Tampa's once-sleepy arts scene is an economic engine

Sixty years ago, a visitor to Tampa would have found a feisty, ambitious blue-collar town with little to offer in the way of the arts. Today, with its spectacular performing arts complex, its growing museums, history center and numerous local theater companies, the city is emerging as a cultural destination.
“McKay Auditorium was the closest thing we had to a cultural and civic center when I arrived in 1957,” says Pat Carter, a longtime advocate for the arts in Tampa. “As the Tampa Municipal Auditorium, it housed the Tampa Art Institute until 1956.”
Later, the Tampa Art Institute became the Tampa Bay Art Center and moved into a building on the former Florida State Fairgrounds on North Boulevard. That location is now the Bob Martinez Athletics Center and the Tampa Municipal Auditorium on the University of Tampa campus now houses the Sykes College of Business.

Before the turn of the 21st century, there were around four local professional theater companies in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

“When Jobsite started in 1998, I recall three other professional theater companies in the area: American Stage, Stageworks and Gorilla Theatre,” says David Jenkins, co-founder and the mainstay of Tampa’s Jobsite Theatre.

Besides the companies Jenkins referenced, Spanish Lyric Theatre was also functioning in 1998. Today, the number of theater companies has more than doubled and the growth shows few signs of slowing down. The Arts Council of Hillsborough County counts at least 76 arts and cultural organizations. 
“There are so many, there are more than anyone realized,” Arts Council Executive Director Martine Collier says. “So many lifelong residents had no idea it was here.”

Tampa's ongoing population boom is adding fuel to the fire, since many out-of-towners who consider settling here are attracted to the cultural amenities. “Particularly doctors, realtors and university personnel,” says Collier, referring to the presence of the University of South Florida.

“The arts scene is legitimately an economic driver,” Collier says.

In fact, a study released in 2017 by the nonprofit group Americans for the Arts concluded that, in the fiscal year 2015, nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in Tampa total more than $349 million in economic activity and support nearly 11,900 full-time jobs. The five-year update of that study is now underway after a 16-month delay due to the COVID pandemic.  

Straz Center emerges as a cultural colossus

Founded in 1968 through the merger of the St. Petersburg Symphony and the Tampa Philharmonic, the Florida Orchestra might be one of the oldest major cultural institutions in the area. 
But Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts is the colossus no one can ignore. With its five theaters, it dates from 1987. With 335,000 square feet, it is the largest performing arts center in the Southeast.
 “It is the largest cultural arts organization in Florida in budget and attendance,” says Judy Lisi, the center’s CEO since 1992.
 The Straz Center for the Performing Arts.With around 600,000 attendees annually, the Straz has an economic impact of $100 million a year.
“Tampa was so smart to do what they did,” says Lisi, referring to the civic leaders who built the complex on the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa. “In building a multi-theater complex, the leaders wanted to make a statement. They could never have afforded to build this today.”
Under Lisi’s tenure, mainstays like the Broadway series, Opera Tampa and emerging small professional theater groups like Jobsite have flourished under the Straz umbrella, as have more outreach programs for kids. The Patel Conservatory adds another dimension to the complex.
“The visual and performing arts here are second to none,” says Lisi, who is retiring at the end of September.

Tampa Museum of Art

The Tampa Museum of Art, which celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2020, has gone through many evolutions. Evolving from the Tampa Arts Institute and the Tampa Bay Art Center, it has come into its own since moving into its present quarters, the Cornelia Corbett Center, in 2010. Located on the riverfront, the museum is noted for its collection of Greek and Roman antiquities.

Executive Director Michael Tomor arrived here from El Paso, Texas in 2015. Looking at Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater collectively, he says he found the art scene to be “much richer and more robust.”

And when people migrate to Tampa from places with more mature art scenes, Tomor notes that they are expecting a similarly robust art scene when arriving here. He is currently overseeing a project that will continue to build Tampa into an arts city, a $100 million expansion of the museum.

The Tampa Museum of Art is also expanding its outreach.
“In 2017 we launched a five-year strategic plan,” Tomor says. “We wanted to expand our art education programs and offer more educational opportunities for students of all ages. We wanted to reach out into the community.”
The result is a vast expansion of the museum’s education program that includes more classrooms and an appeal to museum supporters to fund the costs of school buses bringing kids to the museum. The museum calls it the “Art Line Transportation Appeal.”
As Pat Carter noted, the “Friday Morning Musicale,” which took place in the clubhouse of the Federated Women’s Club, was a center of cultural life in Tampa back in 1927.The Ferman Center for the Arts at the University of Tampa.
Today, the Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater area has grown into a cultural destination. Art, film and music festivals abound. The University of Tampa, long a venue for early arts efforts, recently added to its campus the Ferman Center for the Arts. The University of South Florida’s Graphicstudio has been nationally recognized for decades.
It’s a sign of the times that developers of a 31-story luxury apartment building in downtown Tampa are touting its proximity to the city’s cultural destinations. The Tampa Museum of Art and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts are on the doorstep of what is aptly named the Arts and Entertainment Residences.

Even before the development and population boom of the last five years, the arts and culture in Tampa generated more than one-third of a billion dollars and supported nearly 12,000 jobs.

That’s enough to put Tampa on the cultural map.

For more information on the 2017 study on the economic impact of the arts go to Arts and Economic Prosperity 5.
For more information on the study of the economic impact of the arts now underway go to Arts and Economic Prosperity 6.
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Read more articles by Joanne Milani.

Joanne Milani is a Tampa-based freelance writer and former art and theater critic for The Tampa Tribune. After leaving the Tribune, she served as the executive director of Tampa’s Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and remains a member of the International Art Critics Association (AICA). She graduated from Vassar and worked in New York museums before moving to Tampa.