Lakeland’s arts scene reveals the true value of our creative community

photography by Jordan Weiland,  Philip Pietri, Tina Sargeant and Sarah Brewington

They’re all over the city: in the restaurants downtown, congregating in classrooms, sharing pints and ideas at the bars. They’re a small, dedicated group of individuals who have made a subtle but profound difference on Lakeland as we know it.
Lakeland’s art scene is growing, and its participants are excited about its momentum. The arts are an important part of building a thriving community in the city, improving our quality of life, driving economic growth, and connecting Lakeland’s inhabitants to other Lakelanders and their hometown. The city’s emphasis on the arts isn’t a recent phenomenon. Cynthia Haffey, executive director of Lakeland’s Platform Art, recalls the arts’ significance in restoring the downtown area in particular. “For the last 10 years or so, the creative culture has been busy adding the elements of beauty and entertainment that have begun to establish Lakeland’s cultural identity,” she says. She adds that art, film, fashion, sound, and performance are all aspects of the arts that have contributed to Lakeland’s culture.
And she would know — Cynthia is a longtime Lakeland resident who has watched the city’s art scene burgeon over the last several years. “I can honestly say I moved to Lakeland because of the Lemon Street sculpture project,” she says. “Tampa was my home for 35-plus years, and, having accepted a job in Lakeland, it was a perfectly comfortable drive from North Tampa to Lakeland for work every day. Within the first six months of commuting to Lakeland for work, I had fallen in love with the city for recognizing the value of and making a commitment to the cultural aspects of our community.”
Ellen Chastain, the education director for Polk Museum of Art, has similar memories. She and her husband, Chad, moved to Tampa from Arkansas and lived there for a year. Chastain, who was working for the museum at the time, asked her husband to move to Lakeland from Tampa. They were both struck by how much potential Lakeland had, and they quickly decided to move. They started organizing music shows at the museum and dove headfirst into the community of artists and musicians that was growing in the city. “It was so easy for us to hop into the community and do that stuff with no qualms,” she says.
Local artist Rick Olivo had a similar experience. He moved from New York to Lakeland in 1983 after his brother began attending Southeastern University. Once here, Olivo recognized an immediate need for an outlet for actors and decided to start his own theater company, which he called The Pied Pipers. “When I first got here, I worked in theatre — most people didn’t even know I did art,” Olivo says. “I decided I wanted to have a theatre in Lakeland, so the parents here [helped me through the process of getting the theatre started].” He’s been here ever since.
All three individuals believe that the importance of the arts in the city can’t be overstated. Chastain, who runs art programs at the museum, works with students ages seven and up. She thinks that the arts are especially important for young students. Learning how to draw, especially, helps children develop the fine-motor skills necessary for them to learn to write. She also says that completing art projects helps kids learn to follow directions, develops critical-thinking skills, and fosters problem-solving skills. When they’re older, the arts can be a tool for learning entrepreneurial skills that will benefit them later in life. One of the museum’s programs, for example, helps students design and sell T-shirts. The students track their inventory, manage their earnings, and donate a portion of their earnings to charity. “They use art in order to gain life skills,” Chastain says.
Olivo thinks that changing people’s lives by teaching them about the arts has an effect not only on the students but on the rest of the community as well. Knowledge of the arts and the ability to create makes a profound difference in the lives of individuals, he says, but the changes don’t stop there. He notes, “People don’t realize that, when you change a life, you don’t change one life. You change a family. When you change a family, you change a community.”
And that community is definitely changing. Olivo says the arts scene in Lakeland is responsible for much of the city’s current status, both in terms of population and commerce. “There are places in England and the Nordic countries where their city centers have gone down because of the lack of shipping,” he says. “And, all of a sudden, there are only two things that bring people back: that’s electronics or art. We can see it here in Lakeland. A lot of our art is involved in bringing back commerce.”
Haffey agrees with Olivo and notes that Lakeland’s art community is responsible, at least in part, for the city’s economic growth. “Nothing operates outside of economics, and a truly ‘active’ arts scene can only exist if it is economically viable,” she says. “Beauty is in the ‘buy’ of the beholder. Whether the beholder is a donor, benefactor, patron, or taxpayer, all are customers. Where art and artists are compensated, art and artists thrive. Where they thrive, the community that embraces them thrives.”
The financial effect of the arts is important, but the artists have a more subtle, more profound impact on the city’s residents. The arts help establish a deep-seated sense of community among Lakeland’s inhabitants, and they help foster a sense of connectedness between individuals and the rest of the city. “People relegate art as an auxiliary thing, as something you do because you have nothing better to do,” Olivo says. “But now we’re realizing that art is very basic to forming communities and making people communicate.” Haffey agrees, and notes, “We are contributing, collectively, to a stronger, vibrant, desirable, and unique community environment.”

Knowledge of the arts and the ability to create makes a profound difference in the lives of individuals. People don’t realize that, when you change a life, you don’t change one life. You change a family. When you change a family you change a community.

Artists and arts enthusiasts like Chastain, Haffey, and Olivo are thrilled with the prevalence of the creative community in Lakeland and the surrounding areas. But they all agree that the best is yet to come. Chastain spoke excitedly of Polk Museum of Art programs like their Art Crawl, which helps local artists connect to buyers and supporters from the community. She says that the museum’s programs change regularly to meet the city’s needs, and she eagerly anticipates expanding programs to meet future demands in Lakeland, Bartow, and the rest of Polk County.
Olivo, too, is passionate about the city’s artists, and he thinks that the future of Lakeland’s creative population is largely dependent upon finding patrons and buyers who can support local artists. “Fostering the arts and fostering artists shouldn’t be the responsibility solely of arts-oriented organizations,” he says. “It should be an individual calling; people should be supporting artists. It goes back to the money. Please invest in local talent! It will be worth your while. I guarantee that they’re just as good as anything in Chicago, in New York, in L.A. And when they become part of Chicago, New York, and L.A., you will have a piece that’s worth its value.”
Although they love the appreciation for the arts already established in Lakeland, Chastain, Olivo, and Haffey look forward to an even more prolific, vibrant arts community. Each has their own dream. Chastain dreams of expanding the museum’s outreach programs. Olivo dreams about wider financial support for local artists. And Haffey dreams about encouraging more public art works through Platform Art. Their dreams are fueled by a deep love for the arts and for Lakeland. “I hope Lakeland is always Lakeland — that’s why we moved here,” Olivo says. “But I hope Lakeland can be a richer Lakeland. I think it will be.”