Tampa arts community celebrates the life of Art Keeble

Tampa arts advocate Art Keeble's self-planned life celebration, "Bloom Where You Are Planted," was designed to bring joy.

Despite the uplifting performances by Tampa jazz matriarch Belinda Womack and Kuumba Dancers and Drummers, there were plenty of tears shed during the event at the Tampa Theatre on February 18th.

Art, the executive director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County for more than 30 years and co-founder (along with former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt) of the Ybor City Saturday Market, passed away on January 25th from complications of ongoing health issues.

Friends, colleagues and loved ones impacted by his presence in the Tampa Bay region packed the theater and lobby reception area, sharing stories of the man that lived, loved and breathed the creative spirit.

All agreed that so many were fortunate to be there when he exhaled.

According to Art’s very specific instructions written in 2017, Tampa Theatre artist-in-residence Steven Ball performed an overture on the Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ, followed by the short film "Hush Hoggies Hush: Tom Johnson's Praying Pigs,” Nina Simone's "That's All I Want From You" and a welcome from former Arts Council of Hillsborough County chair Greg Yadley. 

Then it was all Art.

Tampa Theatre President and CEO John Bell shared Art’s self-penned "Art's Story; In his own words" to an accompanying slide show. Belinda Womack's performance of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" brought tears and laughter.

The event followed Art's instructions: "PLEASE....don’t put up those stupid posters of pictures, no matter what anyone says. If people can’t remember what I look like, they shouldn’t be there.”

A moving tribute from longtime friend Eric Comas and his daughter Sarah, Art's goddaughter, brought laughter and fond memories before Kuumba Dancers and Drummers surprised the crowd with energetic movement.

Ybor City Saturday Market Executive Director Lynn Kroesen, who considered Art among her dearest friends, shared previously untold stories of Art's kindness, compassion and humor. Lynn was not alone.

"I knew Art for 22-plus years when first hired as the executive director of the Ybor Market by Jan Platt and Art as Jan was a mentor to Art, and both were mentors to me," Lynn says. "As time went on, Art became a best friend and a father figure to me and we chatted almost daily, sometimes just a simple 'love ya - have a good day.' I went to him for advice on everything from family to work, he always provided thoughtful guidance, never telling me what to do, but leading me in the right direction. He was a man who did so much for his community, not because it was his job, but because the community was his family. I credit him for who I am today."  

Fran Costantino, a longtime friend, spoke fondly of her favorite times that were not related to the arts or their shared time on various boards.

"Our love of food brought us closer together," Fran says. "Years ago, we started driving all over Florida in search of stone crabs, fried green tomatoes and other favorites. He knew that I hated to drive so he began calling me 'Miss Daisy,’" a reference to the 1989 movie with Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy.

"One of our last trips was to Cracker Barrel and he was shocked that I had never heard of Goo Goo Clusters, which originated from his home state of Tennessee," Fran continues. "The whole ride home, he sang the Goo Goo Cluster diddy. That had me hysterical. It's a side of him that had nothing to do with the arts or the market, but a special friendship over food, love and laughter."

The festive celebration was capped off with the announcement that a twinkling star in the Tampa Theatre night sky was being named in honor of Art Keeble:

“In this way, Tampa Theatre honors Art's eternal support of art and light. Its ever-present shine will serve as a reminder of his glowing personality and friendship, and we will take comfort in his constant presence enthralling our audiences."
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Read more articles by Kimberly DeFalco.