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Culture Watch: Happy 60th, Naples Art Association

Beyond growing pains and struggles of the past, the venerable institution celebrates an anniversary with renewed focus on local artists and education programs.


There are two ways of looking at age in Southwest Florida. If you are a person, being 60 puts you squarely into the middle-aged camp, with quite a few folks likely to point out your whippersnapper status.

But if you are an organization, 60 years makes you more than old. At 60, you are venerable.

Few things in Naples can match the longevity displayed by the Naples Art Association. Started by a handful of local artists who wanted to show off the talent working in the area, it has grown to be one of the largest arts concerns going, with a Cambier Park campus housing touring exhibitions, drawing tens of thousands to national art fairs and providing arts education in a community where public school support for it has dwindled.

Still, even at 60, the NAA is really just now coming into its own. For four decades, the group moved around from space to space, lease to lease without a place that ever truly felt like it fit. In the early 1990s, its board could see the writing on the wall as skyrocketing land prices put the group in a now-or-never situation in terms of securing a permanent home.

Bette Young was the board president during that stretch and remembers the countless hours spent negotiating with the city for a piece of Cambier Park on which to build.

“It only took 11 months to build the building, but it took six years to get started,” she says.

When The von Liebig Art Center opened in 1998, it marked a new era of stability for the group. But with that came big changes. “It was strictly a volunteer organization at the time,” Young says. “But all of a sudden, we had so much space. So we hired a permanent director, and that person needed staff to provide support.”

In the past 15 years, she says, the organization has grown well beyond what any of the earlier board members could have imagined.

“Clearly there was pent-up need for an arts organization like this in the city. It became sort of a central meeting place for artists,” she says.

But with a new building and permanent staff came much larger expectations, both in artistic and financial terms. The NAA became a different organization and one that at various points in the past 16 years has struggled to hit the mark.

“There was suddenly this building with no endowment to run it,” says Aimee Schlehr, the association’s executive director for the past 18 months. “Suddenly there was a much bigger nut to crack every year.”

In order to make budgets work, the association needed to draw bigger and bigger crowds to the new building, which often meant bringing in outside artists to display work or in some cases bringing in exhibitions that were only tangentially related to the arts at all. This led to cries from local artists that their work wasn’t being displayed and represented as it should by an association made up of artists.

And while having a permanent home allowed for year-round classes for students of all ages, it also meant for the first time the association had to worry about costly upkeep, something it struggled with as repairs to various systems became necessary. On top of it all, the building’s name became what people remembered. It wasn’t uncommon to hear the association’s own board of directors tell people they were on the board of The von Liebig rather than the Naples Art Association.

Schlehr started with a mission of getting the financial aspects under control. She comes from the business world and has an accounting background and quickly set sights on making sure the organization operated within the means it had, while preparing for maintenance issues. Now that things have stabilized, she and the board, led by president Stacey Bulloch, have set their sights on growing the organization. Using the 60th anniversary as a jumping-off awareness-raising campaign, bringing in as many groups as they can to showcase the things going on at the center and around town.

At the same time, the group is looking to tighten up the exhibition schedule to bring it back into focus with the mission of promoting local arts and artists.

The three exhibitions that opened in December feature local art: a show juried by a local art critic; a showcase of the work of local artist Joan Sonnenberg; and a member’s gallery exhibition of work inspired by the natural wonders of Florida.

But that is just one part of the mission. The education components are being pushed to the forefront and the association is looking to add art therapy programs.

And they are looking at any and every way possible to get more people to interact with the arts and the artists in the community.

“Myself, not having an art background, I can relate to people who don’t feel like they know how to connect with the arts,” Schlehr says. “So that’s how we are approaching things, looking for ways to help people connect one on one, to really understand and appreciate the great art in the community.”


Spotlight: Chipping Off the Block

This month Lothar Nickel will start chipping away at a large slab of marble on the Artis—Naples campus. When he’s done, the arts organization will have a one-of-a-kind piece that will honor its first 25 years.

But the piece itself, likely to be some sort of Florida-specific animal although no one will say for sure, is less interesting than the view into the sculpting process. We’ve all doodled on a piece of paper, so while the finished works can often render us speechless, the act of painting or drawing doesn’t seem so foreign. Fewer of us have tried to turn a block of solid rock into something more.

Watching Nickel slowly break away the superfluous pieces, chip by tiny chip, will provide a lesson in how one action has an effect on the next. And for those of us who struggle to see the big picture, perhaps it will offer a little inspiration on turning raw materials into something beautiful. artisnaples.org


Must-See of the Month

He’s country music’s reigning king of comedy, but there’s more to Paisley than his tongue-in-cheek lyrical stylings. One of the best guitar players in the game, who is also a three-time songwriter of the year, Paisley is first and foremost a showman.

Think Toby Keith without the flag draping. He’s steeped in the old-school country of the ’60s, but is just as adept at playing the more rocking stuff from the past decade.

All in all, he’s the singer both country and non-country fans alike can rally behind. germainarena.com


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