.
Joe: That is and that’s a big number. That’s more than a lot of non-profits achieve so…
Mitzi: I can do a lot with a little and that comes from experience.
Joe: You’ve always been involved in a ton of stuff but even more so now that, say, you’ve taken your administrative hat off and enjoying the freedom of being able to move back and forth as you wish and how’s that process, moving away from Creative Pinellas to having a lot of different opportunities? How’s that been for your soul?
Mitzi: It’s been really good. It’s been very freeing. I mean, of course, I’m really grateful for the time that I had there and I know that the experience that I gained just in that short time and the people that I met, the different communities that I was able to visit are the foundation upon which what I’m doing now is sitting, you know, because it just gave me this running start. But my personality is really better suited to work outside of the administrative field. Particularly, like art administration, because I’m so creative I really tend to want to get more hands on as opposed to structural. However, it helped increase my skills in that area. So, I feel better equipped to know how to achieve the things I want to achieve with some of these projects because of that time, and seeing what’s happened with Creative Pinellas in the subsequent two years since I left has also been a really great thing to see because I left at a sensitive time and that was a choice that I made for a number of reasons. The stress of that job was definitely having an adverse effect on my daily life and part of that was because of the way the job was structured at the time. Certainly it’s an inherently stressful position to be the director of any local arts agency for a region the size of Pinellas County. However, at that time it was also kind of just me. I had some resources that I could draw on but I was the only full-time contractor. There was no official paid staff. The agency was still very young and the board leadership had made a decision to keep the employees not as officially employees and I had a part-time person who worked with me on strictly the media content, which was my role prior to becoming the director. So, I also felt like I had already had my hand in the shaping of all of it and as the director that really started to become a little bit heavier of a burden as I went on, just for one person to try to do everything that was needed. Ultimately, my focus became specifically obtaining some funding from the county which was a success.
Joe: Yes, it was. I remember that. I think that’s right when we met. I remember I could see the stress and it was visceral and then luckily the relief when you were successful. It was a huge undertaking.
Mitzi: And something different from anything I’d ever done before. Incorporating certain of my skills, but also this huge learning experience. And I was really fortunate to have some solid mentors by my side during those times to help me through a greater understanding of the political processes that were involved. And when I chose to leave, again largely driven by like, stress related sicknesses that I was dealing with but also a feeling of kind of having my hands tied a little bit because we got this funding and I had developed a very specific budget related to the funding but was then, and this happens, doing some arm wrestling with the board of directors as they were structured at the time. It’s a very different board now, two years later, I’ll get to that, about how our funding would be spent, which was frustrating to me naturally because here’s the budget and we all agreed on it but now I wasn’t able to enact the things that I wanted and I felt like I’d already climbed to this mountain and I wasn’t getting the support that I really needed and I was just kind of burned out and I knew that if I hung on, I may wind up not where I want to be with this group. I knew that some board development needed to take place but that takes time, it takes years and essentially saying, “Ok, I crossed the finish line.” I got us to this point, I’ve turned the boat around, so to speak, and now the agency has some funding, there’s a little more visibility, and a growing support base when, you know, frankly when I came on it was still viewed very negatively because, for anyone that doesn’t know the history, if I can provide the history in brief, Pinellas County had a cultural affairs department for about thirty years and during the economic depression, 2008-09-10, it was slowly dismantled down to nothing and then seed funding from its dismantling was provided for the creation of a shoe-string agency, independent, so not a county department, as that was, but an independent agency designated as the local arts agency designed to ostensibly do the same work but with a fraction of the budget and, you know, one contract employee. And some of the people who were on the board at that time and who were part of making the decision to create that agency wanted to keep things scaled small for their own reasons. You know, they thought the other agency got too big, too much money was being spent. You know, many people argued, “Well, this is a cultural rich area that we need to spend that money and continue to invest in our arts resources.” A lot of debate about that back and forth, you know, but anyway. So by the time I inherited this agency a lot of the people whom it would serve were really frustrated. They felt like they weren’t getting the services that they needed from their local arts agency and I kind of learned that the hard way and I started a listening tour. I thought, “Well, the best way that I can really get my hands around this is to go out and hear from people. What do they want? What do they need?” And then that became the campaign for county funding. Fast forward to where I was, we got the funding, the agency is viewed a little more positively because I went out into the community in time. It wasn’t just this, “Well, who is this person and what are they doing?” and kind of put them on a little more