Carla Bristol closed Gallerie 909’s storefront, but the gallery will continue with pop-up exhibits around town.
BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – The first story printed in The Weekly Challenger about a new art gallery opening up on the Deuces called Gallerie 909 was three and a half years ago. It opened up to great fanfare with food, music and internationally renowned African artist William Kwanena-Poh. That April back in 2014 was the day that the much talked about “renaissance” of 22nd Street started taking hold.
Gallerist Carla Bristol asked herself what would she rather be doing and her corporate day job was the last thing on her list. She took a chance and opened a gallery that would feature works from local black artists to artists coming from as far away as South America and Bangladesh.
The gallery livened up the area, gave black artists an outlet to showcase their work and gave Bristol a storefront to display her lively, loving personality.
So when she announced that the gallery would be shutting its doors, it floored many people.
“The shift of having Deuces BBQ leave…that was a huge impact,” said Bristol. “It immediately took the energy of the area back to three years ago because now two-thirds of the building isn’t filled.”
Bristol said on any given Saturday or Sunday, there would be car after car pulling up to get some barbeque and many would wander over to her gallery to see the goings-on.
“There’s a certain energy that goes with that, plus you have four or so advocates over there, especially the owner. Every time somebody comes in, ‘Oh, have you been over to Gallerie 909 yet?’ Constantly walking people in the door to make sure they knew.”
Bristol said she also made sure she brought people over to the barbeque joint. If she had an event, it benefited other businesses along the street and likewise.
“I knew when I came in that it would be three to five years before this area turned. Everything was trending. You finally had a business next door that was viable and sustainable and growing, but none of us were there yet. All of us were still basically just investing in the community.”
Bristol lived through the ceiling leaking and water seeping in from the other shop. She understood with older buildings you may have issues. She suffered through the loss of artwork from water damage, but when the foot traffic stopped, she had to move on.
Finding a new space in the area has proven to be almost impossible, but Bristol assures that Gallerie 909 is open, just the physical space has closed.
“So I just want the public to know that Gallerie 909 isn’t going anywhere. I mean, the space is gone but Gallerie 909 is still very present in and beyond our community.”
Something as important as an outlet for black artist to showcase their work is invaluable.
For instance, the tattoo artist Brain Storm had his first exhibit and sold his first painting at Gallerie 909.
“I think I gave voices to a lot of artists who were here already. They were already everything that they are today, just not having the opportunity,” said Bristol.
And opportunities she gave. Between her gallery and the Black Arts Film Festival she founded, more than 60 artists have come through her doors. She gave opportunities to those who may not have been welcomed in other spaces and opportunities to those new to the game.
Bristol will have pop-up art and fashion shows around town in different spaces until she can find a building within the community she loves. She has also had the opportunity to secure collections for several large companies.
“So, art is still going to be sold,” she said.
Bristol may not be the first African-American to own an art gallery in St. Pete, but no one else has tackled the task of actually integrating the arts with the community as much as she has or deliberately setting out to host art festivals free of charge to the artists and patrons.
“It wasn’t a profit making, profit-seeking venture, it was more out of the need to have it happen and have it happen right here…to invest into this community.”
Born and raised in Guyana, an English-speaking country in South America next to Venezuela, Bristol came to New York with her family. She worked in corporate America in New York and in the Tampa Bay area for 21 years until one day she saw a “For Rent” sign on 22nd Street South.
At that moment, Gallerie 909 was born. Within three weeks her doors opened and the rest is art history. She eventually quit the corporate world and made art her full-time job.
So in addition to giving opportunities to artists from all around the world, founding the Black Arts and Film Festival, she found time to create a private label brand called “Jamii” where she makes handmade one-of-a-kind clutches. The word Jamii means community in Swahili, which is exactly what she holds so dear.