Arts Xchange opens in Warehouse Arts District, St. Pete

With the official ribbon cutting for the Arts Xchange on Thursday, Oct. 26, the long-time vision for an affordable artist incubator in St. Petersburg is finally coming to fruition. 

A project of the Warehouse Arts District Association, the nonprofit Arts Xchange will house 28 artist studios and event space for gallery openings, private and public parties and educational classes. 

There’s even a communal area with lockers for up and coming artist entrepreneurs who want to come in to share a workspace, says Mark Aeiling, president of the Warehouse Arts District Association Board of Directors

According to Aeiling, more than $1 million in grants, contributions from the state and city, as well as private donations have been raised to help get the center up and running.

The project has a multiple phase plan that stretches out over the next five to 10 years, says Aeiling.  The first step is to get the building completed and artists moved in. Then comes landscaping, educational programming and branding for the area.

Demand for affordable artist studios

The new two-story, 9,200-square-foot center is a testament to the tenacity of local artists who were committed to making it happen.  

Created out of a former warehouse that was most recently part of the old Ace Recycling property -- and before that, the Soft Water Laundry complex, the Arts Xchange sits on three acres of land close to the intersection of 22nd Street South and 5th Avenue South.  

On Dec. 30, 2014, the Warehouse Arts District Association purchased the land and existing buildings on it with the goal of creating an “affordable, sustainable and accessible space for artists,” says Aeiling.

A sculptor who owns MGA Sculpture Studio, Aeiling leases one of the buildings adjacent to the Arts Xchange. He was among the artists who were early pioneers in moving into the area, before it gained a reputation as the Warehouse Arts District and became known as a “cool” part of town.

While the Warehouse Arts District continues to have an edgy, industrial vibe, the influx of artists has transformed the district into a sought-after commodity.  Developers are noticing. Property values are starting to jump.  

“We are being approached by a lot of development opportunities,” says Aeiling.  

The Warehouse Arts District’s success and St. Petersburg’s ever-growing reputation as a city for the arts is a big plus for economic development, but also a concern for working artists.

“This is a pattern you see around the country where the artists move in and everything starts to turn around. Attention gets drawn to the neighborhood and rents go up,” says Aeiling.  

He hopes the Arts Xchange can serve as a model for other communities-- an arts facility supported by community investment.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future the Warehouse Arts District was a wonderful, bustling district, but where few artists can afford studio space other than the Arts Xchange,” says Aeiling.  

Fortunately, he says, as a 501c3 nonprofit, the Arts Xchange is protected from future development with below-market rates rents to keep it affordable for working artists.

New neighbors include distillery

The location for the new center is ideal. It’s the gateway to the Warehouse Arts District. The new American Freedom Distillery, scheduled to open in November, will be a neighbor. 

The Morean Center for Clay at the Historic Train Station is a block or so away. The Pinellas Trail is in the backyard.  

Aeiling says he hopes the Arts Xchange can be the catalyst that eventually connects the Arts Xchange with the Pinellas Trail and other artists studios in the Warehouse Arts District, as well as the Deuces Live Main Street District, home to the historic African-American community.  

He envisions creating a pedestrian friendly corridor that makes it easy to get around the district on foot or bicycle without worrying about traffic.

The first step toward making that happen is now underway.  Aeilig and his team are working on a 15-foot sculptural gate that will visibly link the Arts Xchange with the Pinellas Trail. Visual artist Carrie Jadus will be painting several murals on the building that will be visible from the Pinellas Trail.  And thanks to a South St. Petersburg CRA grant, a portion of the Pinellas Trail will soon receive lighting.

Who's moving in?

From an initial pool of 40 artists who expressed interest, 23 were selected. 

“The selection process wasn’t about assessing skill level or talent, we were looking for diversity and artists we felt had the financial resources to make this type of commitment,” says Aeiling.

Not all are the visual artists or sculptors that you might expect. The first group of tenants includes those in the literary field and performing arts, as well as photographers and jewelry makers.  

They also range in age from early 20s to mid 60s. And while most are from Pinellas County, there are a few relocating here from Miami and Michigan.

“This is about creating a community center for the arts that represents St. Petersburg,” says Tracy Kennard, director of operations for the Warehouse Arts District Association.

Building the new arts center wasn’t without its challenges, says Aeiling. The first hurdle was to transition the Warehouse Arts District from a member organization to a more formal association with a board of directors.

Then the first architectural plans came in over budget and the group had to go back to the drawing board. Aeiling credits contractor Huffman Construction for being flexible and working with them to bring in the $900,000 construction project under budget.

“Like any adaptive reuse of an existing building, every day there was a new problem that required creative solutions,” says Aeiling.  

In a building that once cleaned linens for most of the city’s hotels, back when St. Petersburg was a bustling destination for winter visitors, artists will now work in a unique facility that retains the Warehouse Arts District industrial vibe.  

Sealed concrete floors, corrugated walls, exposed pipes and barn-style doors can be found in many of the studios. White blank walls will double as gallery space to showcase the artists’ work. There’s also LED lighting and energy efficient infrastructure such as R-30 insulation and ductless mini-split air conditioning units for each studio.

The grand opening takes place on Thursday, Oct. 26, from 7-8:30 p.m. with a ribbon cutting, art exhibit, live music and donation bar. The evening is open to the public and free of charge but reservations are encouraged.  

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.