stable footing and then it was basically like, “Right now, I’m giving the ball back to you and you can take it and run with it and do something great or you can argue amongst yourselves and let it all fall apart and so that was sort of my statement of “I’ve done what I can for this but I can’t be involved in any of the in-fighting” and I’m really happy to say that it was a catalyst. My decision to do that forced them to take certain actions. They brought in a new director as well as two other contracted staff so they wound up with a total of four and they began to put together some granting and specifically fellowship programs which is different from a traditional grant because it doesn’t come with all of the strings attached, not project based, so it’s really an infusion of support for the artists who receive it and they had to show results to the county commission because the commission is like, “Well, we just agreed to give you this money.” And so, it took some great steps forward due in no small part to some of the people who they brought in to work on projects there. Specifically, I’m thinking of Elizabeth Brincklow, who was with the city of St. Pete for so many years managing cultural affairs here. She came in to oversee that granting piece, and really made it a smart and helpful program and that just continues to grow, and their board also has shifted. They brought in some new voices to kind of out-weigh some of the dissenting voices that wanted to scale the agency small and thus have slowly kind of rolled off and it’s opened them up to really embrace many of the things that I was getting pushed back on. So, there’s a creative arts summit that’s coming up next month. Creative Pinellas is hosting in partnership with several other arts agencies, North Pinellas Cultural Alliance, Clearwater Cultural Alliance, etc. And, it’s basically a day-long event, at the Epicenter up in Largo area, to reveal the results of a yearlong economic impact study. You know, looking at business impact of arts activities, something that we all know is a real thing. But, couple of years ago I was getting push-back on whether or not there was value in conducting such a study and that was kind of one of the final straws for me because I was like, “It absolutely has to happen.” If we’re just now getting, and again this is 2015, county funding for the arts again for the first time in five years when the county and, you know, more specifically, this city, but overall there’s definitely a wealth cultural assets county wide and everybody in the marketing arena who markets this region as a destination is including those assets and those cultural activities in their messaging, then why not the funding? Because it would stand to reason that everyone already knows, of course, the arts mean business. But there was some tug of war on that, again I think, from people who just wanted to keep the arts side scaled small.
Joe: What was their… Why? Did they say…?
Mitzi: They were saying a return on investment. A lot of that…
Joe: Anti-bureaucracy kind of vibe, or…?
Mitzi: A lot of the commentary I was getting from people on the board at that time was not really backed up with a lot of…
Mitzi: Yeah, so it left me wondering like, I don’t understand, you’re on this board, why wouldn’t you support this? “Well, it’s just too much money. Uh, it’s not something that we want to invest in.” Because an economic study obviously costs money.
Joe: Well, how was the board formed initially? What’s the ownership structure? Have they ejected out of government ownership?
Mitzi: As an independent non-profit agency, so by the boundaries of their bi-laws.
Joe: Who chose out of the initial board form?
Mitzi: I’m not a hundred percent sure.
Joe: Was it mostly people out of the city or it was the city run the process?
Mitzi: No. I was not a part of the agency at that time, the previous director to me was more involved with it from the inception level. I just know from who was on the original board that it was a pretty wide representation in terms of geographically, somebody from different parts of the county, North, South, Central.
Joe: So, some thought sounds like it went to that at least.
Mitzi: It did. I just think that, particularly some people that had 8% I’m thinking of their particular…
Joe: John Doe.
Mitzi: I’m not gonna name any names. I mentioned that the former cultural affairs department had been dismantled. This was primarily done through the actions of a specific county commissioner and that person got on to the Creative Pinellas board. So if that person was basically saying “We’re spending too much money on the arts, this agency is overblown, we’re giving away grants to these artists but what’s the value?” And questioning that, and that’s their message that this person was delivering throughout their tenure on the board, they’re no longer on the board. It was a little confusing because then I’m trying to make this agency thrive and grow and I’m hitting these walls. So that was one of the biggest challenges, and frankly I don’t know how that all coalesced at the beginning. I inherited the board along with everything else when I became the Director, I did do one very important piece of board recruitment and I believe that the person who I recruited to be part of the board really helped in tipping the vote, so to speak, and bringing in later, after I left, other important voices that helped. And I think the crucial difference there between him, this is Ken Rollins, and some of the other people who were already on the board from the inception of the agency is that he was really embedded in the visual art scene, he had been Director of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, he was Interim Director of the Tampa Museum of Art, he’s an independent arts firm, little bit more finger on the pulse and not just conceptually. And certainly there were other people, Kathy Mayhem, who was very involved in North County. Unfortunately though, she had a lot of scheduling commitments and so her voice wasn’t always present when it was needed.
