Lifting Art in Jacksonville

by JEN JONES, Executive Director – Unity Plaza
It is no secret the Great Recession of 2008-2013 volatilely shook the visual art scene in North Florida and beyond. At times, it felt like God was taking an exuberant Yahtzee turn, and we Jacksonville purveyors of art were the dice bouncing wildly in His plastic cup. Historically and overarchingly speaking, this recent period in the art world has been described by countless experts as mirroring the intense market shifts that occurred in Europe and America during the world-wide upheavals of the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries.
Then, economic instability, wars and famine ultimately hit the middle class in the gut and quaked the creative sector, whose paintings and sculptures dutifully depicted the new human experience and ushered in the multiple, cutting-edge, culture-shifting, awe-inspiring periods of art history that followed. The public reaction that emerged was the establishment of art galleries and the financial boosting and self-enriching habit of art collecting. Needed now is the same, a drive to collect the ground-breaking new works being made by the immense talent living and creating in our own community.
Recently hardest hit in this sector both nationwide and at home: gallery owners and artists, in a fashion never before seen in Jacksonville. They saw the nutrients creators are fed from, hope and discretionary income, not only trimmed but annihilated during the recession. For example, by 2009 New York City had lost nearly twenty-five major galleries according to the magazine ArtNet. The Associated Press reports that by 2011 Scottsdale, AZ, saw the closure of half of its distinctive galleries and, in Jacksonville, nearly all financially top-heavy galleries, the author’s included, closed up shop and/or restructured their play books.
This period was momentarily discombobulating; artists, galleries, art consultants, interior designers and collectors sought to improve ways of doing business so they could still experience the joys of art while facing less financial pressure. Therefore, as in tens of thousands of other recession-driven examples from across the globe, the Jacksonville visual art industry’s solution to survive and thrive became collaboration. Like the dedicated troops to North Florida culture we are, our vast art scene readdressed its own identity and chose to take on new partners and stronger business strategies that would give a phoenix-like rise to the city’s visual art scene.
Evidenced by both our city’s political and cultural leaders who avidly support Art in Public Places, the art industry is considered a natural resource, an asset for Jacksonville’s future and a visual beacon of our city’s post-recession, national brand. Says Gordon Meggison, Jacksonville mural impresario and creator of major corporate paintings for first coast institutions such as Baptist Beaches Medical Center, “The recent shakeout has shown the wheat from the chaff, and yet we are still very much alive and excited as a community about what we can visually contribute to this emerging city.”
As existing galleries streamlined their business models, they also upped their experiential programming for clients, such as increased opportunities to meet our great artists and more artist-led teaching events. These connecting and nurturing moments with the buying public and a steady-eddy approach to business allowed some of the first coast’s finest galleries to stay alive. For example, Stellers in Ponte Vedra weathered the maelstrom with grace. Gallery owner Hillary Tuttle says, “In the recent past we have seen collectors taking their time…their decisions have been thoughtful, well-informed and deliberate. As the housing market rebounds, we have also felt positive momentum in the regional art scene. If emotionally moved to buy a specific work of art, many of our clientele are inclined to collect regardless of the financial season.”
New galleries are also opening in Jacksonville. A favorite of the corporate and interior design worlds is Heather Sams’ HAS Art Solutions, located outside San Marco and in physical and business collaboration with long-time furnishings purveyor, Hugo’s. Sams has worked in every part of the art industry. With a degree in fine art from Arizona State University and a Masters in Business Administration from S.M.U. in Dallas, TX, Heather is herself a creator as well as a veteran of both the wholesale and retail corporate art sales. She most enjoys utilizing full-time artists’ pieces in her role as art consultant. Sams carefully selects or commissions sculptural, painting, photography and print artworks to curate the look and articulate the mission of spaces in which people work, live and play. She thoughtfully assists the individual collector, the corporate or hospitality facility or elder-care and hospital environments. Sams says, “I’m completely optimistic after over twenty-five years in this industry and witnessing the changes and tribulations from west to east coast and up to down the nation. Jacksonville is my home and place we will invest because it has the raw talent and creativity required to be a nationally recognized, thriving art community. Our artists are clearly inspired and extremely impressive. Very importantly, we as a community of consumers and business leaders need to value and pay for the incredible art created here, and take the responsibility to encourage art collecting. The financial investment in this important local market is secure. I am thrilled to help collectors find the right artwork and help them demonstrate actively what the arts bring to our businesses and our lives.”
