It’s a quarter to five in the afternoon and Hemming Park — the main point of convergence for almost all things related to the urban core’s current resurgence — is already buzzing. Vendors began setting up their booths hours ago. Downtown commuters, ditching work early, joined them shortly after, followed by many of the city’s socialites (self-appointed and otherwise). There’s live music on the park’s stage. And just moments ago, Mayor Lenny Curry ceremoniously lit a rather slight Christmas tree, befitting of his fiscally conservative principles.

Art Walk Wednesday in Downtown Jacksonville is officially underway. 

Over the course of the next several hours, thousands of residents of Duval and its adjacent counties will descend upon the city’s center to grab a bite to eat, listen to music from both local and touring bands, and, more generally, see and be seen.

Some of them may buy art. Most won’t. Many of the urban core’s business owners will earn enough tonight to pay their monthly rent. And a few lucky artists will be able to keep the lights on at their places of residences, as well. For a neighborhood with fewer than 4,000 inhabitants — a virtual ghost town, save for a few bars, on any other evening — Art Walk is quite a triumph.

Meanwhile, Antonio Allegretti, or Tony as he’s called, the man principally responsible for what has become the city’s most consistently successful cultural and economic event — First Wednesday Art Walk — is making his way through security at the entrance to City Hall on Duval Street.

Dressed in suit pants and a jacket (no tie), Allegretti smiles through his grey beard as he greets the security staff members by their first names before collecting his orange-and-white-striped Cultural Council umbrella from the conveyer of the X-ray machine. He looks and behaves very much like most people entering the building for the holiday party this evening: He’s here to shake hands, make eye contact, earn or sustain some political capital, and then kick rocks.

But, unlike most others, he’s here to see some art, too.

As the Executive Director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville — a quasi-governmental agency — he’s a steward of public funds set aside for 23 arts and culture organizations, including one of the Southeast’s largest contemporary art institutions (Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville), the city’s most historic concert venue (The Florida Theatre), and the oldest continually running community theater in the U.S. (Theatre Jax), among others.

Just a few months ago, second-term City Councilman — and the newly elected Council President — Greg Anderson contacted Allegretti. He wanted some local art to spruce up the fourth floor of City Hall.

Allegretti got to work.

“We want to make sure our art and artists are everywhere,” he says in a convivial, almost dude-esque manner of speaking that juxtaposes his worldly vocabulary. We’re sitting down for coffee in Hemming Park just a few days after Art Walk. This day, Allegretti’s dressed in a grey tweed blazer with turquoise accents that match his teal-framed, plastic aviators adorned with Jacksonville Jaguars logos on each side. His ensemble is a balance between eccentric and business-casual (with some local flavor) that is certain to endear him to the diverse range of folks he works with on a daily basis.

He says when Council President Anderson came calling, he was more than happy to grant his wish.

“Basically, when the council president requests something, you always try and find a way to do it,” he says.

This request, made by a sitting City Council president in late 2015, is wholly different from the now-infamous demands made by the previous Council president, Clay Yarborough, around the same time in 2014 — fewer than six months into Allegretti’s stint at the Cultural Council. The “controversy” over MOCA’s Project Atrium Exhibit, which featured Angela Strassheim’s photograph depicting an expectant mother, bare breast exposed, was widely reported in this magazine and elsewhere. By all accounts, Allegretti artfully navigated this minefield and, on the surface, it may not appear relevant to the narrative of the great year Tony Allegretti had in 2015 (being that it occurred in the year prior). Although, as the dust settled and the photograph remained on display, there was a palpable momentum and excitement around the arts that Allegretti — as executive director of the Cultural Council — was able to tap into. The result was a huge year for arts and culture in Jacksonville.

“Immediately, the silver lining that everyone could see was publicity for MOCA and I think membership jumped,” Allegretti says of Yarborough’s demands that the photograph be taken down and MOCA’s funding be cut. “Certainly the turnstile jumped.”

“For arts and culture, it was great because we could talk about the grant process and how it worked with city government,” he says. “It was a good microphone for how that works.”