Joe: Did the group grow or it just always swapped somebody out?
Mitzi: It pretty much stayed the same up until…
Joe: Which was… How big was it?
Mitzi: …which was nine-ish people, but what that means is four are showing up to the meetings. And that wasn’t enough. And then I needed more people who were really understanding of the needs of the artist and the shape of the scene and that was somebody like Ken. After I left the agency some of the other people he recruited also had that difference from some of the other board members where they were a little more entrenched, and thus could bring that voice to the table. Because prior to that it’s my little voice against some pretty intimidating figures who are looking for potentially I think something that they weren’t gonna find, although… Well, ironically I think that economic impact study that I wanted to undertake, which eventually did get undertaken following my departure, was intended to do just that, was to provide them with this type of ROI data that they’re seeking. I guess what I meant by my comment is that I didn’t feel like there was really gonna be any pleasing them. It was a philosophical difference in terms of how they wanted to spend money and how the money was really needed by the people that we’re saying we’re trying to serve, the agencies that we’re saying we’re trying to serve. And I know you always have to strike a balance, cause you can’t make everybody happy, but yeah, I took it as far as I could and I’m really happy to see that it has continued to stabilize and provide more programming that’s useful to artists, business skills information and that types of programming as well as continue to expand these granting and fellowship programs that I know are helping people in a real concrete way.
Joe: It’s a nice legacy.
Mitzi: Thank you, thanks.
Joe: One of the things I love that you mentioned was the conversation tour that you went on. That’s a really cool idea, we participated in something, a weirdly bureaucratic version of that when we were working on the TBARTA website about transportation and that we did some Greenlight Pinellas stuff, we were working on their website. And it was a cool experience and I know that you recently have done sort of a variation on that, can you talk a little bit about the events you’ve been hosting?
Mitzi: Yeah. So at the beginning of this year I hosted five conversations called Creative Placeholding and there’s a public Facebook group now called Creative Placeholding Tampa Bay where people are invited to share research and information on this topic. The conversations were really designed to just get a diverse group of voices into one room together. The idea was sparked when I came back from my last trip to Miami, I’d go to Miami pretty consistently at least once a year since 2004, 2005 when I began going to Art Basel in December. It’s so close by and it’s such an international event, it seems counterintuitive for myself as someone who works in the creative industries to not be down there and somehow either be presenting a project or be at least meeting people and connecting with what’s going on. So I make it a point to go down there and over those years, obviously I’ve seen a lot of changes happen and very quickly, all things considered, cause Basel really only started in 2003 or 2004. So fast forward, just over a decade and it is exponentially greater in volume, in impact, and positive or negative, it depends on who you ask. So one of the things that I observed on my most recent visit was in the Wynwood District. I had the year before been interviewing some people about how the festival’s impacting them, impacting their business, impacting where they live and how that looks. And then also following some street artists to see what their experience is like just at the ground level of there’s stuff happening here, we’re gonna come down and try to make stuff happen too. There’s so many mixed feelings around this festival, and I’m sorting through all of that on my way home this last time and thinking about what I saw and all the things that I heard, and laying that next to a lot of the commentary that I heard when I was with Creative Pinellas. As the Director of the county’s local arts agency, you hear a lot of ideas and a lot of desires, a lot of comparisons. One of the ones that I tended to hear a lot was Art Basel, Miami. Bring that festival here, create the next Art Basel here, or something along those lines. When is this going to happen or how come we’re not doing something like that? My take on that was that we’re not Miami, we don’t have the same tax base that Miami does and we don’t have the same collecting scene that Miami does and we have to go down there and see it and see how it’s different to really understand that, I think, if you’re literally just viewing it from outside. And so what I wanted to do, where this all really started was come back and show – here’s a case study, let’s look at Wynwood, let’s look at Miami as a case study, and here’s what’s happened here over the last 12 years from a couple different perspectives, certainly there are numerous threads there. And then have a conversation about what lessons we can learn so that maybe, you know…
Joe: It seems like a deep conversation.
Mitzi: Oh, it was.
Joe: Yeah. To me that’s a conversation that the general public, I don’t know if… Did you get traction, did you get to do the…?
