ST. PETERSBURG – For decades, the sprawling warehouse district on the northern edge of Midtown was as lifeless as the dried-out, wheat-colored grass that surrounded the mostly abandoned buildings.
The district sprang up after the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad built a freight depot at 420 22nd St. S. in 1926. Forty-one years later, the depot closed and the commerce around it gradually crumbled.
In 2000, the St. Petersburg Clay Co. and its ceramics operation moved into the former depot, but it was not until 2010 that the warehouse district mounted a comeback.
That was the year Duncan McClellan, a renowned glass artist, moved his operation from Tampa’s Ybor City to St. Petersburg, where a blossoming arts community was gaining national attention. Before it suspended publication at the end of 2012, the magazine AmericanStyle ranked St. Petersburg as the top midsize city for art three years in a row.
McClellan transformed a former tomato packing plant at 550 24th St. S. into a glass art utopia – and his home. In the process, he helped transform the seedy warehouse district into a trendy arts mecca where more than 200 artists now work.
“I know art can really change a neighborhood,” he said.
Not just artists are noticing. On the second Saturday of every month, when dozens of galleries and museums around town open their doors to the public in an event called ArtWalk, people who were once reluctant to venture south of Central Avenue are visiting the shops run by McClellan and his neighbors.
“To a lot of people, Duncan is a savior in many ways,” said Michele Tuegel, who runs a cozy gallery at 320 Central Ave. and helped start ArtWalk two decades ago.
On the southern edge of the warehouse district, which stretches from First Avenue N. to 10th Avenue S. between 16th and 31st streets, another art establishment is beginning to attract attention, too.
The Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum at 2240 Ninth Ave. S. became a stop on the ArtWalk tour in January. The modest museum – a red-roofed, yellow-and-white building that was once the office of the Jordan Park public housing project – unveils a new exhibit in its one-room gallery every month. Much of the art is contributed by the community.
Although the area’s image is improving, many of ArtWalk’s attendees are scared to venture deep into the warehouse district at night, said Terri Lipsey Scott, chairwoman of the Woodson museum’s board.
“The trolley (carrying ArtWalk visitors) makes its way here, and it’s filled with white riders,” Scott said. “They are afraid to get off the trolley because of the area.”
In June, the Salvador Dali Museum hosted a trolley tour that made a noon stop at the Woodson museum, Scott said. Several of the riders marveled at the museum’s African art exhibit, Scott said, and several returned that night with friends.
“There’s a comfort level when you can do it en masse,” Scott said.
There were no trolleys in the early days of ArtWalk and only six or seven galleries, including the Museum of Fine Arts. Nor was ArtWalk a monthly event; it had a loose bimonthly schedule.
Tuegel used to participate in art shows, but now dedicates her Central Avenue gallery and most of her time to the work of 60 artists from around the globe.
The ArtWalk’s founders were a “loose-knit group” who came together to market their institutions as a unit, she said. They also wanted to debunk the myth that art was only for the rich.
From 1988 to 2004, Tuegel was director of the nonprofit Florida Craftsmen, one of the artist organizations that kick-started ArtWalk – then known as the Gallery Hop. It became ArtWalk about seven years ago.
While she can’t give an exact history, Tuegel said, “I think we were probably one of the first cities in the U.S. to have an art walk.”
By the mid-‘90s, the founders of ArtWalk became known as “pioneers of the arts community,” Tuegel said. People later called art an “anchor for downtown revitalization and culture.”
In its first decade, ArtWalk saw slow but steady growth. Sales weren’t great; word-of-mouth was the biggest asset. The St. Petersburg Times would often sponsor ArtWalk to help with expenses.
By 2000, Tuegel said, there were about 12 galleries in ArtWalk. Today it comprises more than 30 galleries across five arts districts: The Waterfront Arts District, Edge District, Central Arts District, Grand Central District and Warehouse Arts District.
Although it has grown dramatically in size and popularity, ArtWalk has maintained its ethos: art education and artist exposure. “The root of any creative community is supporting the artists,” said Tuegel.
In the warehouse district he helped establish, McClellan’s operation stands out.
Rope lights stream high above brown wicker seats and a large patio surrounded by a lush, green yard outlined with trees. A walkway connects two green warehouses.
The front warehouse displays the work of 40 international artists, most of which is blown glass. McClellan rotates exhibits and flies in the featured artist for a month, which he said is “very good for creating the buzz.”
The artists provide demonstrations in the 2,400-square-foot rear warehouse – a sweltering hot shop that smells of sweat and torch fire. Because of the extreme heat, the hot shop is closed from June to September.
The front warehouse also contains a massive glass shower, two kitchens and a bedroom.
McClellan is so connected to his work that he and his wife, Irene, live in their gallery.
His hot-shop artists, Jacob Stout and Mariel Bass, craft their own art and assist the featured artists. They said that creating glass art is an intricate process that requires at least two people. “Generally, hot-glass-making is a team sport,” Stout said.
McClellan sponsors local events, donates money to various charities and provides glass-art education for inner-city youth and students of all grade levels.
He is self-funded, but donors contribute to programs. He said that ArtWalk generates attention and money.
Meanwhile, at the Woodson museum, a young, Jamaican-born visual artist named Sharon Norwood opened her first solo exhibit for the April ArtWalk.
Norwood graduated from the University of South Florida in Tampa with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
Norwood – who is now a museum volunteer herself – visited the museum several times and became acquainted with its volunteers. This led to the invitation to open her exhibit there.
“The ArtWalk really made a difference for me,” she said.
Until the museum’s invitation, Norwood said, she thought that her art’s controversial and political themes of identity would force her to move to a state known for art like New York or California.
“I attempt to rewrite and give a different narrative to popular images of blackness,” she said. “It is like reading a book and imagining yourself as one with the characters.”
The museum embraced her aesthetic and handled all the marketing. “I could show my work without having to censor it,” Norwood said.
In addition to visual art, the museum features a musician from the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association at each ArtWalk.
If you go
ArtWalk runs from 5 to 9 p.m. on the second Saturday of every month. For a map and list of venues and trolley stops, go to stpeteartsalliance.org.
Mark Wolfenbarger is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.