From Grassroots to the Halls of Power, Mitzi Gordon's Transforming the Arts in Pinellas County.

If you’ve attended a festival or two in Pinellas County in the last three years, you’ve seen Mitzi Gordon. She was probably standing in front of her Bluebird Books Bus, inviting kids and adults inside to pick up a free book or two. She financed and founded the rolling library, which in recent years has been a fixture at shindigs like Localtopia and First Night.

And if you’re actively involved in the local arts scene, you probably know Mitzi by name – for nearly a decade, she’s been serving in a variety of roles at local institutions like the Dali Museum, and new projects like Bloom Art Center. The Bluebird Books Bus has even helped inspire other projects like the Nomad Art Bus.

The Bluebird bus doesn’t get out as much as it used to, though, because Mitzi has taken on an even bigger role. A bit over a year ago, she was appointed Executive Director of Creative Pinellas, the county’s arts agency (technically, it’s an affiliated nonprofit).

Mitzi’s main goal has been helping the county bounce back from arts cuts triggered by the recession. Creative Pinellas was actually created in 2011 as a new, much leaner replacement for the Pinellas County Cultural Affairs Council, which was closed as part of broader post-recession budgetary cutbacks.

PCCAC awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of local arts grants annually, but Creative Pinellas entire budget has generally been in the mid-five figure range, which is why Mitzi, an independent contractor, is the organization’s only full-time personnel. The agency’s role has been largely limited to promoting area events online, and organizing a few events of its own.

But all that is about to change. Mitzi has spent much of the last year workshopping and promoting a $300,000 budget for an expanded Creative Pinellas, and in June, the Board of County Commissioners gave initial approval to $200,000 in new funding for 2016.

Mitzi’s viewpoint on arts funding is simple: “The return on investment in the arts is fantastic.” That’s true on many levels. Arts institutions like the Dali are huge tourist attractions, while the culture of gallery and street art, including the explosion of murals in recent years, has helped make central St. Pete a destination for both new residents and job-creating companies. Property values and revenues throughout the county have rebounded strongly in the last few years in part because of the arts.

The expanded budget will mean at least two new contract positions at Creative Pinellas, allowing for increased local outreach and more fundraising for big projects. Tentative plans include more support for programs like Veterans Creating for Community, which helps soldiers battling PTSD, and Creative Clay, which provides arts programs for the disabled.

Then there’s the big kahuna – the return of a county-level grant program for artists and public projects, which went the way of the dinosaurs when PCCAC was shuttered. Next year, though, Mitzi says there’s $100,000 earmarked for grants.

Now that she’s done the heavy lifting of pushing all these big changes through the political process, Mitzi has decided to take a role that’s a little more in tune with her sensibilities. One of the new positions in the expanded Creative Pinellas will be a Community Relations Director, and she’s hoping to transition into it once her board decides on a good replacement for her as Executive Director.  That will mean a little less lobbying and a lot more working with the artists and community members she loves.

St. Pete Threads is thrilled to have Creative Pinellas going big. To celebrate, we’re launching a Creative Pinellas shirt.

You can learn more about Mitzi Gordon and her many amazing projects at www.mitzigordon.com.


Carrie Boucher’s Nomad Art Bus is changing lives, one t-shirt at a time.

When Tampa Bay native Carrie Boucher returned home from art school in Chicago, she made her way in part by teaching art in the public school system. But she got frustrated by how low a priority art sometimes seemed – her classes would be canceled for standardized test prep sessions, or troubled students would be pulled out as a form of punishment.

To Boucher (pronounced, in the French style, boo-SHAY), that seemed silly, since art was so valuable for the most troubled students. “Art would give them another avenue to explore. [And] a lot of time the kids who were being pulled out were the kids whose families wouldn’t have the resources to seek out extracurricular art activities.”

Eventually, she decided that she could reach more kids if she were mobile, instead of stuck in a classroom. She’d seen the Bluebird Books Bus, a mobile library started by Creative Pinellas Executive Director Mitzi Gordon – and she ran with the example.

“I put it on the bus so that we could go into the neighborhoods and reach people.”

A little over a year later, Carrie devotes herself full-time to the Nomad Art Bus – a full-length bus, packed with art supplies and kid-sized work surfaces. The bus travels between schools, festivals, organizations, and events around the Bay Area, giving kids a chance to get in touch with their creativity. Nomad provides after-school enrichment at underperforming schools and art therapy for recovery programs, while taking time to drop in at events like Localtopia, Pops in the Park, and First Night.

For Boucher, dedication to the Nomad has meant working hard and living a leaner lifestyle. She’s constantly developing funding sources and partnerships, but also teaches private metalworking workshops on the side when she needs to. “There’s often such a big gap between what we do for money, and what we do to make our lives better . . . I’m kept alive by the generosity of other people. I have an amazing network of people who want me to keep doing what I’m doing.”

T-shirts are one way people support Nomad’s mission. At first Boucher provided them strictly to volunteers, but people liked them so much she started selling them. “People want to support what you’re doing, but they want to walk away with something, too.” Boucher designed the funky ‘seal’ design herself, at first putting it on kids’ shirts – but it wasn’t long before adults clamored for it.

Carrie hopes St. Pete Threads will help make Nomad’s merchandise more accessible – while making sure plenty of the revenue returns to Nomad. “The exposure is going to be so much more,” she says. “We have [shirts] on our little tiny website, and at events,” but as the name implies, it’s tough to find Nomad in the same place twice. “It’ll be nice to have a place where I can send people . . . if someone got one, and wanted one for a friend, they’d know where to go.”

You can pick up a Nomad Art Bus t-shirt right here – it’s a great design, supporting a great cause.