Mitzi: We had standing room only at the first one, now granted, it was at the Studio 620, it was an accessible place, it’s ahead for that kind of conversation.
Joe: I’m sure people would come to it, that’s a deep… Again, I think that’s almost like a… It’s a leadership conversation, if that makes sense, it’s a strategy conversation, it’s a business and administrative and then… Yeah.
Mitzi: Right. And as sometimes happens with my projects too, I’m coming into this with a lot of energy and excitement, not peeling back the surface all the way, like knowing okay, this is going to be a huge conversation but not knowing where it’s gonna take us, and kind of having to be okay with that too. So we had the first one in January, right after I got back.
Joe: That was at 620?
Mitzi: Yeah. More than 100 people came and we just had this tiny little panel, it’s like six people, and I showed a short film, a student film but a quality one, about gentrification issues in Wynwood specifically and how some of the development and what they were calling art washing was pushing out some of the original residents of, for example, Miami’s oldest Puerto Rican community.
Joe: So what is art washing? Can you define?
Mitzi: So that’s a term for when a developer specifically and strategically utilizes art, public art, murals, art events as a way of developing audience and improving a property and bringing in interest into an area. The slightly negative connotation that you hear there has to do with potentially A) taking advantage of the artist, and doing it without a broader plan in mind, it’s literally just a technique. Like oh, these white houses were really cheap so I had to buy them. I didn’t know what I was gonna put in them, but let’s just throw some murals up there and get some warm bodies in there, let’s just do something hip and cultural and then the people will come and we’ll start to make more money. And the audiences too that developers in this category are trying to cultivate aren’t necessarily resident audiences, and this is something else that this film dealt with, it’s a film called ‘Right to Wynwood’ as in who has the right to Wynwood? And there were interviews with residents of the area who were like, you know, we went to the galleries and they literally were like “You’re not coming in!” and feeling like it wasn’t a creative effort that reached out to the residents, but rather was designed to supplant. So it presented that point of view again, as a case study, as an example of here’s what happened in one city that I happen to know that people compare us to a lot, or aspire to be more like in certain ways. And this has changed some over the last few years, the conversation has changed and Saint Petersburg has also changed, but I wanted to present that point of view and I wanted to present some voices that I felt like were talking about these issues, in different places, and how this person’s talking in this restaurant and you overhear it at a bar and you overhear it in the living room, and the topic is coming up but they’re not all in the same room and maybe this person would benefit from hearing what that person has to say.
Joe: Did you feel like some of the art initiatives in Saint Pete were bordering on art washing? Was that a concern that made you…? Or was it more just the study of the process of gentrification?
Mitzi: It was more just the process and concerns about us aspiring to be like Miami, purely from that sort of feedback that I had received when I was with Creative Pinellas. I can’t point to a project now and say I feel like that’s happening, but I also think that in any place where there’s very cheap commercial property or a lot of revitalization going on that the danger always exists, and so it’s important to look at that too and for people to put some thought behind some of those efforts, thought in regard to how the residents are impacted, how the artists are impacted, as well as what the overall area or district is gonna look like in the future. And I specifically called it Creative Placeholding as opposed to a more familiar term that you may hear in relation to some of these topics which is Creative Placemaking because I felt that our place is in many ways already made. Certainly we’re growing, there’s development going on, but the things that make Saint Petersburg culturally rich and interesting and desirable, they’re already here. I love Bob Devin Jones’ comment about magic dirt, what is it that Saint Pete has that no other place has? He says magic dirt cause it’s almost ineffable, I mean you can’t really put your finger in any one thing, and I attended- there was a recent chamber function with Grow Smarter Initiative, and they were talking about what to hang on to that quality? I hear this in Ybor City too, I’ve done some reporting on economic development over there, of course that district has been through many changes, from arts into business and then they wanted to get back more into the arts but it’s hard to get the artists in because rents have been driven up. So our place is made in a sense, we don’t have to go in and create a thing where nothing exists, rather it was my feeling that we need to hold on to that character, what it is that makes this creative place so interesting and desirable, and how can we do that? Another comment that I return to a lot was related to me second hand, so I can’t quote the originator but the comment was that gentrification is like a storm, which is to say that you can’t stop it, that maybe okay, if gentrification is a dirty word then change, progress, development, it’s the hurricane and it’s coming as soon as you have this magic combination of factors: a place with the right charm, with the right size and the right kind of real estate market. So what do you do if you know a storm is coming? You identify the things that you want to preserve and you take steps to hold onto those things, and maybe you can’t save everything, but if you save the right things then you don’t tip the balance toward vanilla, is the concept. So we had five of these conversations and they moved around to different locations that I was looking to highlight, I’m on high this right now for the summer, the Facebook group continues and research continues. I actually just recently went through and highlighted in great depth a report from Seattle about the creation and preservation of cultural spaces, and 30 new ideas, some of them sky high, some of them very achievable, for things that that city might be able to do to preserve and also improve some of their cultural spaces and I thought wow, again, case study, great. This is an issue that happens all over the world, right? So I have no shortage of research to dig into. So, using the summer for research and thinking about how to take the conversation to the next level.
