I drive to the downtown Fort Myers campus for the Alliance for the Arts on a sunny spring Tuesday expecting great things, given the buzz about its emergence as a cultural hub, given the ink and honors dedicated to its executive director Lydia Black. I suppose I expected something like the campus of Artis—Naples; perhaps a bit more understated, but certainly distinguished and distinguishable. What I found instead was a sign pointing the way to a long driveway flanked by a field of patchy grass. At the end of the drive, there’s a parking lot for a low, modest building that could just as easily be a medical imaging center. I get out of my car, notice the worn trailer abutting the lot, and double-check the building signage to make sure this is the acclaimed arts and culture destination.
Inside the building, the gallery walls are blank and you can hear a pin drop. This could be a slow time, but I can’t help but question, why so much wow? Maybe the answer will come in a few minutes when my interview with Black, named one of Gulfshore Life’s Men & Women of the Year honorees in 2016, begins. Last year she was selected for her outstanding contributions to Southwest Florida, giving the Alliance “stability and vision” as a community arts center. I’m here to do a deeper dive, to learn more about the woman described as a “force,” a “visionary” and a “true leader” by colleagues and associates.
Her woman-of-the-year headshot had captured a poised professional: elegant top, makeup on-point, long, dark hair in glossy waves. I scan the Alliance entryway for a living likeness.
“Hiiii,” sings a petite woman padding down a hallway in flip-flops and a denim jacket. She wears no makeup and her locks are unstyled today. “I’m Lydia. Nice to meet you!” I sense she’s suppressing an urge to hug me, a total stranger, as we shake hands and walk to her office. A sign on her desk reads: “You don’t have to be crazy to work here. I’ll teach you.”
If you don’t know the Alliance, and you now think it’s a few steps above a ramshackle arts organization led by an enthusiastic hippie who must have a pretty good PR team, then we’re on the same page. As far as first impressions go, these are just as fair as, say, the average museumgoer’s first impressions of an Alexander Calder mobile, or a Jackson Pollock drip painting.
Of course, context is everything. Without it, you wouldn’t know that a Calder mobile, which looks like an outsized crib accessory, is one of the earliest examples of kinetic sculpture. You wouldn’t know that a Pollock drip painting, which looks like a housepainter’s tarp, revolutionized art with expressing ideas and emotions in non-representational forms. And for sure you’d never guess at first blush that Lydia Black, who seems less like a business leader and more like someone you might have spotted at a Grateful Dead show, is a community transformer—culturally and economically.
But it turns out that Black has quite a serious side. The 39-year-old, who came to Fort Myers more than a decade ago after an early career in Washington, D.C., has a master’s degree in nonprofit management and a deep commitment to understanding the social, economic and political factors that shape her community.
“I care about where I live, what’s happening in the local police force, the local education system, community organizing,” says Black, a former board member of the Rotary Club of Fort Myers and current board member of the Fort Myers Community Concert Association.
“What people find weird about me is that just because I work in arts and culture—I don’t pigeonhole myself there. I’m in nonprofit management. Whether it’s education, social services, community gardening or mural making, I think the arts are part of a holistic person and a holistic community,” Black says.
The way the Alliance fosters a holistic community goes way beyond the enrichment of painting and drawing classes—because not everybody likes art theory and practice. Recognizing that a community arts center should serve the needs of the entire community, Lydia revamped the Alliance offerings. There’s family movie night, a Saturday green market, theater and comedy performances, yoga classes, and a new gallery exhibit almost every month, sometimes featuring local kids and sometimes featuring international artists.
It’s a big part of the Alliance’s turnaround, culturally and financially, since Black came on board about nine years ago. More people with different backgrounds and interests walk through the Alliance doors than ever before, the programs pay for themselves, and, with Black at the helm, the nonprofit is no longer in the red.
“I was on the board [of the Alliance] years ago, and I worked under two or three different directors,” says architect Jeff Mudgett, who is now back on the Alliance board. At various points, he says, the Alliance has endeavored to be a serious art gallery, a performance-centric space and an art co-op. None of these ideas proved sustainable.
“The beauty of what Lydia’s done is she’s found a balance that fits what our community will support,” Mudgett says. He points to the range of offerings at the Alliance, and credits Lydia with their execution—especially the vision for educational programs. “That’s now a huge part of what the Alliance does. The art classes sell out on a regular basis.”
Why has Black succeeded where other Alliance directors have struggled? Ask different people and you’ll get different answers.
Mudgett says she works unbelievably hard for the Alliance. It’s not just about putting in long hours, which anyone leading an organization tends to do. “She lives it and breathes it and believes in it to the point where everyone she talks to is now interested in the Alliance,” he says.
Ask Black what’s made her time at the Alliance so successful, and she’ll credit everyone else. “I have a herd of people.”
Jessica Clark, development director for the Alliance, doesn’t entirely disagree with Black’s statement. Clark agrees that the many good ideas that have led to membership growth and new sponsorships tend to stem from a culture of collaboration. But it takes leadership to get any team inspired and eager to think out of the box, and that’s Black’s magic.
