Tampa Bay arts leaders: Creative Pinellas CEO Margaret Murray

This story is the first in an occasional series spotlighting new leaders at Tampa Bay arts organizations. 
New Creative Pinellas CEO Margaret Murray is not an artist, but she has a lifelong love of the arts.

“Ever since I was a child, I have loved art, performance, music and literature,” she says. “I was always much more focused on the behind-the-scenes stuff. I remember asking my dad at a really young age, I think I was maybe age six, what an executive producer on a TV show was. I had seen it on the credits. My driving interest has always been how the arts function and how they serve a community. But I am not an artist. I have tried to and it never works.”

Murray has turned that love of the arts into a wide-ranging and impressive career. She’s worked in the music industry in New York and Amsterdam. In Tampa Bay, her roles have included fundraising coordinator for a multi-million dollar capital campaign at WMNF 88.5 FM, communications director at the Morean Arts Center, two tenures as executive director of the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and development director at freeFall Theatre.

As the Director of Public Programs and Community Engagement at the Museum of Fine Arts, St Petersburg, Murray established programs like Picture of Health and Museums for Immunity - two pandemic-era initiatives that attracted national recognition. She built partnerships and collaborated on programs and events with the Florida Orchestra, the Woodson African American Museum of Florida and Art Bridges.

On top of her professional experience, she created community engagement projects like the popular bicycle tours Tour de SHINE, which explores street art created during St. Pete’s annual mural festival, and Kerouac in Paradise, which visited spots the legendary author frequented while living in St. Pete.

New Creative Pinellas CEO Margaret Murray.Now, she takes the helm of the county’s nonprofit arts agency, which helps shape the local arts landscape through grant programs, public art and mural programs and the cultural events and art exhibitions held at its auditorium and gallery space at Pinewood Cultural Park in Largo.

“It’s the distillation of all the experience I’ve acquired over the years,” Murray says. “My fundraising experience, leadership experience, arts programming experience, knowing how a gallery operates, I’m able to bring all that into play here. But probably most important is the relationships I have with artists and the work that I’ve done in the community. It just brings together everything I love in the arts. And everything I want to see happen in the arts is a possibility here.”

 Developing a countywide cultural plan

Starting as CEO in January 2024, Murray hit the ground running with a significant project, the ongoing development of Pinellas County’s first countywide cultural plan since 2005. CURRENT: The Arts Coast Cultural Plan is an initiative she already knew well. When Pinellas County government and Creative Pinellas launched the new cultural plan in 2023, the arts organization brought in Murray as a cultural plan liaison to work alongside Cultural Planning Group, the firm leading the development of the cultural plan. The development of the cultural plan is an 18-month process that is expected to wrap up in early 2025. 

“We are taking a very broad look at the arts and cultural landscape in Pinellas County to encompass not only arts organizations and artists but youth organizations, how small businesses fit in that landscape and communities of faith,” Murray says. “We’re trying to be as inclusive and wide-ranging as possible because a museum may not be the way many communities and people access culture. There are so many other ways that people access culture here in Pinellas County - certainly with all of the public artCreative Pinellas funds public art and mural projects such as local artist Leo Gomez's "Better Together" at the Lealman Exchange Community Center. we have, the mural and signal box art programs. So many community centers have art programming. So many summer camps have art programming. So we’re looking at how we can support community-level access to the arts and how we can build that into the county’s planning. And then, how do we support the artists and arts organizations that are here already and creating all these artistic experiences? How can we continue to develop as an arts destination here and continue to provide really vibrant arts experiences for people of all ages from all across the county and tourists as well?”

At this point, the focus is on community engagement and feedback. There are upcoming community engagement meetings April 12th at the Beach Art Center in Indian Rocks Beach;  April 18th at the Foundation for A Healthy St. Petersburg’s Center for Health Equity during a screening of the film “A Splash of Color: Getting Black in the Water,” a documentary about Black water advocates in Tampa Bay; and April 20th at Williams Park in downtown St. Pete during the Motherland Music Fest. A survey to give input is also available online through April 30th. 

“What I love about this cultural plan is that it is so community-driven,” Murray says. “We have had artist focus groups. We’ve had arts organization focus groups. We’ve met with politicians.  We’ve met with activists. We’ve met with city officials. We’ve met with educators. We’ve had numerous opportunities for people to weigh in on what they want to see. We don’t want just artists filling out the survey. We want everyone to share how culture and art impact their lives and what they want to see...It can seem very abstract or as if one person’s voice doesn’t matter, but in this case it really and truly does. We have already learned things about the community that weren’t apparent to us, things that we are discussing as important points that we need to implement to move forward.”

For example, people are eager for information about arts events and programs but often don’t know where to find it. A general lack of public awareness also has success stories like the Pinellas Art Village in Pinellas Park flying under the radar. 

An economic driver

Of course, a lot has changed since the last comprehensive countywide cultural plan in 2005. “Arts and Economic Prosperity 6,” Americans for the Arts’ most recent report on the economic and social impact of the arts in Pinellas County, says the nonprofit arts and culture sector had a total economic impact of nearly $295 million in 2022. That figure includes almost  $127 million in spending by those organizations and close to $168 million in event-related expenditures by audiences and patrons. 

Arts and culture organizations support more than 1,900 jobs in Pinellas and help drive the tourism industry. More than 34 percent of the people surveyed at local arts and culture events traveled from outside Pinellas County. Eighty-four percent of those out-of-county audience members and patrons traveled here specifically for a concert, performance, art exhibit, or another arts or cultural event.

A related Americans for ther Arts report looking more broadly at the Greater Tampa/St. Petersburg region showed an economic impact of more than $682 million. 

“So this is a business,” Murray says. “This is a vital part of our economy and we want to make sure through this cultural plan that we build sustainability so that impact continues to grow.”

Building on a track record of success

At Creative Pinellas, Murray succeeds Barbara St. Clair, who led the organization from 2016 to her retirement in December 2023. Under St. Clair’s leadership, Creative Pinellas launched a variety of grant programs, including one focused on emerging artists and one for established artists, built community partnerships and revived the former Gulf Coast Museum of Art as The Gallery at Creative Pinellas.

“There is such a solid foundation of supporting the arts here,” Murray says. “Right now, what I'm looking at, what our entire team is looking at, is how we maximize our impact. We don’t have an unlimited amount of resources and the entire arts landscape has changed. Two of our most popular programs are the Emerging Artist Grant and the Professional Artist Grant. How do we make sure those funds reach artists in ways that are impactful and move artists' careers forward? The recommendations that come out of this cultural plan and how it is implemented will also drive a lot of our work moving forward.”

For more information on the cultural plan, upcoming community engagement events and the online survey, go to CURRENT.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.