Hard Candy: State of Emergency (Or, How To Make An Arts Community)

By Cathy Salustri

We are not an artist community.

Hold on to your torches while I explain why that’s a good thing.

A lot of people move here or visit and extol the virtues of living in an arts colony. I hear a lot about how Gulfport’s like Key West, or at least how it used to be before the cruise ships and Dunkin’ Donuts came to town. Seems like everyone suggests that Gulfport has something in common with the Conch Republic. Even if you’ve never been to Key West, I’d wager you picture it at least a little like Gulfport, but with jugglers.

Last week I spent a day in Key West, which, truth be told, is about as long as I can take it. Give me Sugarloaf or Big Pine any day; there’s too many t-shirt shops in Key West for my taste.

I have a 1939 travel guide about Florida – A Guide to the Southernmost State – and it has a section on Key West. While listening to Rich Little pretend to be Arnold Schwarzenegger on the Conch Train Tour, I started reading a 70-year-old version of Key West history, and what I read changed my opinion of the Conch Republic forever.

The book calls Key West “one of the Nation’s most interesting experiments in community planning.” It seems the arts colony everyone compares us to was one of the largest welfare experiments in Florida.

In the mid-30s, Key West went belly up. The town wasn’t just “gosh, we might have to contract out the grass cutting” broke: city employees went for weeks without pay and 80% of the residents received federal aid. The city council asked the governor to declare a state of emergency and the feds responded by shipping in artists and having them paint murals, write operas and train locals to make ashtrays and buttons from coconut shell.

That’s right, artists didn’t come to Key West because it was the next happening arts hot spot.
The Federal government invented the arts community as a way to get the city in the black. After all, the tourists needed something to see when they came to visit, which was the other part of the federal plan to fix Key West: tourists. Lots and lots of them. Residents volunteered two million hours of their time to clean up litter, renovate houses, and create beaches, all in the name of tourism. All that was left was a marketing campaign and the “arts community” made a name for itself.

We are not, thank god, Key West. There’s no state of emergency in Gulfport; city workers go without raises but not pay, and most of our residents don’t get government relief.

However, I would suggest that those who want the city to have more of an arts presence think long and hard about depression-era Key West. Be careful what you wish for, and never forget that the ultimate goal of what the federal government instituted in 1934 Key West was the Key West of today. Art was never the goal; it was a means to an end, and tourism was the end.

Back to the Gateway to the Gulf. If we don’t have a community of artists, what do we have? I’d go with a creative community, certainly. Look around town and you’ll see a bevy of full-time artists, and I’d bet they far outnumber the ones at Art Walk and hanging in the Hickman.

Some of my most talented friends are working artists. They make web sites or television or brochures, not clay pots or canvases. Is it “fine” art? No. Is it creative? No question. The guy sitting on the corner making cedar scraps into jewelry boxes? No, we don’t have many of him anymore. But we have graphic designers, writers, interior designers, television, radio, and print creators. I’d love to see the numbers on how many of those types of artists we have in town; I’m just guessing, but I’d wager we outnumber a lot of other Pinellas cities.

Still not convinced? Think about this: Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, making him a precursor to the modern-day graphic designer. Most Renaissance artists we know today received money to produce art, with what they produced secondary. Shakespeare was the Harlequin novelist of his day, and if he were alive today odds are he’d be green with envy over True Blood.

The artists starving in a hovel may have had tremendous talent, but ultimately the art that survives is the art that’s remembered.

And you don’t need a state of emergency to get it.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com, or tell her what you think on the Hard Candy Facebook page.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.