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Can art save South Hillsborough?

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image Young people dancing in the light at the Firehouse Cultural Center’s Circuit Breaker event last weekend. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Circuit Breaker photo gallery inside

By Mitch Traphagen

RUSKIN — Even in a cold global economy, art is red hot. Last week in London, the Frieze art fair put $350 million in art on the tables. One New York City art adviser, planning to attend the event and other satellite events for emerging artists, told Newsweek that her buyers were “itching to buy art, mostly works priced under $30,000.” New York City has long been an enclave for both art and artists and Los Angeles is taking steps to emerge as a world art destination. Sante Fe, New Mexico and Sedona, Arizona, as well as many other smaller cities are well-established meccas for both art and artists. And then, too, there is Paducah, Kentucky.

Art was one of the founding facets of Ruskin, along with collective hard work and education. Although the commune-oriented community has long since vanished, the area has continued to attract artists, despite that no formal plan exists to entice them. In nearby Sun City Center, both the creation and display of art is one of the city’s leading activities. The Art Club in Sun City Center offers a wide variety of classes and year-around exhibitions both at their location in the Community Association complex and in the SouthShore Regional Library.

On Friday night, with powerful rotating spotlights drawing in the sky, kids both young and old danced to a techno beat as they were bathed in checkered lights while a laser beam drew designs on the wall next to them. Children with remote controls in their hands drove plastic radio-controlled cars with magic markers attached, creating a fun and unique work of art on a large piece of paper as the cars raced. Others sat at easels, drawing their interpretation of a woman posing, or whatever entered into their minds. In the parking lot was a Tesla coil — a device capable of creating miniature lightning bolts — that served the purpose of demonstrating that art is not limited to pencils, paints and clay, even electricity can be used to create it, with a wand tracing electrical charges on paper held in front of the coil.

The event that kicked off Friday night and ran through Saturday was Ruskin’s new Firehouse Cultural Center’s Circuit Breaker — part of the annual Big Draw. In what otherwise would have been a dark corner of what could be considered downtown Ruskin, people came out to not just appreciate art, but to participate in it.

In New York City, the SOHO (an acronym of sorts meaning SOuth of HOuston Street) district has long attracted both artists and art lovers to the area noted for both artists’ lofts and art galleries. As artists began to move in to what were largely abandoned factories, the city eventually codified the area as an art enclave in 1971, allowing artists to both work and live in the buildings. In recent years, the formerly industrial area has gone more upscale and trendy and the success of the area is unqualified.

Could Ruskin become the next SOHO (SOuth HillsbOrough)? That remains to be seen, but the Firehouse Cultural Center is a step in that direction. While art communities are springing up in cities across the nation, the elements that make the difference between success and failure are nebulous. Some planned communities fail while others, such as New York’s SOHO, begin and thrive with no real planning at all — just a single spark that ignites it into a thriving and successful community.

Just over a decade ago, few artists would look to Paducah, Kentucky, as an art mecca. But then the city decided to provide an incentive. They would pay to relocate artists and would help to get them established in homes and in successfully operating businesses.

The Paducah Artist Relocation Program, operated by the Paducah Renaissance Alliance began in March of 2000 to foster both the arts and artists in the small Midwestern city. The program makes properties owned by the alliance available for as little as one dollar and provides up to $2,500 in reimbursement for architectural and other design services. Matching funds are available for up to $2,500 in moving expenses, acquisition assistance of up to $15,000 and a restaurant incentive of up to $25,000.

The success of the program can be measured in the numbers:  the community, largely in conjunction with the Paducah Bank, has invested $30 million into the program.

Just down the road from South Hillsborough is Bradenton’s Village of the Arts, a community where artists live and work to “enhance quality of life and create a harmonious environment.”  Located near downtown, the community contains 240 buildings used as both business and homes to area artists. The village includes an independent bookstore, three cafes/restaurants, several arts-related retail establishments, a yoga studio, two wellness centers and the Manatee County Cultural Alliance.

Notable in the Paducah program is the large matching fund for the restaurant incentive. For most communities, art alone is not what makes the difference; it is the satellite businesses that appear as the public is drawn by the art: businesses such as restaurants, shops, nightclubs and music venues. For cities, a successful artist’s community is more than just cultural expansion, it could mean economic expansion as well with the jobs and opportunities those businesses can bring. The Firehouse Cultural Center, with a strong emphasis on public participation, throws this door wide open as a possible renaissance in South Hillsborough’s oldest community.

And the impact extends even beyond the dollars. Mark Stern and Susan Seifert of the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania discovered that a thriving arts environment carries social advantages as well. Their study found that art in a community could build bridges across long-standing ethnic and social divides and even build relationships between otherwise disparate neighborhoods. They also found that cultural participation in art helps to make residents more willing to participate in other issues in their community.

In Minnesota, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council released a study of art in smaller communities, stating that the arts are weak organizations with a strong social impact with the potential to increase community cohesiveness and contribute to a “sense of place.”

It remains to be seen whether the Firehouse Cultural Center is the spark that could ignite Ruskin to become the next SOHO. The opportunity, however, is there with available property nearby and even the historic but long-neglected Ruskin Theater building across the street. Hillsborough County commissioners believed in the project enough to invest $100,000 towards making it a reality. Many others involved in the Ruskin Community Development Foundation, the organization managing the project, and the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce believe in it enough to devote countless hours to its beginning and operation.

What is indisputable, however, is that on Friday night the Firehouse Cultural Center had taken what otherwise would have been a dark corner with an abandoned fire station and turned on the lights, drawing people from around the area and bringing life to what should be considered downtown Ruskin. The Circuit Breaker may have been more than just a weekend event — it may have created the spark needed to revive more than a century of art in the community. Regardless of scale, it worked. On Friday night, downtown Ruskin was hopping.

“Friday night was great,” said Melanie Morrison, executive director of the Ruskin-SouthShore Chamber of Commerce. “It was great to see people coming out in groups of five or ten and all of them finding things to do.”

For more information about the Firehouse Cultural Center, visit www.firehouseculturalcenter.org. For information about Bradenton’s Village of the Arts visit www.villageofthearts.com and for Paducah’s Artist Relocation Program visit www.paducahalliance.org.

Circuit Breaker - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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