Each year, the Cultural Council assesses the economic impact of its Cultural Service Grantees (CSGs), which receive funds as part of the city budget. Of that city budget, which was approximately $1 billion for fiscal year 2015, CSGs received .24 of 1 percent, or approximately $2.4 million dollars. It’s not a lot of money, relatively speaking, but under Allegretti’s leadership, the impact of that investment grew from $58 million (already an understatedly solid ROI) to $70 million. An astonishing figure.

In the spring of 2014, the Council used contributions from Florida Blue to award between $5,000 and $15,000 to five projects, ranging from performance art by Liz Gibson to mosaics by Kate Garcia Rouh and Kenny Rouh — all of which were completed or performed in 2015.

In addition, the Council hosted workshops throughout the year designed to help artists learn skills crucial to maintaining a livelihood, from marketing themselves through social media to acquiring the proper insurances.

In March, Allegretti, through a partnership with Vystar Credit Union, launched a lecture series which brought in internationally renowned artists like neo-futurist Vito Di Bari and environmental artist Christo, who Allegretti says “now has a bond with Jacksonville.” In June, the Cultural Council expanded the city’s growing collection of public art by facilitating Roux Art’s “Mirrored River” mosaic, adding local color to the newly renovated Southbank Riverwalk. But perhaps most impressive, later in June it was announced that according to city ordinance, $866,000 was to be allocated for public art at the Duval County Courthouse, the largest public art project in the history of the city. And another round of Spark Grants was announced just last month, assuring another $70,000 for arts and culture projects for 2016.

On top of all this progress, opportunities in the city’s creative sector grew — making it more than 889 jobs added since 2014 alone.

Those are the kinds of numbers that gain the attention of politicians.

And now, a year and eight months into his current role with the Cultural Council, Allegretti — primarily through a rather successful hot chocolate sale at the St. Johns Town Center — has just adorned the walls of City Hall’s fourth floor with several prints and one original of Kathy Stark’s series of Florida-State-Parks-inspired paintings, as well as parochially recognizable photographs by Will Dickey.

Council President Anderson says the art installed around the City Council offices has brought “an energy and excitement to the space.”

“Every councilperson has an assistant and we host so many people from out of town,” he says. “It’s exciting that we’ve found a way to share our local artists with a broader audience.”

As a longtime supporter of the arts prior to being elected to City Council — including a stint as president of Riverside Fine Arts Association — Anderson sees art as vital to the revival of the city’s Downtown, referring to it as the “secret weapon.”

Anderson calls Allegretti “a visionary.”

“Tony has really elevated our standards,” he says. “He’s always looking outside the box for innovative ways to support local art. And the fact that he raised money through donations for hot chocolate is a good example.”

So, why hot chocolate, anyway? First of all, the City Hall hanging was just outside the Cultural Council’s purview, which consists of three main responsibilities: grant-making to the 23 CSGs, selecting and installing the city’s permanent collection (Art in Public Places), and raising money through partnerships for direct grants to artists, workshops, or special events.

The second reason has to do with a policy Allegretti instituted when he assumed the role of executive director: The artists must be paid.

“What we want to be careful about is not signing artists up for exposure,” he says. “We try to push that out so that the community knows, if you’re gonna ask artists to be involved, you need to pay ’em.”

It takes a unique personality to navigate relationships with artists, nonprofits, private individuals and corporations, and city leaders from the legislative and executive branches. By all accounts, Allegretti does so deftly and tactfully. He’s often described as sincere, passionate, charismatic, positive, genuine, enthusiastic, and genuinely enthusiastic — that last two-word adjective is distinctive not only because of the work he does, but where he does it.

“The absolute best thing about living in Jacksonville is meeting new, cool people,” he says. Allegretti’s a positive force and his advocacy for the city of Jacksonville predates his current role. “I’m always upbeat because there is no end to the love,” he says.

Anyone who has spent any time around artists in Jacksonville knows this kind of eternal optimism can be met with skepticism. But tell Allegretti that the city doesn’t export any culture and he’ll tell you about Bill Yates’ photography exhibit at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, or the ornament Sarah Crooks Flaire created for the White House Christmas tree, or the mural that Neptune Beach artist Sean Mahan painted on a 25-story building in Philadelphia. Tell him that the city is devoid of a creative entrepreneurial spirit and he’ll begin rattling off a long list of diverse projects, businesses and business people, before you have to cut him off (he could go on for days).

