BRADENTON -- Like the pioneers of old who ventured into the wilderness with a dream of carving out a new life in the midst of unknowns, the founding pioneers of the Village of the Arts faced some of the same gambles -- and carried with them many of the same dreams.
The idea of changing a blighted neighborhood into a thriving art community sounds good on paper. But someone had to roll the dice and risk their own livelihoods in planting the village seeds. It would take everything coming together in just the right way for a handful of artists to transform a neighborhood into a downtown destination. It took hard work, dedication and the refusal to give up a dream.
Fifteen years later, the Vil
lage of the Arts has blossomed from vision to reality.
The official birth date is Jan. 13, 2000, but according to Jo Ellen Gorris, a founding member of the village and owner of Clay in the Garden, the effort to begin the art community began several months earlier.
"It was May of 1999 when we had our first meeting, and there were artists flowing into the hallway," recalled Gorris. "It was already a live-work district, but we were not the village yet. And we wondered if we would be after that first meeting where we couldn't come to an agreement.
"We held another meeting with about 40 artists who were still determined to make it happen," she said, "and we were able to cooperate enough to form the Artists Guild of Manatee."
Giving Herbie Rose credit
The organization remains the foundation of the village today, and Jamaican-born artist Herbie Rose was the guild's first president -- a choice that Gorris said made all the difference in the world. Rose is largely credited with taking the idea of an art community in Bradenton and making it happen. He lent credibility to the idea and was named as an honorary mayor of the village when it was founded.
Rose and his wife, Graciela Giles, were the first to buy property. Bonni Brown, owner of Bonni Bakes, closed on her property two weeks later and was the first official business in the newly named Village of the Arts. Bakes said the city was doing a lot of infrastructure work at the time, and wanted to try and turn around the old neighborhood due to its close proximity to downtown.
"It was very different here then," said Brown, who noted that it took time for the existing residents to trust the first artists to arrive. "It took a while for them to believe that we were there to try and help the neighborhood while making things better for ourselves. I bought the building next to the old Seminole Apartments, which had a lot of drug and crime issues. But we put together a neighborhood watch program, and the city's commitment from the beginning has helped make the area safe."
Bakes said there is still a perception out there that the neighborhood is unsafe, but it's not true.
"Once people actually come here, that is when their perception changes," she said.
Linda Bronkema, owner of Bits & Pieces and another founding member, said she saw the potential from the very beginning.
"I saw the dream and I wanted it," said Bronkema. "I bought Bits & Pieces in 2001 and worked toward my dream. This is what we all want to do. It's a great neighborhood and that initial risk was worth it. This is one of those old-time neighborhoods where everyone stands out in the streets and actually talks to one another. The village is very much like a garden, and it has receded and grown over time and is blossoming now."
Another founding member is Anna D'Aste, owner of the Little Swamp Co-op Gallery, a growing trend in the village where established artists are hosting several works from other artists to give village visitors even more variety. D'Aste said the village was home first when she bought property in 2001.
"I worked in other studios and always wanted a place of my own to work and do it my way," she said. "For me, the idea of the village was perfect timing, and I saw so much potential -- not only as a business district, but as a community. There are so many areas in Florida where people live next to each other and don't even know one another. It's so nice to be in a place where you know everyone."
D'Aste said the village has had its fair share of ups and downs, and growth has depended on a sometimes unstable economy.
"But I'm happy with all of its ups and downs, because you learn from the problems and do something that helps the village regain energy again," she said. "And we are starting to see an influx of new artists again.
"I don't think the village will ever be complete," D'Aste added. "It's just like in life. Is it ever done just because you reach your goal? No, you find new goals and always keep trying to improve."
Whatever happens with future growth, the founding artists of the village are determined to ensure that one thing never changes: the sense of community they all share as neighbors, business owners and friends.
Joan Peters, of Joan Peters Gallery and a founding member, is not a full-time resident of the village, but no one would ever know that as she summed up life in the village.
"It's one of those neighborhoods where I know if I walk out my door and walk 50 feet, I'm going to stop and talk with at least three people," she said.
A special celebration will take place during the Jan. 2 Artwalk, with these businesses and more celebrating their 15th anniversary along with the village's birthday. To learn more about the village and upcoming events, visit villageofthearts.com.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.