“She’s methodical and reads leadership books and has a strong sense of where she wants to go, and she wants us to be there with her. She challenges us to push harder and be better,” Clark says. “She’s tiny and wears flip-flops, but she’s a bulldog.”
Black tempers that tenacity with her generous, fun-loving way. Her team respects her as a boss, but thinks of her as a friend. “I met my husband since I’ve been working here. She’s helped make sure he was good enough for me,” Clark says. And when Clark asked her boss for advice on the best places for a wedding brunch, Black decided to host it herself, serving homemade quiche, a parfait bar, salad, doughnuts from Bennet’s, mimosas and bloody marys.
It’s not just Clark reaping the benefits of Black’s benevolence. This is her core nature, says close friend and neighbor Katie Haas, whom she met at a Rotary meeting. “She says to me, ‘I’m coming to pick your kids up so you can take a nap.’ Or she’ll just fold my laundry and make me and the kids dinner when my husband’s out of town,” Haas says.
I mentioned to Haas that I noticed Black is a hugger. During my tour of the Alliance, Black walked me around—to the painting studios, through the empty gallery (where children’s artwork would go up the very next day), and finally to the indoor theater space. There, she surprised me with a hug. I’m not sure what prompted the embrace, but it wasn’t the last one I got.
“She can meet a complete stranger on the street and give them a big, giant hug,” Haas says. “I was in a situation in business, about to meet with somebody, and the thought popped into my head: What would Lydia do? She wouldn’t shake hands. So I gave them a big hug because I should be more like Lydia—embracing and being kind to people.”
To be clear, Black is no Susie Sunshine. Rather, she’s unselfconsciously authentic. At one point during my visit, while she and her colleagues were ribbing each other, Black shook a fist in the air—middle finger up—and cackling laughter ensued. She’s beloved and clearly admired. And why not? Everything she does seems to come down to making her corner of the world a better place for everyone in it, from her 11-year-old daughter to residents she hasn’t yet met.
Recently, she and her husband, attorney Chris Black, bought and renovated a building in a less-than-posh—for now—location in midtown Fort Myers. It is the new home for his office, Winged Foot Title, which specializes in title insurance and real estate settlements.
“Even that was a statement of support for the community: buying a building on MLK to make that little corner of the word so much nicer,” says Mudgett, who is not only a friend and Alliance board member, but also the architect for their new building. “Whenever a private investor fixes up a little, beat-down corner of any of those streets, it’s always uplifting for the rest of the street.”
But the Alliance is the best example of her successful efforts at transformation, and she’s proud that it’s become a place where so many people gather and expand their perspectives.
“I love that my daughter can come here and see a Cuban artist who paints his dreams, or a monthlong kids’ exhibit that shows the diversity of K-12, what the kids are thinking and feeling,” Black says. “I also like that it’s a flexible space where we can host a Ward 5 town hall meeting, or use the theater to talk about river issues.”
None of it can happen without money, of course, and donors are an important part of the nonprofit’s bottom line. Lydia doesn’t necessarily appeal to their emotions, talking as you might expect about the value of arts and culture to community enrichment. She talks about the economic impact of the arts in Southwest Florida, which can get anyone’s attention—art-lover or not. (She mentions to me she swaps her flip-flops for high heels for these types of meetings.)
Under Black’s direction, the Alliance commissioned an economic impact study in 2010 that found the Lee County arts community (the nonprofit arts and cultural centers) had a $68 million economic impact and employed some 2,000 people. She expects this year’s study, which should be out in late summer, to show higher numbers—highlighting the quantifiable value of investment in the arts.
Landscape architect Jon Romine says he knew he wanted to befriend Black years ago during one of her presentations on the economic impact of the arts in Southwest Florida. “She’s an advocate for arts and culture, but it wasn’t about ‘arts and culture is better than this or that.’ She made people think about it from the quantitative side, which is not typical,” Romine says. “I was very impressed with her.”
They—and their families—did become friends, and now Romine is helping Black in a professional capacity: revamping the Alliance campus. “Over the course of the last three or so years, we’ve worked closely together to help hammer out details of the campus masterplan, how to make the campus become a true community place,” Romine says.
Black can’t say too much about it yet; the massive project is under-wraps for a little while longer. What she can reveal is that it’s a partnership with many stakeholders that will include a central sculpture that will be educational, functional and inspiring. And, thanks to collaboration with the Florida Department of Transportation, walkability is about to change in a big way, making the campus—and downtown Fort Myers—accessible and inviting to pedestrians.
Romine says there have been countless iterations of the plan, but that working with Black is as much a pleasure as knowing her as a friend. “Other than that one presentation when I first met her, I’ve never seen two Lydias. She’s not polished by day and something else at night. She’s somewhere in between almost all the time. She’s real, and she makes you feel it’s OK to be real.”