Tony says his favorite people are “doers,” people who share his drive and positive outlook. “It’s very easy to come up with ideas, throw your idea out there and complain that the town is too simple for it to catch on or that it will hit a wall,” he says. “In Jacksonville, I think we’ve seen that if you work hard and build a coalition and your idea, product, event, etc. is good, you’ll find joy.”

In the years after the economic downturn, Jacksonville, like many other cities across the country, has made efforts to revitalize the neighborhood that contains its urban center. Economically, many cities see this as a crucial step in ensuring they attract a young, creative workforce for the foreseeable future. Any city that has witnessed a revitalization of one of its urban neighborhoods (from New York’s Williamsburg, to Miami’s Wynwood, to San Francisco’s Mission District) has seen arts and culture play a prominent role in that transition. Jacksonville, much to the credit of the Cultural Council, is trying to chart similar ground.

In her current role as a program director with the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida — a nonprofit connecting donors to charitable causes — Amy Crane has worked closely with Allegretti on several projects (including a big one they’re keeping under wraps until after the New Year). Previously, Crane spent more than two decades with the Cultural Council. She was a big supporter of Allegretti’s when he came on as executive director.

“I think Tony has the passion and enthusiasm to do this job the way it needs to be done,” she says. “He’s so plugged-in, so positive and so kind. With everything that is happening, all the momentum around Downtown, he’s just the right guy for this time, in this city.”

In his ceaseless graciousness, Allegretti is the first to say that his success is the product of many relationships and plenty of trial-and-error.

“A lot of what I’ve tried in the past didn’t really work out, but really, all of it worked out,” he laughs.

Allegretti first came to Jacksonville riding the wave of the late ’90s tech boom. After spending some years at Florida State University in Tallahassee, he moved home to his native Pensacola to finish a degree in criminal justice, while working as a probation officer for kids. He says he studied criminal justice because, “at the end of four years of college, I’d already done the work and I wanted to get out.”

While finishing his degree at University of West Florida, though, he did dedicate some time to art classes, where he found he had an interest in marketing and advertising. A string of sales jobs led to a call from a headhunter and an interview with a software company in Orange Park (called Recruitmax at the time).

“I came for an interview and I liked the company,” Allegretti says, his eyes beginning to light up a bit. “But I really liked Riverside,” he says of the traditionally artsy, Downtown-adjacent neighborhood.

He took the job, moved around the company a bit, flirted with creating his own tech startup (before that was A Thing), but eventually exited the industry. He procured some freelance writing gigs and says he “swindled” his way into a job as marketing director of Theatre Jacksonville. He says this was where he found his “muse,” as it applies to working in the arts.

“Sarah Boone [current Theatre Jax executive director] gave me paternity leave,” says Allegretti. “And when my kid was born, I could take her to work with me,” he says with great joy in his voice. “It was a magic time. You know, it wasn’t a ton of money, but it was a good perspective of what was important.”

Allegretti describes his family life with his wife and two children as being “very arts-based.” His teenaged daughter sings at LaVilla School of the Arts and he says his wife is very supportive of his “project-based lifestyle.” Allegretti says as a family, they curate their own environment with a lot of art, much of it by local artists.

“I don’t want to pretend like I buy enough,” he says about the most recent additions to his collection. “I could do better and need to.”

While working with Theatre Jax in the early Aughts, Allegretti, who’d by this time befriended many of the city’s most prominent artists, was organizing shows
held in blighted buildings around Springfield and Downtown.

One of the most successful shows he did, he says, was called “Art and Bills.” On display were works from more than 75 artists. The tag on each piece had the price, the name of the piece, and a short description of the bill for which a sale of the piece would pay. The show raised more than $10,000.

Mac Truque, artist and longtime friend of Allegretti’s, participated in many of the shows at that time, including Art and Bills.

“My earliest memory of Tony is seeing him skateboard to an art show, where he struck me immediately as a multifaceted anomaly,” says Truque. “It was easy to see his youthful spirit and enthusiasm, but also to sense when his speech became focused and clear. Anyone who hears this tone from Tony knows that his efforts are in motion, and it’s not idle talk.”

