The story starts like this: Kid wanders into middle school orchestra class, gets handed the only instrument not in use, a viola, goes on to win an undergraduate scholarship to study said viola, meets a girl, gets into Juilliard, leaves the girl (but keeps her number), spends his academic years reading music and his summers reading blueprints (to pay for the music), graduates, loses lease in New York, rejoins the girl who happens to be moving to Fort Myers, wonders briefly how he went from cultural mecca to suburbia, marries the girl, wanders downtown, discovers an old, soon-to-be-vacated building and…
“It said arts center all over it.”
Call Jim Griffith’s story whatever you like: fate or cosmic intervention, coincidence or pure luck. However you interpret it, you can’t deny that the pieces of his life seem to have fallen in perfect order leading him here, to the helm of Fort Myers’ Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year and hopes to unveil its final phase in March for Mrs. Davis’ 100th birthday.
In 2003, Griffith, under the auspices of his nonprofit, Florida Arts Inc., won a city bid to transform the landmark 1933 post office into a cultural arts center. The city had bought the place from the federal government, which most recently had used it as a courthouse but had no designated purpose for it—and no money to fix it. The building was in terrible shape—water-damaged on the inside and crumbling on the outside. But it was beautiful, too, a neoclassic revival with towering columns and sophisticated air.
When city leaders handed over the building in 2004, they asked for two things: a $1-a-year lease payment and a promise to open the doors within four years.
Griffith promptly wrote a $99 check to secure the next century. But meeting that four-year deadline proved harder than he ever imagined. Griffith needed $3.5 million to get the doors open and a total of $6 million to fully transform the 23,000-square-foot, three-story building.
“I brought in people who, with a wave of their hand, could have financially made this happen, but bringing them to downtown in the condition it was in and bringing them into this building in the condition it was in, they just said, ‘You’re nuts. This is never going to happen.’”
Downtown in the early 2000s was dead. This was before the streetscape project, before the upscale restaurants, the chic condominiums, the art galleries, the Starbucks.
What potential donors hadn’t counted on was Griffith’s tenacity and determination to push Fort Myers to the forefront of artistic innovation.
“We knew Fort Myers was starving for fine arts and raising the level of culture in this town,” Griffith says.
If you were of the artistic persuasion, Fort Myers used to be a tough place to land. It’s not fair to say it was devoid of culture—the Alliance for the Arts was bustling, Bob Rauschenberg working on nearby Captiva, the Southwest Florida Symphony performing—but it certainly lacked the vibrancy of big or even mid-size cities.
“It felt like I was going backward a bit,” Griffith admits of his return to Southwest Florida. He’d lived in Cape Coral as a child and then in Sarasota, which is where the orchestra teacher handed him his first viola.
But he and his wife, Kara, a violin teacher, saw the region not as cultural wasteland, but as blank canvas.
Their enthusiasm was quickly rewarded. The Philharmonic Center for the Arts opened shortly after their arrival and held national orchestra auditions. Both Griffiths won seats. He’s marking his 25th year with the group; she left after having two daughters.
Jim Griffith was thrilled with the job, but his real passion was chamber music—groups of three or four musicians who play intricate and intimate works.
“When you play with really great players, it’s a spectacular experience,” Griffith says.
He quickly figured out what sets apart successful artists in places like Fort Myers—they understand that if they want an experience, they have to make it happen. It’s not New York, where untold numbers of existing organizations offer readymade opportunities.
Griffith teamed up with dancer Patty Gair’s New Arts Festival, adding chamber music and theater to the dance lineup.
“It was just amazing,” Fort Myers resident Fran Fenning says of the festival. She and her husband, John, became early supporters of the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center after seeing Griffith’s ability to cultivate the multifaceted New Arts.
Gair left New Arts in the 1990s for a teaching opportunity. Griffith stayed on, but differences with the festival board led him to establish Florida Arts Inc. That group brought musicians and other performers to Lee County for workshops and performances.
“When I came here, there was that void. The New Arts Festival filled that void. When that dissipated, there was that void again. What do I do?” he says. Florida Arts was successful, but it had no home. The visiting performers would appear in whatever venue Griffith could secure.
