When you enter Tony Allegretti’s office in the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, one thing is clear. He has a fascination with the life and work of James Weldon Johnson.
The entire back wall is a photographic mural of the Jacksonville native.
There are several copies of Johnson’s autobiography, “Along This Way,” which he frequently loans out.
“On every page, there’s Jacksonville,” said Allegretti, executive director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. “There’s the river, there’s all sorts of historic markers. So you’re reading about your neighborhood.”
Johnson was the first African-American lawyer in Florida and the first black leader of the NAACP. He wrote the words to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” long considered to be the “Black American National Anthem.”
He can recount story after story of Johnson’s life. “It’s a bit of a crime that we don’t celebrate him more,” he said.
Allegretti was raised in the Florida Panhandle and kicked around in a few large cities like New Orleans and Miami. In the late 1990s, he landed in Jacksonville.
“It’s a large city, but if you work hard and you’re passionate, you can do an incredible amount of things here,” he said.
Allegretti said he has found for every person who challenges a project or idea, there are 10 interested people who want to see things happen.
“I’ve learned that there’s success in being the change that you want to see,” he said. “I think there’s an easier path to that in Jacksonville than any other large city in the U.S.”
It’s not always easy. His first projects, including Uptown Market, were in Springfield when it was still a high-crime area.
His favorite project he’s been involved in is First Wednesday Art Walk, which launched in November 2003. He also has been instrumental in the Riverside Arts Market and Burrito Gallery.
“Sometimes the conditions were great and I got lucky,” Allegretti said. “In some things, it was just perseverance and not giving up.
“In the words of a friend of mine, I try to be prayerful and careful,” he added.
Allegretti has a creative streak. While he cartoons for fun and therapy, he wouldn’t consider himself an artist. His mother, uncle and grandfather were artists. Allegretti feels it may be in his genes, but it’s not his path.
It’s his mission at the Cultural Council to bring more art and culture to everyone in the area.
“Art and culture improve earning potential, grades, quality of life and we have swaths of Duval that don’t have that,” he said.
Cultural service grants are the cornerstone of the Cultural Council’s work. Last year, as the grant administrator for the city, it distributed $2.4 million in taxpayer-funded awards to 25 arts organizations.
They ranged from big names, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville and the Museum of Science and History, to small neighborhood nonprofits.
He said the Cultural Council’s return-on-investment survey of the 25 organizations supported by the grants showed a $77 million economic impact.
In March, the Cultural Council will sponsor a convention on professional business issues for artists, since every artist is really a small business.
“We try to provide a conduit of information so that artists can survive and hopefully thrive in this city,” Allegretti said.
He lives with his wife, Tammy, and their two children on the edge of San Marco.
Isabella, 15, is a vocalist at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts who sang in a choir at the Vatican while she was a student at LaVilla School of the Arts.
His wife got to accompany her on that trip, but Allegretti had to bootstrap his way to Italy and talk his way past the guards so he could see the performance.
Seeing his daughter, he was on the verge of tears. But when the Vatican’s grumpy old Italian music director stood up and applauded their performance, Allegretti said he broke down and cried.
Nico, 11, is a soccer player, like his dad. At 46, Allegretti plays for the Burrito Gallery Cyclones Over 30-B team. “I’m not so good anymore, but I still get out there,” he said.
Most days, Allegretti rides his skateboard to work — even if it’s only from his car in the parking lot a block away. On Jacksonville Jaguars game days, though, he’ll skate the almost two miles from the Burrito Gallery to the stadium.
“Those long trips for old dudes are hard on the hips and joints,” he said. “But I find myself in a better mood when I skate from my car to the office.”
Never mind the disapproving comments from some folks on Water Street.
It’s a bit unorthodox, but that’s one of Allegretti’s favorite lessons he learned from Johnson’s life.
“Stepping out, doing something a little unorthodox and taking a chance could get a huge payoff,” he said.
Something Allegretti tries to do every day.