To the rest of the country, Tampa might be known for its beautiful weather, sports teams or even craft beer, but Mayor Jane Castor wants to add something to that list: a flourishing arts and culture scene.
“It’s important that when anyone from the outside is looking into Tampa, that’s what they see. They see our arts and our culture as not only being very vibrant, but being embraced,” she says.
And her ultimate goal? “People would look to Tampa as an arts and culture destination.”
Mayor Castor plans to make elevating Tampa’s art and artists an important piece of her time in office, starting with the new Art on the Block initiative. This program is meant to bring accessible public art into all of the city’s neighborhoods, with the help of both artists and local residents.
“It’s a way of promoting the arts as a way of expression, but at the same time it’s passing on the history and the culture of the particular neighborhood,” Mayor Castor says.
Up first is East Tampa’s Al Barnes Park, named for the prominent educator and football coach who helped blaze a trail for black teachers in Hillsborough County. His widow, longtime Chamberlain High Spanish teacher Olga Barnes, and a group of his students will speak to neighborhood kids about Barnes’s impact. The kids will then work with a local artist to paint a mural that honors the memory of Barnes, who passed away in 2008.
“It’s significant that we preserve our culture through the arts and that we tell the story of our city and of all the diversity of our city, everyone that has come together to build Tampa to this point,” Mayor Castor says.
“Whenever a nation, a country, a state is invaded, the first thing that is destroyed is its arts and culture,” she adds. “I think the reason for that is the arts and culture define us as a society, as a nation, as a people, and even as a community here in Tampa. You look at the artists that you’ll find here in Tampa that were influenced by their surroundings, and they’re going to be different than anyone else in any other community.”
Elevating Tampa’s artists is key to Mayor Castor, an art lover herself. Her longtime partner, Ana Cruz, is a passionate art collector, and the two have an impressive collection on display at their home in Seminole Heights. With her pieces hanging across various houses and offices of family members, Mayor Castor jokes that Cruz is running out of walls.
But Cruz, a managing partner of Ballard Partners’ Tampa office, says she doesn’t let space dictate what she purchases. She instead relies on her gut instinct and her emotional response to a piece.
When it comes to art, “buy what you like,” she suggests. “It doesn’t need to match your house, or each other. When properly curated, it fits because it fits your soul.”
Pieces by local artists like Joe Testa-Secca and Theo Wujcik make up a significant portion of Cruz and Mayor Castor’s collection, while they’ve also picked up works from their travels to cities like New Orleans and Havana. That’s where they found one of their favorite pieces, an untitled 2015 painting by Abel Massot. The couple met Massot in Havana and convinced him to take them back to his studio, where they saw and purchased a number of pieces, including the one seen on page 43.
Cruz was just 21 when she bought her first piece of art, a painting by Bay-area artist Helen Romeike-Wisniewski, at the Tampa AIDS Network’s Art for Life auction. Her collection now includes pieces from nationally famous artists (like Ashley Longshore, a pop artist who Cruz says has drawn comparisons to Andy Warhol), but she has a deep love for local artists like Wujcik, Janet Ruppel and Testa-Secca.
Even longtime Tampa residents might not be familiar with the city’s deep well of artistic talents, says Mayor Castor — herself included. The mayor says she only recently learned about glass artist Susan Gott’s Seminole Heights studio and the glass-blowing workshops she hosts there.
“I’ve lived in Seminole Heights for a long time, and I had no idea that was there,” she says. “Oh my gosh, it’s fascinating.”
Cruz says she and Mayor Castor have a shared goal of making Tampa known for being a place where local artists can create and sell their art.
“Our arts and culture haven’t always been a priority. We had to get [Tampa] to a place where we could attract and keep the creative class,” Cruz says. “We want artists to thrive in Tampa.”
“We have the talent here now,” Mayor Castor says. “We have to continue to cultivate that, but we also need to make the rest of the country aware of the talent we have here.”