Most widely known, is that Jacksonville has enjoyed a consistent wave of artist collaborations that emerged or strengthened during the recession. They provided purchasing opportunities and uplifted our city’s urban core. New art gallery co-ops, with shopping and creating spaces, formed and joined existing collaborations like downtown’s heralded Southlight Gallery. Some of these include The Arts Center Cooperative (TAC), Jacksonville Artist Guild, The Art League of Jacksonville, and of course, the formidable artist community CoRK, located in West Riverside on the Corner of Rosselle and King Streets. CoRK brings 70 artists and 80,000 square feet of dedicated, visual art space to Jacksonville. Dolf James, co-founder, nationally recognized sculptor and proud project developer to CoRK, enthusiastically shared his thoughts; “It is an exciting time to be an artist in Jacksonville. In just a few short years we have gone from little recognition to being on the verge of national attention. There is serious art being made here and people are beginning to notice. Many of us feel 2014 will be a breakout year.”
And break out we are poised to be. The Greater Cultural Council of Jacksonville, previously nurtured and tended for over a decade by infamous performance artist and the recently retired Robert Arleigh White, is now headed by new leadership in Kim Bergeron – an exciting power-house of a woman with the essence of Gertrude Stein and a love for encouraging political leadership to participate in and collect visual art.
Under White’s leadership, a national consulting firm studied the fiscal impact of the twenty-two not-for-profit, cultural, visual and performing arts organizations in our city which received the annual, small to mid-sized Cultural Services Grant in 2011 from the Cultural Council. The study unveiled that from 2011-2012, recession or not, the first coast realized a $61-million-dollar financial gain from this limited investment in a limited segment of our arts and culture industry. Imagine if the for-profit galleries and artists had been supported by art collecting in Jacksonville with the ethos used by the Cultural Council? When amortized, that figure could be astounding and call global attention to our region.
Currently, the artwork provided by galleries and created by North Florida artists is bountiful and exciting. Tremendous new bodies of stunning work are being developed by renowned North Florida giants as well as breathtaking new talent on the visual art scene, each investment worthy and providing excellent solutions for the walls of homes, businesses and facilities.
Abstract painter and daring mixed media artist Sharla Valeski, also a former brick and mortar gallery owner who found increased success and fellowship in the CoRK artist complex in Riverside, states, “I’m meeting artists who are coming to Jacksonville, leaving the saturated art markets of other cities. They see Jacksonville as an opportunity to be successful.” Her energetic, playful and organic works grace the walls of Everbank Tower, the homes of local business leaders and of national collectors.
Like all rebirths, painful and beautiful, the art industry in Jacksonville felt vulnerable during the recession, and yet succinctly, with business acumen and poise, has repositioned itself to come out stronger. It will ultimately help rebrand our city through its collaborative wisdom and collective talent. Our esteemed North Florida visual art industry works instrument-in-hand daily to provide our community with incredible visuals that underscore our human experience, provide us identity, tell our unique Jacksonville story and expand our city’s reach. Consistent in this picture are the gallery and artist, both necessary and integral parts of our community heritage.
As shared by beloved and nationally collected painter Chip Southworth, “I see a new vitality rising in the regional art scene. The curating, collecting and attraction of outside talent has stepped up, but it will be the inclusion of local art by local collectors that will complete the turn around. Without the participation of both producers and buyers of art here at home the area will struggle, financially and in national reputation. However, I have never been so optimistic. The city wants art, is embracing the idea. It’s time now for the execution of an amazingly supportive 2014.”

This article was written by Jen Jones, former gallery owner and art consultant in Jacksonville, Florida, from 1998-2013. She is now inaugural Executive Director of our city’s currently under construction, modern-day Central Park, Unity Plaza – coming to life at 220 Riverside Avenue. A life-enriching urban gathering space dedicated to supporting performing and visual arts, leadership, integrative health and environmental programming and community education and engagement established by NAI Hallmark Partners to uplift and inspire Jacksonville.