Does Jacksonville have a cultural divide?

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on June 7, 2004.

When Ryan Buckley decided to start carrying the works of Jacksonville artist Reese Foret Verschueren at his San Marco gallery and frame shop, he figured he'd sell a few.

He liked them, and, after only six months in the gallery business, had decided that working with local artists would be a good risk to take.

He didn't expect to sell two paintings and set up two commissions for Reese within two weeks.

Such a quick sale reflects a continuing change in his customer base, he said. "Downtown is becoming more and more cultured," he said. "There are more people with a little appreciation of art, people who are looking for different kinds of stuff."

Although we're only talking a couple hundred dollars, Buckley's decision to carry local artists, combined with the fact that the work is selling, points to an upward tick of cultural growth in Jacksonville.

Although some of the bigger cultural institutions in the area such as the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Modern Art are still working to overcome financial hurdles, the developing grassroots artistic scene in Jacksonville might bode well for their future, as the artistic community gets involved with marquee museums as well as neighborhood-level art shows.

Other signs: The growing attendance at Artwalk -- the once-a-month downtown walking tour featuring local artistic creations; a slow, under-the-radar coalescing of artistic groups, particularly in the Springfield and downtown areas; and a growing self-image of the city as more sophisticated

"I think we have the same cultural presences as a Charleston or Palm Beach," said Tony Allegretti, a public art consultant with Downtown Vision Inc. and founder of Artwalk, which attracts several thousand attendees. "We just haven't had the chance to show it. We lacked a central focus."

Those thoughts are what led him to start Artwalk, which brings visitors to 20 or so venues the first Wednesday of each month to see sculpture, paintings and other forms of local artistic expression. When Allegretti started the event, he expected 250 people; about 1,000, he said, showed up.

Last month, attendance hit 4,000, with individual venues reporting up to 2,000 people through the doors.

"It's not the people you see at every art show," Allegretti said. "It says something about the demand. These people are sitting at home on a Wednesday and decide to get off their chairs and head downtown."

The growing interest in arts and culture has been seen across the community, from "official" venues like museums to smaller projects like Boomtown Theatre and Coffee Salon in Springfield.

Two years ago, when Stephen Dare founded Boomtown, people were afraid to come to the neighborhood.

"We had to keep trying to convince people that it was OK to come here," he said. "Somebody would come in, they'd survive and they'd come back with their friends."

The growth of artistic communities in Springfield has created a cyclical effect: Creative people moving into the area has spawned creative businesses, which have an economic incentive to get more of the community involved in the arts. "Regular people want to go to things," Dare said.

Of course, cultural pursuits aren't new to Jacksonville. From the artwork and natural beauty showcased by the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens to the films and exhibitions put on by the Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art to the world's oldest sentence now on display at the Karpeles Manuscript Library, finding culturally significant events on the First Coast isn't necessarily a daunting task.

Such large-scale endeavors, however, haven't always found a welcoming -- or, as importantly, a donating -- audience. One reason, said those involved in the local arts and culture industry: Some members of the community shy away from artistic programs, thinking such activities aren't aimed in their direction.

"The obstacle we have to overcome is to dispel the idea that the orchestra is not for everyone," said Fabio Mechetti, music director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. "I don't see Jacksonville as a cultural wasteland. We need to make people more active participants in the community of the arts."

The needs of institutions like the symphony has helped some residents decide to become more involved. Last season, when the symphony ran into serious financial problems, Mechetti began some concerts by talking about the wonderful acoustics Jacoby Symphony Hall provides to the musicians. Then he said "This is what the hall sounds like without the symphony," and fell silent.

Checks began arriving the following week.

The symphony has also seen success by offering package deals, such as combining dinner at Italian restaurants with concerts featuring Italian artists. It has gotten a good response from its Discovery series, in which Mechetti teaches the audience something about what they are about to hear.

Such programs are designed to attract "culturally aware non-attenders," a demographic group of mainly younger people who are well educated and interested in cultural offerings but who don't show up at concerts and art exhibits.

"They represent a generation that expects things to come to them. It's an effort for them to come out here, to find a parking place, to make an effort," Mechetti said. "People will only leave their homes and come to the symphony if they're coming for a complete experience."

Artists are also being pushed to make more of an effort. Art consultant Ingar Brunnett, who has helped artists hang their work in offices and homes, said she's had to work with artists on their presentation efforts, dealing with framing, lighting, glazing -- the details that make a work of art a sellable work of art.

Buckley, the gallery owner, said he's done the same thing, helping artists take the final step that helps them make the sale.

"A lot of local artists are a little inexperienced in selling their work. Their pricing might be high. Their presentation might not be the best," he said. "You have to train artists to learn how to sell their work."

That's a new tact for the San Marco gallery: When Buckley and his father bought what is now Gallery Framery, the place had no local artists, with Jacksonville works only appearing on the walls in the past few months.

Even Buckley will admit that it's an experiment that "hasn't yet proven to be profitable," but the interest in works by Reese and other local artists makes the gallery owner think that he's on the right path.

"I feel that it's getting better," he said. "The opportunity is coming up. I can see in the future where things will change."

Already, some industry observers think the city is getting more culturally involved. The Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, for example, has gone from funding a dozen programs a decade ago to 27 this year, and the number of people attending culture events jumped to 1.5 million in 2003, according to Amy Crane, the council's marketing director. In 2002, the cultural organizations the council tracks -- ranging from the Cummer and the Jacksonville Zoo to small theaters and historical societies -- saw 1.4 million visitors, an increase over the 1.3 million in 2001.

"People are participating," Crane said. "As people are attending events, they're becoming part of a larger cultural situation."

Crane's hope for the future: That even more people will get involved, in a variety of ways:

In some ways, said Brunnett, the arts consultant, Jacksonville reminds her of San Francisco, the area where she grew up.

"You can't compare the cities," she said, "but you can compare neighborhoods. Where there are grassroots efforts, neighborhoods will grow."

The influx of new residents combined with the growing interest of old-timers might be what the city needs to propel it into a more culturally vibrant future.

"We need to be a more culturally diverse city. And it's being done," Brunnett said. "You can see it changing. A lot of the people coming in, they're bringing in their differences.

"The city is growing. The sense of culture is growing."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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