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The Power of Art

The Power of Art

The Power of Art

August/September 2015 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Diane Daniel
Duncan McClellan Gallery

McClellan’s gallery in a former industrial building was the first step in a neighborhood transformation. Photo: Rob Gardner

Duncan McClellan Gallery
2342 Emerson Ave. S.
St. Petersburg, FL 33712

When Duncan McClellan opened a glass-centric gallery in 2010 in a warehouse once used to pack tomatoes and fish, the artist had to persuade locals to visit him in the bleak industrial area of St. Petersburg, Florida. 

Not only did he attract patrons, McClellan quickly became a beacon for other artists moving to the area. In 2013, 1,100 supporters flocked to the 7,800- square-foot building, in what has become the hip Warehouse Arts District, to inaugurate the St. Petersburg Hot Glass Workshop – a hot shop McClellan opened next door for himself, visiting artists, and the community. Meanwhile, the gallery has become a popular stop on the city’s 2nd Saturday Art Walk, often drawing 350 to 400 people.

You spent decades in neighboring Tampa. Why did you open shop in St. Petersburg?
I know the power of art and how it can change a neighborhood. I’d tried for three years to take the worst section of Tampa and develop it into pretty much what I’m doing here, but I didn’t get any support. In St. Pete, which is so community-oriented, the mayor’s office invited me over. They understood that a small investment in the arts pays back many times. 

A nonprofit you helped form, the Warehouse Arts District Association, recently purchased a large parcel of land near your gallery and is developing a compound to house artists’ studios. What does that investment mean?
It’s fantastic. It’s a very important move because it ensures that the area will stay for artists. Otherwise, the danger is that, as in Ybor City [in Tampa] and so many other places around the country where artists move in, developers follow and then rent space to bars, and the area becomes an entertainment district instead of an arts district.

As a successful glass artist, why did you want to open a gallery, especially one with so many components, including a nonprofit educational arm?
Altruism is part of it, but for the most part I wanted to realize all my dreams. I wanted to be a farmer as a kid, and we have 70 different fruit trees. I used to be a restaurateur, and a big way we fund ourselves is renting out our facility for events – we’ve been known to cook dinner for 60 people. And now being a gallerist on top of being an artist, it’s come full circle. 

Also, community education is really important to me. Through our free lectures and demos, I give quite a number of talks. We help sponsor five emerging artists in a craft show, paying for their booth and marketing materials, and I mentor them. Plus we do residencies. We also do a lot of outreach to Pinellas County schools with our Mobile Glass Lab.

Your interior space is spectacular – filled with your colorful work and hundreds of other pieces from outstanding artists. Does it surprise visitors?
I wanted to create a vision that, as you walk up the steps, the inner gallery would be like a chapel, bright and glowing with all this glass work giving a feeling that you’re in a different place. The credit goes to our artists who gave me a shot. And now, instead of us making all the phone calls, we’re getting calls from people wanting to show. I love watching people come in for the first time – they’re blown away. I also live here with my wife, and everyone says they want to stay here for a weekend. 

What are your plans?
We’d like to grow our nonprofit school project to the next level, and I’d also like to get back to my own artwork. One of my best patrons, a dear person, said to me, “I’d buy something, Duncan, but you haven’t made anything new.” I walked him outside, and I pointed around and said, “Look around the neighborhood – that’s been my artwork for the last five years.”