The arts group has a new direction


Dave Engdahl appreciates brevity, succinctness, something you can put on a napkin or, in this case, a two-page memo (you can ignore most of the second page, he tells me), like Jack Welch would do. Something people will remember without thinking too much about it, something, he says, “that is memorable. Something that we then can use. It’s a communication tool as well as a flag or mantra.”

Engdahl, a short, fit, spry 74-year-old retired architect and sculptor, is entering his third year as board member of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville and chairman of the Arts in Public Places Committee. At a board retreat in July, the CCGJ asked Engdahl — who volunteers something approaching full-time hours for the nonprofit and helped steer the ship during its leadership vacuum earlier this year, after the CCGJ brought in and then pushed out an executive director in less than three months — to update the group’s three-year-old strategic plan.

With less spacing and fewer bullet points, what he came up with could fit on a postcard. The Cultural Council is to be a “convener/collaborator,” an “advocate/activist,” a “grantmaker.” Its mission is “to champion and cultivate the arts and culture.” Its values: “visionary,” “open,” “innovative,” “collaborative,” “energetic.” Its vision is “for Jacksonville to be a recognized leader in arts and culture in the southeastern U.S.”

That’s pretty much it. Engdahl’s strategic plan doesn’t really change anything substantive; rather, it truncates and simplifies the earlier version for public consumption.

That 2011 document marked a somewhat radical departure from the CCGJ’s modus operandi of the aughts. Back then, in the salad days of overflowing coffers, the CCGJ was passive, acting essentially as a pass-through between the City Council and cultural organizations like the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Science & History and The Florida Theatre and WJCT and the Cummer. Nobody thought much about doing anything differently. There wasn’t any need to.

“We existed for many years comfortable in the role of a re-granting organization,” says Abel Harding, the Council’s current chair.

But when the economy cratered and those public funds began to dry up, the Cultural Council faced something of an existential dilemma. Just passing money along was no longer good enough. They needed to be proactive, to be engaged, to serve as connective tissue between artists and the community, to inculcate Duval’s growing arts scene.

They took a few small steps in that direction, most notably with the creation of the (privately funded) Spark Grants last year. Those grants led to, among other things, Brad Lauretti’s songwriter residency and Joy Leverette’s Looking Lab project. But for the most part, they took on a new direction and no one noticed.

Or, as Engdahl put it to the CCGJ board last month when presenting his strategic plan, “A lot of our cultural partners don’t even know we made a shift.”

In a sense, as Tony Allegretti, the CCGJ’s new executive director, told me over beers a couple days later, the Cultural Council’s problem is a lot like the city’s problem: All the pieces are there, he says, “but we’re shit at marketing.”

That wasn’t the only issue. In 2011, the economy still sucked, and the city was, year after year, hacking away at the CCGJ’s funding. (The Cultural Council’s $4 million annual budget for cultural service grants in 2003-’04 dwindled to $2.85 million in 2011-’12, then to $2.8 million in 2013-’14.) Moreover, the city’s Art in Public Places budget, which is tied to new city construction — fire stations, new municipal buildings, etc. — was practically nonexistent. (The city, after all, hasn’t had many major projects since the Better Jacksonville Plan.) And then late last year, the CCGJ hired Kim Bergeron, the director of arts and cultural affairs for Slidell, Louisiana, to replace long-tenured executive director Bob White.

This turned out to be a mistake.

“The person that we hired was from a small town and I think did not have a grasp of how comprehensive the art program that we really needed here, how comprehensive that was,” Engdahl says.

She left three months later. For the next few months, the CCGJ limped along, with an interim director and a few board members “ad hoc running” the group, Engdahl says. “Over the last year, we had some ups and downs in terms of leadership, and that’s what led finally to Tony.”

Indeed, Allegretti, already a force majeure in Jacksonville’s political, business and cultural circles when he came on in May — he was previously the Jax Chamber’s Downtown guru, and before that an assistant to Mayor John Peyton and co-founder of both the Riverside Arts Market and Jacksonville Art Walk — was a solid get.

More than that, though, the underlying structural forces were starting to take shape. The economy was picking up. The city’s budget is no longer bleeding red ink, and new construction is on the horizon. And the Cultural Council thinks now is their moment.

“The timing is right. Everything has changed,” Harding says. “The confidence is back in the local community. A lot of organizations were just hunkering down and just trying to survive. We’re bullish at this point.”

They have something going, and they want you to know about it — shit at marketing no more.

They’ll flex their muscles with the city’s first-ever Sculpture Walk, a one-year outdoor sculpture exhibition located primarily in Main Street Park (as well as at the Chamber, Hemming Plaza and the Regions Bank building) that will feature 13 works, mostly from Florida, though one’s coming from Germany. The grand opening is Sept. 12, and the sculptures will be on display for a year.

“I hope it brings some energy to Downtown,” says Jenny Hager, a University of North Florida associate professor of sculpture and Sculpture Walk curator. (She also has a piece in the exhibit.) “I want people to picnic in [Main Street Park]. I just want it to be a place people utilize, a cultural destination.”

The day before that unveiling, Allegretti and Engdahl are scheduled to appear on Melissa Ross’ First Coast Connect on WJCT 89.9, and then later that night Engdahl and Art in Public Places Committee executive director Christie Holocek will host Art in Public Places 101 in the MOCAJax auditorium, a primer of sorts of what public art is and why it’s important.

There’s also — provided it survives City Council’s ax, which is no sure thing — $406,000 tucked away in the Downtown Investment Authority’s planned budget for public art projects: wall murals, utility-box paintings (à la Chip Southworth, only city-sanctioned), bike racks, street furnishings. And in May, the CCGJ announced a new round of Spark Grants, five this time, including a monthly hip-hop event and a mosaic project — $45,000 in total, funded by Florida Blue. As the Spark program grows, and if the funding’s there, the CCGJ hopes to expand the model beyond the urban core, to the Beaches, perhaps, and then throughout Duval County neighborhoods.

Cultural Council members are also talking about better engaging artists by helping them learn how to better compete for projects, both here and nationally, and market themselves more effectively, as well as the creation of a sort of artists directory, which would help artists across Northeast Florida partner and coordinate with each other. “We have not done a good job at involving the artists and providing for some of the artists’ needs,” Engdahl says. Mainly, that’s because for so long the CCGJ just dealt with the cultural groups to which it routed city money, not individual sculptors and painters and musicians.

Still, so much of these ambitions boil down to money. The Spark Grants are privately funded, and any expansion of that idea into other parts of town is contingent on the private sector stepping up. And there’s the city budget. “This is always an anxious time of year because the city’s putting together the budget and we’re a line item in there,” Engdahl says.

Last month the Finance Committee knocked down a funding hike that Mayor Alvin Brown proposed for the Cultural Council. It’s possible — though Allegretti thinks it unlikely — that the CCGJ could take another hit before the budget is finalized, too.

Which, he continues, is why the marketing component — reaching out to the community, really — is so important. “By being proactive, I think that’s the single biggest change in our strategy and where we’re going. We’ve been able to raise significant funds from the community primarily based on our arts awards event. And there’s a lot of people in the community stepping up to the plate. You have to get the community involved. This isn’t something that’s just handed down from city government.”

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