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His leadership is partly responsible for a $402 million a year economic impact in Tampa Bay.
Almost as many people relocate to Tampa Bay for the services he helps to provide as they do the weather.
More than double the people who attend sporting events each year attend the events he supports.
His county department is responsible for awarding over half a million dollars in grants to non-profit organizations and $20,000 to individuals.
He’s Art Keeble, executive director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County.
Take a deep breath and collect yourself. Read that last paragraph another two or three times to make sure you read it right. Grab a dictionary and look up the definition of art to make sure it doesn’t have another meaning. Ok, ready to go on?
Yes, art is one of the most important elements of any community and few individuals have been as instrumental in the growth and development of the arts in Hillsborough County as Art Keeble, who has lead the Arts Council of Hillsborough County for over two decades, taking it from a county department that offered only workshops and business services to artists and turning it into a department that has helped to form an arts “community.” The council has also assisted in the growth of countless artists and arts events through the grants program that he started. Artists use the grant money to further their careers and non-profit organizations use it to fund events that promote the arts.
Of course, the Arts Council does more than award grants to worthy artists and organizations. It runs arts and education programs for young children, senior citizens, and everyone in between, offering workshops in drawing, painting, silk screening, digital computer art, photography, dance and more. It also manages one of Tampa’s historic jewels – the Tampa Theatre.
“It’s very difficult to have a thriving community and to attract new businesses to our community without offering them some kind of cultural arts programs,” explained Keeble. “We know that when people are looking at the county as a place to relocate their business, the two biggest aspects of the community they look at are the quality of the schools and the quality of the arts programs.”
And even those individuals who dismiss the importance the arts have on a child’s growth in terms of breeding creativity and critical thinking skills cannot dismiss the economic impact these arts programs have on the community – a $402 million a year impact. This money is brought to Tampa through a variety of ways – ticket sales for arts events, such as any show at the Performing Arts Center or Tampa Theatre; dinner before the show and drinks afterwards; a new dress or suit for the event; babysitters to watch the children that evening; hotels for the artists coming to town to perform or showcase their work and those coming to town specifically for the show or event; sales tax on not just art, but on other services mentioned above; and, of course, sales of the art.
“There is never an arts section per se in the paper everyday, but there is a sports section. There is never five minutes dedicated to arts on the news, but there is for sports,” said Keeble. “So nobody gets it. But [the artists] are behind the scenes pumping money into the economy.”
Keeble reflects those artists he represents through his county department – though he may rarely receive the kudos and pats on the back he deserves for his important role in the growth of Hillsborough County, he never complains and never screams for attention. He simply continues to go about his job.
“I really enjoy the career I chose,” he said. “That makes all the difference in the world.”
His career as a leader in the arts community started long before he was hired by the Arts Council of Hillsborough County in 1984. Keeble helped forge strong arts communities in other areas of the country long before he arrived in Tampa Bay.
Born and raised in the small town of Maryville, Tennessee, located a few miles outside of Knoxville, Keeble attended the University of Tennessee and graduated with a degree in journalism.
“I was always very curious and I wanted to know a little bit about everything,” he said. “So after I took an aptitude test I was told I’d be good at journalism and though, ‘OK.’”
But, upon graduation he didn’t pursue a career in journalism.
“When I graduated from college we were right in the middle of the Vietnam War and I was very draftable,” explained Keeble. “I could get a deferment if I taught school in an impoverished area, so I got a job at Orange Park, Florida teaching six graders.
“It was the first time I’d seen sixth graders since I’d been in sixth grade,” he laughed.
Six months later, he transfered to a school in the impoverished town of Galien, Michigan.
“The school was one building that housed K – 12,” he said. “It was a very small town.”
By 1969 he said he was no longer draftable, which allowed him to pursue other interests.
Keeble returned to the University of Tennessee and earned his master’s degree in television. But, upon graduation he once again he pursued a career in a different field than the one he’d studied. He took a position as a field specialist for the Tennessee Arts Commission.
