October 31, 2014

Considering the state of our arts.

Broadway blockbusters, literary lions, Pulitzer-winning drama, contemporary jazz, a gold-medal violinist, an artist who wrapped an entire Florida island in fabric, world-class divas and festivals galore-Southwest Florida is brimming with cultural riches this year. Even 15 years ago, arts lovers found little to nourish them here-some fledgling theater and music groups, a handful of galleries in downtown Naples and the promise of the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, which was rising on a construction site on the then-outskirts of town.

We've come a long way. In addition to the astonishing success of the Phil, now a $100-million organization that hosts more than 400 events a year, in just the last five years, the von Liebig Art Center and the Sugden Theater have created a cultural hub in downtown Naples; the Naples Museum of Art has opened; Florida Gulf Coast University has added to the intellectual life of the region with its Renaissance Academy, a new fine arts building and planned exhibition space; Collier has acquired the Everglades Museum and Roberts Ranch and expanded its downtown museum; the Naples Botanical Garden has launched an ambitious plan for 165 acres in a neighborhood that could desperately use some improvement, and now there's talk of a children's museum as well.

Smaller arts groups have grown, too-from 27 to 43 just in the last six years, with "more on the horizon," says Joy Lelonek, head of the United Arts Council (UAC) of Collier County. Naples now also has close to 70 galleries. "We're definitely one of the fastest-growing gallery scenes in the country," says William Meek, whose Harmon-Meek Galleries is the oldest in Naples and perhaps in the state. Meanwhile, in Lee County, the last seven years have brought the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, Florida Rep, Theatre Conspiracy, a new performing arts center at BIG Arts in Sanibel, more than $2 million in renovations to Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, and dazzling new facilities at the Bonita Springs Art League.

What's more, we've done all that with very little help from local governments. Except for supporting some museums, providing land for a few facilities and occasionally helping with marketing for special events, government has left the care and feeding to private citizens and public foundations. That might warm the cockles of some fiscally conservative hearts, but a new study by Collier's UAC points out some glaring cultural omissions that government might do well to address.

Chief among them: Although most people in Collier County-about two-thirds-now live here year-round, most of our arts still aim at the wealthy residents and visitors who come from January to March. Since they're the ones who generously support the arts, that makes fund-raising sense. But it leaves long, barren stretches in the cultural calendar and overlooks the many families who can't afford top tickets. And despite some praiseworthy programs, like the von Liebig's four-year-old Artschool or the Sugden's KidzAct, we're not doing enough to introduce our children-including the children of immigrants, who could introduce us to some cultural traditions and treasures-to the expansive world of the arts. Smaller arts groups, which are less likely to attract wealthy patrons and thus need government help, are often more likely to create programs aimed at meeting such local needs.

Government officials often see arts as frivolous. But in fact, argues George Lange, president of State Street Global Advisors and chair of the UAC study, the arts have a huge economic impact, and culture should be an important element in all our comprehensive planning, "from growth development to tourism." In addition to creating jobs and generating what Lange estimates as another $150 million in annual spending in Collier alone, the arts attract wealthy, sophisticated residents and visitors, who fuel the local economy and boost everyone's quality of life. Many of those who buy homes in our beautiful communities, patronize our shops and restaurants, and plunge into local causes and charities could live anywhere in the world. They're looking for a place with character, other interesting people and plenty to do; and cultural energy matters as much as "sunshine, blue sky and white beaches," says Lange.

That's why some Florida counties, such as Broward and Palm Beach, give a percentage of their tourist tax to arts programs that attract visitors, especially in the off-season when many businesses are languishing. However we do it, it's time for us to protect our golden assets-and future-by investing in the arts. 

-Pam Daniel, Editorial Director 

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