Joe: Did you record any of these?
Mitzi: I didn’t record them for sound, I did bring in a graphic recorder, it was Carrie. And she very graciously donated her time, so I have a visual documentation from three of the five sessions. As I said, these did move around and, in analyzing what came out of the conversations, all of the comments that I got which of course were coming from a lot of different directions, and the conversations touched on everything, from how the artist makes money and how do we create a successful buyers’ market to issues of race and how the city is divided and people talking about wanting a place at the table, but feeling disenfranchised and all of those emotions. Basically I’m looking at what we learned and planning for the fall to hopefully bring in some outside voices from other places, like Miami, or we have someone here who recently moved from Portland who hopefully I’m gonna get together and learn some things from and maybe could bring him in as a presenter. Because I think the more of that kind of perspective that we can get, the better off that will be. Also, I want to create some consistency in the location and the scheduling so that we can better build an audience for these conversations. Because who’s sitting in the chairs listening to the panelists is equally, if not even sometimes more important than who’s on the actual panel, because that’s where you’re gonna get…
Mitzi: …these different viewpoints, that’s where you’re gonna get action so, yeah. Right now I’m in the study phase and we’re looking to pick maybe one or two locations where it will alternate, do it on a consistent basis so that you know it’s this day every month and drop in, and participate in the conversation. And that’s an important point too for me, is that… Cause early on I was pinged a little bit for not having some sort of action plan, and people got this impression that wow, you’re just gonna hear everybody riled up but you don’t know what to do about it. It was like I don’t have the solutions and I guarantee you, there’s not a speaker that’s gonna come in here that will. However to me, and this goes back to my roots, again, in journalism, the conversation itself has great value and we learn things, we learn things from each other and connections are made, even an awareness of somebody else’s situation, that might ‘Oh, I should reach out to them’ and that is the part about it that really excites me, I mean does it mean that there won’t someday come some concrete idea out of this? Like oh, a community benefits agreement and we’re gonna push for that and… Yeah, that might happen but…
Joe: And it may have already happened, you don’t know who’s taking what they learned and thought about and the new ideas are planted in their head and they’re taking them into their life, and I’m sure there’s change that’s come out of that for the better.
Mitzi: I mean I still hear from a lot of people who participated early on and… Like that’s where that Seattle report was brought to me by someone who is invested in this and wants to see these conversations continue, and that’s what I bring to it is, I feel like, I can hold this space for these other people to come into and have an intelligent and respectful discourse about what is a difficult and touchy subject, yeah.
Joe: Yeah, it’s complex and people have feelings, and being able to articulate those feelings in their complexity is a huge value in and of itself. Do you feel gentrification happening? Maybe you’ll look back over time and you’ll say I felt one way then, I feel this way now. And you see projects and you’re like oh, that’s another big building and there’s a certain feeling to it and because it happens at such a glacial pace sometimes, and sometimes faster than slower that you can sometimes only feel it when you’re really looking back, but if by then it’s often too late, right? So being able to get that, I won’t say warning signs, but just having that mindset to be weary at it and to be aware of it more than weary, weary is probably a little bit too negative a word, but be aware of it. And that is probably the best protection against it, right?
Mitzi: Absolutely. And there’s real opportunity for education as well, because we’re bringing a former City Council member, or even, in Pinellas Park, the mayor to talk about how some of these processes happen at the city level. Cause a lot of time that’s where the finger gets pointed. And it gives people a chance to have at least a better understanding directly from some of these people about, well, here’s how it works from our end and here’s some of the things that we can do and here’s where it’s coming from development side. And in general it’s about promoting an understanding, giving people also a chance to be heard and yeah, hopefully planting some seeds for good things to happen.
