Fairgrounds: Immersive arts destination could transform South St. Pete

If Fairgrounds is anything like Santa Fe-based Meow Wolf, a multimedia interactive entertainment venue with art installations, performances, music, and video, it will be transformative for South St. Petersburg.

The inspiration of Liz Dimmitt and Mikhail Mansion, Fairgrounds has as an intriguing tagline: “art for all, play for all and joy for all.”  

“We’re celebrating the creative community here -- it’s a place where everyone can have a good time,” says Dimmitt. 

To give the local community a glimpse of what to expect, Dimmitt and her creative team put together a mermaid attraction for the final event at last October’s SHINE Mural Festival. Gulfport native Raven Sutter, wearing a mermaid costume, was featured swimming in a 1,000-gallon traveling tank.

A mermaid may not be part of Fairground’s permanent art installation. But the new 12,000-square-foot arts venue is expected to offer out-of-the-ordinary experiences for the public, showcasing work by local and Florida artists.

Fairground’s Facebook page reports, “Our vision is to collaborate with many types of artists and makers in order to build a fun-filled immersive arts exhibition.”

Both Dimmitt and Mansion have an appreciation for developing interactive installations that combine art and technology to create something unique and different.

Spurring economic success with creativity  

In 2016, Dimmitt worked with the Vinik Family Foundation to produce The Beach Tampa by Snarkitecture. The immersive art installation filled Amalie Arena with an “ocean” of 1.2 million recyclable white balls.

A long-time cultural strategic and curator, Dimmitt has extensive experience helping create unique experiences, events, and programs for companies, foundations, cities, and individuals. She is also the managing partner for Dimmitt Chevrolet in Clearwater. 

Mansion grew up in the Tampa Bay area and earned an MFA in Digital & Media from the Rhode Island School of Design. He has worked with clients all over the world in creating projects that use cutting-edge emerging technology, such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. As the technology director for Tellart, he helped create stories through interactive products, installations, and exhibitions. He was also part of the core design team behind Toyota’s new Concept-i, a futuristic autonomous-vehicle slated to drive athletes around at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.                

He and his wife Olivia are the founders of Transmission Arts, an arts and technology company focused on experimental and immersive media art installations. They have been commissioned by Meow Wolf to create artwork for a new exhibition in Las Vegas called Area 15.

In 2016, the couple moved back to the Tampa Bay to be closer to family living here. Mansion says he continued working on international projects, but “wanted to put a flag in the ground here” by making a contribution locally.

“I had seen St. Pete blossom into this rich creative community but I felt what was missing was an interactive arts and technology focus,” says Mansion. “We started hosting free art and technology meetups to talk about integrating technology into traditional art mediums and making them new and interactive.”

An introduction from John Collins, director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, put Dimmitt and Mansion together. Now they are working together to create Fairgrounds.

Designing a destination  

The two envision Fairgrounds as both a place for the public to enjoy novel art experiences and space where artists can work, create, collaborate, learn and teach. “We’ll have labs and education, with a focus on teaching about new art forms and helping artists develop new capabilities,” says Mansion, who has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University, and currently teaches at The University of Tampa.

Although Fairgrounds will be a unique venture, it’s not going to be a stand-alone building. It’s actually part of a much bigger project called The Factory St. Pete.   

Dimmitt is putting that project together with Jordan, a principal architect with Behar + Peteranecz Architecture, and his wife Kara, executive director of the firm.  

“I had been scouting locations for an immersive arts installation and asked Jordan and Kara to keep their ear to the ground,” says Dimmitt.  “They said they had found something, but it was a little bigger than I was looking for. I was thinking about a 5,000-square-foot space. What they found was 90,000.”

The property the Behars identified, six-and-a-half acres in St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District, has eight buildings. It had been previously used as a manufacturing site for Madico Window Films, which was moving its headquarters to Pinellas Park.

The Dimmitts and the Behars purchased the site on Fairfield Avenue South. What was going to be a large exhibition space soon morphed into something much more significant. 

“We’re taking a former factory and repurposing it as an arts and cultural destination in South St. Pete,” says Dimmitt.  

Fairfield Avenue South runs along one side of the property. The other side borders the Pinellas Trail, the former CSX rail line that is now a 38-mile trail for bicycling, walking and jogging that extends from South St. Pete to Tarpon Springs.

The Morean Center for Clay at the Historic Train Station is close by.  So are other artist venues, including Duncan McClellan Gallery and Zen Glass. Plans call for the new Carter G. Woodson Museum to be located in this part of town, too. “It’s all part of a corridor that is developing in this area of South St. Pete,” says Dimmitt.

Behar + Peteranecz Architecture is also headquartered nearby in a former 10,000-square-foot warehouse that the team transformed into a spacious creative studio complete with large art installations. That same creative touch will be applied to The Factory as Behar + Peteranecz Architecture creates an adaptive reuse design for the interior and exterior of the Factory’s buildings.

The new venue is expected to be ready for occupancy sometime later this year, and when it opens, it will not only be home to Fairgrounds, but also a variety of hip, local creative organizations. 

So far, Fairgrounds,  the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, Barley Common Brewery, Black Crow Coffee, Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts and Daddy Kool Records will be moving in, as well as the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg’s Dance Academy and Keep St. Pete Lit, an organization showcasing St. Pete’s literary community.

“St. Pete has a lot of momentum and really understands the value of arts and culture and how important it is to support a community of artists and makers,” says Dimmitt. “Everyone we have talked to about what we’re hoping to accomplish has been saying awesome, how can we help.”

For more information, follow Fairgrounds on Instagram or on Facebook and The Factory on Facebook. Here is a link to MeowWolf. And the Museum of the Future in Dubai. And for more on creative placemaking, check out Artplace and Americans for the Arts.
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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.