A typical neighborhood association might frown upon its residents painting their properties in bold hues of sunshine yellow, lime green, royal purple or fire engine red. So even at first glance, one thing is immediately evident about Bradenton’s colorful Village of the Arts: This is by no means a “typical” neighborhood.
In the years since its establishment in 1999, the Village of the Arts (VOTA) has experienced mixed-success in its endeavors to carve out a niche as an eclectic, affordable live-work arts district in downtown Bradenton, FL. The economic recession that rocked the nation starting in 2008 took a heavy toll on VOTA, stalling its growth. But with the market on the rise, the Village is eager to begin a new chapter.
Today, the Village aims to grow by exploring a strategic process called creative placemaking, and is taking steps to establish itself as a definitive hub for arts and culture, with the help of the City of Bradenton and the nonprofit organization Realize Bradenton.
The goal of creative placemaking is to create a destination with an artistic social character and identity, to animate existing physical structures and spaces to facilitate cultural activities, and to promote greater visibility and business viability in a region or neighborhood built primarily upon the arts. This strategy is accomplished through a collaborative effort between cities, nonprofits and community sectors to share the workload in conceptualizing and implementing plans.
“What’s happening in the Village of the Arts symbolizes the best of what can happen when people come together to accomplish great things. It’s the best of placemaking when communities, city municipalities, nonprofits and businesses work together toward a shared vision,” says Realize Bradenton Director Johnette Isham.
Building an arts community from scratch
VOTA set roots in a struggling area near the southern end of downtown Bradenton, where by the late 1990s, several historic homes built in the 1920s and 1930s sat in states of disrepair following decades of neglect. Where most people saw blighted homes in a troubled neighborhood, the pioneering members of the Artists Guild of Manatee, the nonprofit organization responsible for the formation of the Village, saw something different: a blank canvas with low rent and exciting potential.
Through the Artists Guild’s efforts and cooperation from the City of Bradenton, VOTA was established as an overlay district, meaning that zoning regulations provide residents with uniquely lenient live-work rights within the Village’s approximately 42-acre boundaries.
In the last 15 years, the neighborhood has undergone a visible transformation, as its dilapidated buildings experienced a gradual, colorful rebirth. Today, approximately 40 businesses—art studios and galleries, eclectic shops, restaurants and bakeries, a yoga studio, an independent bookstore and publisher, and two health and wellness centers operate within VOTA.
But becoming the largest artist colony in Florida does not come without its share of growing pains. Simply defining a cohesive identity in an experimental, built-from-scratch, live-work community filled with strong-willed creative thinkers can be a challenge of its own, but throw in a market-crippling economic recession during the project’s formative years, and suffice it to say, VOTA’s first decade was a bumpy ride.
“During the years when many other arts communities failed, the Village stuck it out. Just the fact that we’re here 15 years later is really good. We did not fail — and we went through one of the worst economic times since the Great Hurricane and market crash that rocked Florida in the 1920s,” says City Councilman Patrick Roff, elected official for VOTA’s Ward 3.
Roff notes that although the Village is beginning to bounce back from the recession, it is currently operating at just one-third of its potential capacity. But as the Village enters its adolescence, Roff and other VOTA supporters believe it is prepared to grow.
A revitalized economy and real estate market helps. So does the fact that VOTA has won the support of community leaders, including Roff’s colleagues at City Hall, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and Realize Bradenton.
“I give credit to the stick-to-it-iveness of the Village residents who have been willing to hang in there through the hard times. Now, the City has really committed. There have admittedly been times when our commitment has been distracted, and that’s when Realize Bradenton took on the Tapestry study to redirect our attention. Now we’re ready for real progress, and the timing couldn’t be better,” Roff says.
Weaving the fabric of a community: The Village Tapestry
In spring of 2012, the Artists Guild, Realize Bradenton and the DDA teamed up with noted urban Sociologist David Brain and 17 of his students at New College in Sarasota to initiate the creative placemaking process in a project that would become known as the “Village Tapestry,” a conceptual outline of VOTA’s future.
Brain’s students conducted a neighborhood conditions survey and led a series of community workshops to learn about the social fabric of the Village, and to identify how it could build upon its strengths. Among the Village’s greatest assets, they discovered a robust core of creative visionaries who came to be known as “Village Connectors.”
“Some pretty obvious things popped out, like areas of activity central to the Village that really worked, and that there is a much more diverse population there than people recognized. We came to the conclusion there needed to be a social, community-building piece of work done to get people more connected,” Brain says.