Joe: And I was on the verge of going to a couple, I will definitely commit to being at any of the next ones that you do…
Mitzi: Thank you.
Joe: …cause they’re really cool. It might be a good candidate for Facebook Live, something to set up a web cam and just let it roll and…
Mitzi: Yeah, that’s a great idea. Yeah, I’ll look first to get it cranking again once the summer has ended.
Joe: So, I’ve enjoyed our time, we’ve covered a lot of stuff. One thing just a repeating question I like to ask, just because… And especially I’m interested to hear yours, cause you’re boots on the ground so much. Who is someone, what’s an entity or a person or an effort that you feel like is doing amazing things for Saint Pete, but hasn’t gotten enough attention or would benefit a little extra appreciation or attention there? And it doesn’t have to be just one, but if you’ve got one that jumps out of you, you have to give it a shout-out.
Mitzi: Oh yeah, definitely. Well, the first one that comes to my mind is the Nomad Art Bus. I’m not sure how much attention they really get. I see it cause it’s on my radar, but I still encounter people that have never heard of it before, and this is something that I feel is really operating through the mission, a very clear mission and really connecting and serving such a diversity of audiences. And it blows me away how much they have grown and what they have been able to achieve in the time that they’ve been around. So Carrie Bouche sent me a Facebook message or an email before she had a bus, because she had heard about my book bus, I do still have my little blue book mobile, which I know we didn’t talk about but it’s out there, doesn’t get out as much as it used to, but I’ll be taking it down to Miami to November for the Miami Book Fair, so that’s exciting. So I had this bus project locally, a creative community project and Carrie had reached out, she’s like ‘I’m thinking about doing this project and maybe you can talk me out of it’. And of course I didn’t, I was like ‘You absolutely have to do it, it’s fantastic’.
Joe: I’ve never said no to an idea, why should you?
Mitzi: Right. Yeah, it’s the wrong lady. And so I feel like I’ve been able to watch it grow from her initial concepts to… They’re now, they have their second bus, the first one… Not a fleet, the first one was put to rest, and now they have their second one which is really nice, new, able to provide all the services that they were wanting to use the old vehicle for, but they were bound by the confines of it’s an old bus. I feel like they have a really clear, strong vision. And as I said, they’re really enacting that vision and the programs that they do have such impact. They’re working with people in halfway houses, they’re working with developmentally disabled, they’re working with Head Start in Hillsborough county, which is a pre-K program for people in economically challenged situations. They’re really out there, connecting, and that’s why they have a bus and what they were designed to do. And then they’re not just for disadvantaged audiences, they’re also taking it to private schools and the funding that they get from some of those opportunities helps pay for them being able to visit a place that couldn’t pay for it.
Mitzi: So it’s just a really smart model and the people that are behind it, from the board to the teachers to Carrie herself are very thoughtful about every aspect, and where they put their effort, and what they support, and I just think it’s such an incredible and rich cultural program that gets out into the streets. And that has its own particular magic because they can connect with so many more audiences that way. So such a diverse range of people, adults to kids to every economic level, to every type of neighborhood and situation. And I think that has a lot of value. And of course they go Bay area, so Saint Pete is just one part of what they do, and that may be why, like I said, I still encounter people that haven’t even heard about this, but I feel like they’re very present here.
Joe: Yeah, and that’s a great shout out and I think that when people see them at the festivals they’re like oh yeah, and a big light goes on and then the challenge is just getting people to think about them between the events where they see them so that when it would be a good fit to bring them in, it’s top-of-mind, which I look forward to seeing in the work what you do, what are in the content to accomplish that. I think we put her shirts on StPeteThreads.com and so if you wanna support them they’re available there. And I think we actually still have the shirts that we did for Creative Pinellas, they are still on there as well, yeah.
Mitzi: Do you? That’s wonderful. I’ll have to check. I love it.
Joe: Cool, well I really enjoyed our time.
Mitzi: Me too, thank you!
Joe: It was good to catch up, it’s been – seems like – forever and as expected…
Mitzi: It goes fast.
Joe: Yeah, but you came in with a treasure trove of cool projects and it’s just great to know that you’re out there in our community and throwing all this goodness out there, so thank you so much for doing that.
Mitzi: Well, thank you. That means a lot.
Joe: Alright. Mitzi Jo Gordon, a pleasure and talk to you again soon.
Mitzi: Yeah, I’ll see you next time.
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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.