That’s why the old post office was so alluring.
Most people, says New York-based violinist Peter Winograd, Griffith’s best friend since their Juilliard days, get a grand idea and then shake it off because of the sheer magnitude of it.
“Jim doesn’t think that way,” Winograd says. “He has to believe in a project, and once he does, the flood gates open.”
As much as he was driven by a need to fulfill his musical passions, Griffith is also driven by a need to build things. It grew out of the summertime construction gigs he’d worked during college. He and Kara, incidentally, built their own house on the Caloosahatchee River out of recycled building materials they amassed—a solution to their dream of waterfront living and the reality of musician salaries. Those experiences allowed him to see the potential in the crumbling post office and the knowledge to supervise its transformation.
But this was no home building project.
“Well, I anticipated the challenge,” Griffith says. “The one thing I didn’t anticipate was how long it was going to take to get the building finished. Maybe I was naive. … I thought the community was going to jump in and help right away, but educating the community of the value and impact it could have has taken longer than I anticipated.”
So as the contractors worked to transform the building, Griffith had to start transforming himself—turning into public relations and marketing guru, grant-writer, fundraiser, events coordinator and, later, when the building opened, contract expert, public safety safeguard, budget writer, employer and, yes, performer.
“I learned how to play viola at school. I didn’t learn how to run an art center,” he says, grinning. During season, he works some 50 to 60 hours a week, in addition to his orchestra obligations.
“After Christmas I tell my wife, ‘Well, I’ll see you in May.’” His wife and daughters participate in center events, their way of blending family and work time. They make up for the busy months during quiet summers.
The work paid off.
“The several times that I was at the end of my rope, something happened, something gave, somebody stepped up and put wind back into our sails,” he says.
Griffith won over people like Berne Davis, who offered $1 million in 2007 for the naming rights and provided the push Griffith needed to meet his opening day deadline.
Davis just recently announced a $500,000 matching grant to pay for the restoration of the two upper floors.
And if Griffith still has community “doubters” today, they are far outnumbered by his supporters.
“As soon as people step in the door, we’ve got them hooked,” he says.
Over the past five years, the center has hosted both local and internationally known artists, dancers, actors and musicians. (Full disclosure: I’ve appeared as a dancer at the center.) It is the home base for the Fort Myers Film Festival and the Ghostbird Theatre Company. In the process, it has transformed downtown’s culture and economy.
“The fact of the matter is, it has created a destination point for those who come into Fort Myers, and a beautiful one at that,” says Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson.
Coinciding with the opening of the arts center came Art Walk and, a few years later, Music Walk, monthly downtown cultural celebrations. Not coincidentally, restaurateurs and boutique owners began taking chances on downtown establishments.
Internationally known painter Marcus Jansen held his local “coming out” party at the center in 2011.
“I had shown all over the place, but I hadn’t shown here, and this was a venue I was comfortable in,” Jansen says. By offering artists an exhibition space, Griffith helped grow Southwest Florida’s modern art community. Jansen says when he arrived 10 years ago, the scene was dominated by landscapes, palm trees and classic art.
“There’s a whole different group of artists doing art work now,” Jansen says.
And, perhaps most telling, the center has helped put Fort Myers on the cultural map. Fort Myers-based artist Lily Hatchett says she remembers attending an event in Miami and hearing comments about her city’s blooming arts scene.
“People were saying Fort Myers has something going on,” she says.
What a far cry from the arts-starved city Griffith joined 25 years ago.
“I wanted to expand the mind of the community with what could be done with art—experiencing new things, experiencing new ideas,” Griffith says. Looks like he’s done just that.
As of this fall, Griffith still had plenty of work to do. Contractors were busy transforming the upper floors into studios, offices and dressing rooms, and Griffith and his staff were envisioning the kinds of programming they might offer. They had a busy season to manage, including an international art show being flown in from the country of Georgia. The building’s exterior offered a whole other project.
“Hopefully when this is finished, I’ll be finished,” Griffith says of his construction “hobby.” But then, in the next breath, he says, “I always think another thing Fort Myers needs is an opera house, a downtown opera house.”