“My job was to get in my VW bus and drive through the 16 counties I covered and look for indigenous crafts people – wood workers, basket makers, anyone who made something and never received formal training,” he explained.
Keeble, along with the other two field specialists, discovered enough talent throughout Tennessee that they were able to found the Tennessee Crafts Marketplace, which provided an opportunity for these artists to earn money off their craft.
In 1974, shortly after Keeble had been promoted to director of marketing, budget cuts eliminated his department in the Arts Commission altogether. He quickly found new work, though, as the very first executive director of the Knoxville Arts Council. In 1979 he returned to the Tennessee Arts Commission as its executive director, but was fired in 1984.
“I supported the challenger for governor in the election that year,” said Keeble. “The incumbent won and fired anyone who didn’t support him.”
Tennessee’s loss was Tampa’s gain. Later that year Keeble joined the Arts Council of Hillsborough County and has been at that position ever since, molding the department into what it is today.
For instance, when he first joined the Arts Council in 1984, the council’s primary purpose was to provide technical assistance to artists through workshops on art and the business side of art – marketing, PR and business management. In 1989, Keeble instituted the grants program that today provides over half a million dollars to arts organizations and $20,000 to artists, which forever changed the landscape of the arts community in Hillsborough County.
“The grants have helped artists grow and arts events grow,” said Keeble.
Keeble also helped to form an arts community. When he joined the Arts Council, a list of artists in the county didn’t exist. Today, the Arts Council has nearly 1,200 artists in its database, artists that are now kept abreast of all arts-related events in the county, knowledge that has helped them to become more involved with their fellow artists and the community as a whole.
In 1994, Keeble founded the Arts Council license plate program. Funds collected through the sale of these specialty plates are distributed to the counties where the plates are sold and are used to support arts organizations, programs, and activities within that county. The Arts Council of Hillsborough County earns approximately $30,000 a year through this program, which generates close to $4 million statewide.
Also, along with former County Commissioner Jan Platt, Keeble founded the Ybor City Saturday Market seven years ago to provide artists with a place to sell their art.
Of course, the Hillsborough County arts community has changed quite a bit during Keeble’s two decades as executive director of the Arts Council. When he first arrived in Tampa, he said the arts scene was “folksy,” made up of a number of home grown theatre groups that regularly sold out shows simply through friends and family of the performers.
“Everything was local,” he said. “We didn’t have bus and truck shows.
“Tampa Theatre didn’t even have a dressing room. They’d set up curtains in the street behind the theatre and that’s where the performers would change.”
As Tampa grew as a city, so did its theatre shows. More large-scale shows came to Tampa, pushing many of the small local theatre companies to extinction. Keeble doesn’t think this is particularly a bad thing, as long as the large-scale shows continue to grow in a positive way and the smaller companies are allowed to flourish as well.
“I’d classify our arts scene as adolescent right now,” said Keeble. “It’s growing. We have shows like the Lion King coming this summer for six weeks, which means all the dance schools in town that generally have their recitals at the Performing Arts Center will be forced to use the center’s smaller halls and will have to hold three times as many shows to get the same audience as it would in the larger halls they normally rent. This will cost them more.
“But things are always changing and morphing. I believe that in time a solution will present itself so that everyone can exist.”
The biggest threat to the arts community is not the lack of venues Hillsborough County can provide – there will always be somewhere to hold a show. The biggest threat is the government and it’s lack of respect for the arts.
With Amendment 1 passing, city and county governments will be forced to make extreme budget cuts.
“And those cuts will be made in the cultural programs,” said Keeble. “Those people operating on a shoe string budget right now aren’t going to have any shoes. It’s a bleak outlook.
“I’m hoping the private sector will step up and start becoming members of arts organizations, make charitable donations to the arts, or help out in any way they can.
“I hope they realize how important the arts are.”
Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. The arts are important.
"Filmlook" is ©2008 by Paul Guzzo. All graphics unless otherwise noted are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2008 by Nolan B. Canova.