Tampa’s Arts Czarina Is Listening And Learning

Wendy Ceccherelli, the city’s newly-hired director of arts and cultural affairs, is out and about getting the lay of the artistic land and a feel for the business community. Among her stops was a recent appearance at a CreativeTampaBay Salon hosted by Ybor City’s Brad Cooper Gallery. Ceccherelli, 48, recently relocated from Seattle. She impressed attendees as enthusiastic and open to ideas and suggestions.

She noted that the ultimate deal-maker for her was finding out that Tampa had a “Young, female mayor” who wanted to “create a buzz about a ‘city of the arts'” and was a true believer in Richard Florida’s “Rise of the Creative Class” philosophy. She later learned that “the cultural mix in Tampa was quite special.”

In her six weeks on the job, she’s been busy cataloguing what’s unique about the city — with an eye toward building on those strengths. Her eclectic list already ranges from Busch Gardens, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the St. Pete Times Forum and the new Tampa Bay Amphitheatre to the Columbia Restaurant (and flamenco dancers), the Tampa International Film Festival, Hispanic cultural roots and related networks — and even the Dragon Boat Races.

As for challenges, Tampa’s “car orientation” is a serious one — as is the lack of “critical mass in downtown.” There is, of course, no defined “arts district.” Galleries are scattered around town. In fact, Brad Cooper, nestled between Ybor’s Coyote Ugly Saloon and the Green Iguana Bar & Grill, could be Exhibit A.

And while everything from pushing for public art to expediting arts-friendly development is high on her agenda, Ceccherelli left no doubt as to her first order of business: the new art museum. It has to get out of the ground this year. It needs solvent sailing. It’s the key cultural catalyst for downtown, an important cog in the city’s economic engine and a Riverwalk linchpin. Recent fund-raising efforts have been encouraging.

“My top priority,” Ceccherelli underscored, “is the Tampa Museum of Art.”

In a later aside, she clarified that position for the benefit of those concerned that artists, per se, might be short shrifted as a priority.

“The museum is a city project,” explained Ceccherelli. “It’s part of my department. I’m putting it out there to make it clear to people we have a focus. But just because I have a top priority, doesn’t mean it’s the only thing I’m looking at.

“We need to figure out what it is we need to do to create a healthy environment where artists can thrive,” she emphasized. “It’s about housing and public art; it’s about noise ordinances, zoning and on-going financial support. The artist community is incredibly important.”

Ceccherelli also divulged the “secret” to Seattle’s success as a city renowned for its well-attended and plentiful arts events: “the weather.” As in cloudy and rainy.

“If you’re inside for nine months, you get stir crazy,” she impishly explained — with apologies to the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

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