Celeste Davis brings designer’s eye, curatorial vision to Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts

Celeste Davis took over as the executive director of Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts and is leading the organization in its mission to unite Tampa Bay businesses to champion arts and culture for a prosperous community.

BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — St. Pete native Celeste Davis took over as the executive director of Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts (TBBCA) in February of 2021, leading the organization in its mission to unite Tampa Bay businesses to champion arts and culture for a prosperous community.

An English major from Spelman with a master’s degree from George Washington University, Davis knows what it is to combine both the love of arts with a business owner’s concerns. She had a successful interior design firm in Washington, D.C., was selected by the Washington Post as a “designer to watch,” and chosen to do a room for the National Symphony Orchestra show house.

“I think I’ve always been interested in the arts. I wouldn’t say that I was a particularly good artist, but I’ve always been drawn to things that I find attractive or beautiful or interesting,” Davis acknowledged. “I take so much pleasure in looking at artwork, reading about artists, particularly artists of African descent, and really studying and learning and growing so much from that.”

When a family illness brought her back to St. Petersburg, she quickly found ways to bring her love and knowledge of art to the local community. She joined the team of volunteers at The Woodson African American Museum of Florida and was soon installing and curating exhibitions, including the Willie Daniels exhibition. She also partnered with the Al Downing Jazz Association for a month of programming for Jazz Appreciation Month.

The experiences at the Woodson sparked “a deep interest in the presence of African Americans in the arts,” Davis noted.

Along the way, she returned to school at New York University and got a certification in Fine Art and Furniture Appraisal – a program in which she learned “so much about the market, marketing — what makes for a wise investment in art.”

The program and her work at the Woodson “really affirmed so much about the visual arts that I love,” she said. “And from there, I actually started to do the discussions at the Woodson, which we still do three years later: Curious Collector Conversations.”

The talks have covered not only visual artists, including Amy Sherald, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and photographer Carrie Mae Weems, but various African Americans in leading positions in the art world. Those include Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, a $16 billion fund, who said Davis is an example of a Black arts leader who “has the ability to really change the narrative.”

Another conversation discussed the Studio Museum in Harlem, which “has a deep imprint on African-American artists and emerging artists in the process,” she noted. Yet another focused on the Dean Collection, started in 2014 by Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean and Alicia Keys.

The Woodson/Curious Collector also partnered with the Museum of Fine Arts for the Derrick Adams exhibit, featuring a Curious Collector conversion with Adams. “It was just a really great partnership; I’d like to see more of that in the city,” said Davis.

Today, as executive director of TBBCA, Davis brings her arts and business expertise to the nonprofit, which was founded in 1989 as one of a handful of national Business Committees for the Arts. As part of the private sector network and national pARTnership Movement of Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit is “unique.”

“It’s a nonprofit, and we take no public money. It is all private donations and partnerships we are able to form with businesses, business leaders, and the business community — and they make donations in support of arts and culture in Tampa Bay. It puts our organization in a very unique category — we don’t take public money, but we are able to provide a great service for the arts and culture community in Tampa Bay.”

Davis affirmed that people tend to want to live and work in a place that is enriching and fulfilling in multiple ways. The arts, she said, make a city a desirable place to be. “So as a business model, you think, if I want to attract the top talent to my company, a thriving arts community is really important.”

The organization’s programs include the Charlie Hounchell Art Stars Scholarship, which has awarded over $215,000 in financial tuition assistance to more than 85 Tampa Bay area students, most of whom attend public high schools.

It also funds artists through the TBBCA Chalk Walks it sponsors throughout the greater Tampa Bay area and presents its annual Impact Awards recognizing leaders in the arts community.

Davis is optimistic about the diversity initiatives impacting arts throughout the country and sees evidence of the changing wave in Tampa Bay.

“I think that like the rest of the country, our area has awakened to diversity, inclusion, and looking beyond the ‘typical’ — and I can see that across the board,” Davis relayed. She pointed to a recent Instagram image shared by Fairgrounds St. Pete, which pictured a white woman posing before Zulu Painter’s Mermaid Motel Mural – which features a beautiful, brown-skinned mermaid.

Davis said she appreciated the photo as an example of moving into a place where “African Americans can be identified as being a part of everything. When I saw that woman who saw herself in that Black mermaid, I think that’s real movement.”

She also pointed to the growing appreciation of both established and contemporary Black artists and their work coming to area museums, including St. Pete digital artist Nick Davis, recent Museum of Fine Art shows featuring Gio Swaby, Derrick Adams, and artists including Dr. Dallas Jackson, who was recently shown at The Woodson, and featured in a Curious Collector conversation.

She acknowledges there is work to do to bring more art to communities throughout the Bay area.

“I think that the way that most art communities develop is that it’s like a wheel; you’ve got the center of the wheel, and then you’ve got all of these other art experiences that come from the center out,” she mused.

She believes that the work includes discovering and supporting the “really rich art experiences” happening within the community. She also hailed Creative Pinellas’ recent SPACEcraft mobile art project as a model for bringing more accessible art experiences into communities throughout the county.

For more information on Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts, visit www.tbbca.org.

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