Truque says he got a sense at this time that Allegretti was a natural leader. “His percentage accuracy for shaping things to come is deadly accurate, and I think that has made Tony a great fit for the timing of this city,” he says.

And it took a lot of vision in those days, according to Truque, to see past a lack of local support.

“Most everything I did with Tony was highly under-attended,” he says. “But I notice that the generation that was present in those days is critical to the character of the city now.”

Around 2002, Allegretti — who’d been creating pieces he describes as assemblage — and the artist Max Michaels were invited to participate in a show at Seattle’s First Thursday Art Walk.

It was a turning point for him.

“There was art in the park, there was art in trees, every person that lived in [the neighborhood of] Pioneer Square had their doors open and you could go into their homes, a stranger’s home. It was awesome and it felt really Jacksonville.”

It would be a turning point for the city as well.

Shortly after returning to Northeast Florida, Allegretti pitched the idea of a Downtown art walk to Downtown Vision Inc. The organization gave him a small budget for printing promotional material. The inaugural First Wednesday Art Walk was held throughout eight venues. That was 2003.

There have been more than 145 First Wednesday Art Walks since then, and Allegretti says he has missed fewer than five. Over that same period of time, the number of restaurants and bars Downtown has more than doubled. Fifty-plus venues participate each month. The Burrito Gallery — a restaurant in which Allegretti has a small stake — has become a destination during the festivities. This year, after witnessing the potential on display every first Wednesday of the month, the Downtown Investment authority kicked off almost a half-million dollars in retail enhancement loans for entrepreneurs willing to renovate blighted spaces and open businesses in the urban core. The neighborhood is changing and Art Walk continues to grow.

Allegretti — who, between starting Art Walk and joining the Cultural Council, continued to advocate for Downtown with the Jax Chamber and as a board member with DVI as well as the DIA — says it can still be better.

“In the early days, buying art was an important part of it. And now, not to discredit anyone, it’s just become a massive, kind of social and music thing,” he says. “Which is cool, but I think we can get back to the collectors spirit.”

Art Walk has also become the de facto photo op for city leaders. In October, Mayor Curry offered a “prost” to kick off Art Walk’s annual Oktoberfest celebration. Then, in early December, it was the lighting of Hemming Plaza’s Christmas tree.

“I’ve always believed that art is the key to imagination, and imagination is the key to innovation,” said Mayor Curry through a spokesperson via email. “As people are drawn Downtown to attend events such as Art Walk, concerts and other events, they’re also visiting restaurants, staying in hotels, and patronizing other Downtown businesses.”

Allegretti was a supporter of Mayor Alvin Brown, whom he considered “a buddy.” However, he says he found it difficult to gain any traction with the Brown administration
in the short time each man’s executive gigs overlapped.

“I don’t want to say there was a disconnect,” Allegretti continues cautiously. “But I will say that once Mayor Curry was in office, we immediately were well-received and asked where we needed help.”

Allegretti says at the time of Curry’s transition, the Cultural Council had a great need in regard to Art in Public Places, where, during the latest economic downturn, much of the money mandated through city ordinance was, for all intents and purposes, unavailable.

“Mayor Curry’s team dedicated people to truing it [the funding for Art in Public Places] up in coordination with [councilmembers] John Crescimbeni and Lori Boyer.” According to Allegretti says the Cultural Council now has the funding it needs, not only to move forward with the $850,000 in projects at the Duval County Courthouse, but also to pay for much-needed maintenance on past Art in Public Places projects.

Back at the holiday party, Allegretti is sure to pay a visit to the mayor’s office. Both men appear to be on the same page.

After more than a half-hour of glad-handing, though, Allegretti’s evening is really just beginning. Immediately after his visit with the mayor, he is crossing Hemming Plaza, heading to MOCA. He stops to hug and exchange pleasantries with a few vendors in the park, he calls them “old friends,” and he can barely get through the doors of the museum before running into more friends. First it’s mosaic artist Kate Garcia Rouh, then it’s actor and WJCT personality Daniel Austin, followed by visual artist Jim Draper. We decide it’s best to finish the interview later, since he’ll be surrounded by more and more friends for the majority of the evening. It is, after all, First Wednesday Art Walk in Downtown Jacksonville.