St. Pete: Come for the Sun, Stay for the Inspiration

St. Pete: Come for the Sun, Stay for the Inspiration

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The Dali Museum, which houses the largest U.S. collection of the artist's work, is a major draw to St. Pete, but visitors will also be rewarded with a thriving, diverse craft scene in the city. Photo: Dana Hoff

For decades, visitors have come to St. Petersburg, Florida, to enjoy warm winter weather, some of the nation's best beaches, and sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico. For baseball fans, spring training in nearby cities offers another draw. More and more, however, there's a new reason to head this way: the city's emerging role as a craft destination.

What first attracts travelers might be the Chihuly Collection, a permanent installation by glass master Dale Chihuly on the city's glamorous Beach Drive. Or the Dali Museum, which in early 2011 moved into a jaw-dropping new building designed by Yann Weymouth. What keeps them looking: a lively and growing artistic community.

Visitors can watch artists blowing glass in a hot shop, see clay artists at work, and stop for lunch in a gallery where food is served on plates made in the studio out back. Around town the offerings range from the finest work by internationally known virtuosos to creations by local artists you can meet and chat with. Every spring the city hosts the juried Mainsail Arts Festival, whose 2011 event hosted about 250 artists, and there's no shortage of weekend outdoor events fall through spring.

"If crafts are your thing, this is a really rich area," says Diane Shelly, executive director of Florida Craftsmen Gallery, headquarters for the statewide organization representing fine craft. In 2011, for the second consecutive year, St. Petersburg came in first among midsize cities in a reader poll of the top 25 arts destinations in American Style magazine.

The second Saturday of each month, galleries on and near Central Avenue stay open late, and art lovers stroll, sip, nibble, look, and buy. "I get hundreds on a hot August night," says glass artist Duncan McClellan, whose gallery is a remodeled warehouse in an industrial setting. He praises a cooperative city government "that understands that art is money." A recent study showed that arts and cultural institutions attracted 1.3 million visitors to St. Pete in 2009 and had a total economic impact of $23.3 million - and that was before the Chihuly Collection and the new Dali opened.

Those two venues and the city's Museum of Fine Arts are on the waterfront "museum mile" of palm-lined streets dotted with sidewalk cafes, restaurants, and bars. Two popular destinations: Shapiro's Gallery, which deals exclusively in handmade American craft, and the nearby Mindy Solomon Gallery, which displays edgy sculptural ceramics.

Florida Craftsmen Gallery showcases the work of 300 Florida artists - in jewelry, fiber, wood, glass, and clay - and offers regional and national displays. Upstairs, artists occupy 18 studio spaces. Along Central Avenue, near downtown and in the up-and-coming Grand Central neighborhood, there are more studios, co-ops, and galleries, plus cupcake, chocolate, and brownie shops, an olive oil store, cigar lounges, and bars and restaurants ranging from chic to cheeky.

In a 1918 bungalow, Craftsman House shows the work of more than 300 artists and offers a full menu served on pottery made onsite by three resident artists. "We get a lot of people on arts vacations," says Stephanie Schorr, one of the resident potters. Craftsman House offers readings, concerts, celebrity-chef demonstrations, and an annual "pot roast": Buy a pot right out of the kiln, fill it up with complimentary pot roast.

In 1986, Nancy Markoe opened her gallery on St. Pete Beach, just across the city line on the Gulf of Mexico. The scene then "was nothing like it is now," she says. Local artists creating work onsite are "like the Freedom Trail in Boston," a real tourist attraction.

Tourists are also drawn to the hot shop at the Morean Arts Center, where the furnace holds 350 pounds of molten glass that liquefies at 2,275 degrees F. Visitors fill the bleachers to watch glassblowing, and the artists' creations are sold in an adjacent showroom.

The city's small scale is one of its assets, says Russ Gustafson-Hilton; he had a long career as a clay artist and teacher and was a founder of the St. Petersburg Clay Company, housed in a former train depot (also home to studios, a shop, gallery, demonstrations, and classes in one of the largest clay facilities in the Southeast). He's now the studio coordinator of the Morean hot shop.

In St. Pete, he says, "you pretty much can see everything" in a short stay, "and the quality of things you're going to see is really top-notch."

Judy Stark is the former home and garden editor of the St. Petersburg Times.