By Gerri Kramer, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office
Do you get so busy sometimes that you forget to play? Stephanie Agliano told our Leadership Tampa class that Arts & Culture Day was our chance to learn what makes Tampa a great playground. Exposure to arts and culture makes us smarter. It gives us a shared identity and expands our viewpoints. And beyond just bolstering our mental health, our cultural assets play a critical role in the economic health of our community.
We started the day in a place I’d never been to, or even heard of—USF’s Graphicstudio. It’s a printmaking workshop that has quietly been attracting contemporary artists from all over the world to collaborate and create unique projects. Graphicstudio’s director, Professor Margaret Miller, taught us that “people who go to hockey games can also go to museums.” And that analyzing art can improve a medical student’s ability to make diagnoses.
I’m not sure what was more impressive. Margaret Miller’s passion for connecting communities to art and connecting artists to our community? The quiet focus of master etcher Tim Baker as he separated the paper from the copper plate and revealed a print (while we, quite literally, ‘oohed and ahed’)? Or Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “accidentally 3D” wallpaper? And then there were the love bugs.
The next stop was Stageworks, the oldest theater-based arts organization in Tampa. Their mission is to ignite the human spirit. Artistic Director Karla Hartley, a third-generation Tampa native, has been saying that Tampa is America’s next great city since she was a teenager, and she thinks people are finally starting to believe her.
Stageworks has had its own space since 2012, leased to them by Grand Central for $10 a year. Each season, they bring a mix of productions to our community, some widely recognized, some edgy, some with not-safe-for-work titles…all meant to make you think and feel.
Karla Hartley wants all of us, and especially young people, to put down our Netflix and go to the theater because there’s value in sitting next to someone who is not like us, experiencing the same thing, then talking about our different reactions to the same experience. (That’s exactly how I’d describe Leadership Tampa.)
During lunch, we sat among the chickens in the Ybor City Museum State Park and learned that the Cuban Sandwich is just as much of a cultural asset to Tampa as experimental art and theater. Councilwoman Yolie Capin told us that Tampa City Council’s “Cuban Sandwich Resolution”—which includes specific instructions on how to make the “Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich”—received more publicity than the RNC.
Inside the Ybor City Museum, we saw how different cultures have come together to influence the Tampa of today. And who knew that a tenth of an acre of Cuba is actually here in Tampa?
The history lesson continued at Tampa Theatre, built in 1926. This 1920s “movie palace” is more than just a historical landmark—it’s one of Tampa’s current success stories, having just had its most successful year for film.
President and CEO John Bell said he was there to preach to us about the power of the arts, and that he did. Nationally, the arts make up a larger share of our GDP than transportation or agriculture. Exposure to the arts improves academic performance. And local merchants benefit, too. We don’t just buy show tickets, we pay for babysitters, go out to eat, and spend money on parking or Uber. All that averages close to $25 a person—and we spend even more if we’re on vacation.
At the Straz Performing Arts Center, President and CEO Judy Lisi shared the Straz’s history and future before we broke up for backstage tours, which included ghost lights, Broadway trivia and a quick glimpse of the conservatory’s impressive young ballet students. Walking through the Straz, I kept wondering why I’d let so much time go by since the last time I attended a performance.
The Straz is now planning a riverside pavilion, where we can eat and hang out even if we aren’t there to see a performance. What a great way to keep the performing arts top of mind. The Graphicstudio would love to move downtown, where they’d get more foot traffic. And our final stop, Sono Café at the Tampa Museum of Art, sits across from one of our busiest parks. Its parking garage has a bright new mural demanding our attention.
Tampa’s arts and culture are weaving their way into our everyday lives and playing a prominent role in the development of downtown Tampa. And that’s good. When life gets busy, we tend to overlook the fun stuff. And we all deserve more time enjoying Tampa’s playground.