While the arts experienced setbacks during 2020, the lack of access to live music, theater and exhibits came with one upside: It made even the Philistines among us more appreciative of all the intangible rewards that come with proximity to artistic genius. Now, there’s no going back. We’re already seeing a flurry of productions that reflect the urgent social and cultural issues that commanded the spotlight during the last two years. Some of the top people behind local institutions have changed, too, including Molly Deckart at Alliance for the Arts and Frank Verpoorten at Naples Art. The two come with strong pedigrees and even stronger visions to take their esteemed organizations to new heights. Meet the stalwarts informing the future for the arts in Collier and Lee Counties.
Frank Verpoorten at Naples Art
The former The Baker Museum leader brings his honed instincts and extensive Rolodex to Naples Art.
As Naples Art’s board of directors began their search for a new leader for the 67-year-old organization last fall, they set their sights on Frank Verpoorten, the seasoned art historian who had served as director and chief curator at Artis—Naples, The Baker Museum for seven years until his departure in 2019.
Verpoorten had been working as an art adviser and consultant on curatorial projects for private collectors since he left the museum when he received the call from Naples Art. He was a natural choice for an arts organization with all the chops to be a world-class cultural center (prime real estate, longstanding history in the community and brand equity), but in need of direction to get there.
While Verpoorten had always been drawn to Naples Art’s educational-driven programming, he saw the potential to expand the organization’s presence and scope. He’d already earned the community’s trust by producing the level of programming serious art aficionados crave. During his tenure at The Baker, Verpoorten secured hard-to-get exhibits (including negotiating pieces in the current René Magritte show), solidified the vision for the collection and exhibits, and elevated the presentation of the artworks in the museum. He also secured notable pieces for the museum’s permanent collection. His relationship with late Naples resident and esteemed art collector Olga Hirshhorn led to her donating hundreds of works to the museum.
Verpoorten felt he could do something similar at Naples Art and looked forward to working with a midsize organization, with ample opportunity for impact. “When you have a small but talented group of people, you can bring about change more easily and make your mark,” he says. Further encouraged by the art center’s prominent location on Fifth Avenue South and its emphasis on education (both he and his wife are avid advocates for arts education), he accepted the role of executive director and chief curator in early 2021.
Verpoorten moved into his office at Naples Art in Cambier Park on the heels of a difficult year for the nonprofit. As a result of the pandemic, much of the staff were laid off or left, and operations were essentially shut down for three months. The news reported on marketing efforts by the organization to drum up interest (including a campaign with a male model named Art) that didn’t stick. When Verpoorten came on board, he dismissed Art and instead focused on marketing the nonprofit through organic means. “You can only attract serious gifts with quality programs,” he says. “This is truest in no place more than Naples.”
He leapt into action, investing in talent, rebranding with a new logo and user-friendly website, and methodically shaping a comprehensive strategic plan. Verpoorten headlined his inaugural season with Keith Haring: Radiant Vision—a show that celebrates the iconic pop artist’s legacy and devotion to art education and social justice with more than 100 works. The exhibit—secured through his extensive connections fostered over 23 years in the industry—marked a new era for the organization. “People did not know to look at us for this type of content,” Verpoorten says. Going forward, the group plans to debut two shows of the same caliber every season.
“Local or not has nothing to do with it,” Verpoorten adds, clarifying that the selection of exhibited artists is not based on their origins or even their international acclaim (he has little interest in artists he believes get undue attention and is driven to uncover and showcase emerging talent). Instead, he looks for artists that tell a complete story through their lives, subject matters and quality of work: “We want to professionalize everything. We want to have a better curation of the art classes, a better selection of topics taught and arresting art exhibitions of high quality,”
The Keith Haring exhibit, on view through Feb. 6, reflects another key point in Verpoorten’s strategic plan for Naples Art: supporting inclusivity. “We’re in 2022 and simply cannot afford not to progressively move forward with those ideas,” he says.
In addition to rounding out representation on the gallery walls, within the staff and on the board, he aims to make the art center more accessible to everyone by extending the hours of operation for those working during the day. “Why on earth should Naples Art’s doors be closed at 4 p.m. in high season?” he ponders.
Coincidentally, much of Verpoorten’s drive and strategic plan aligns closely with Naples Art’s original articles of incorporation. The 1954 document established the organization’s mission to encourage, improve and promote artistic talent in children and adults through exhibitions and classes while acting as a custodian of fine arts in the community and the state.
Verpoorten seeks to leverage the organization’s existing reputation for arts education. “Education, in general, is power,” he says. “Art education is important for the emancipation of the senses and for us to be productive in a tactile manner.” He’s expanding the offerings with interdisciplinary programs, like ones that incorporate contemporary dance and theater; inviting art instructors from around the world to teach online; and creating integrations between the classes and exhibitions. Recently, 25 students from The Immokalee Foundation toured the Haring show and then painted a mural inspired by the artist.
Looking ahead, Verpoorten and his team envision capitalizing on their location, near Fifth Avenue South, and adding to the urban landscape with a renovation and expansion of Naples Art. “I see a clear path forward because of my experience and work—just give us the resources,” he says. “I will keep producing the type of content Naples loves.”
Molly Deckart at Alliance for the Arts
The Idaho transplant builds on the Alliance for the Arts’ legacy of transformation through creation.
From the onset of her career in arts nonprofits, Molly Deckart has been driven to keep talented artists at home. An artist herself with a degree in fine art from Boise State University, Deckart was working as vice president of a private early childhood school when she decided to create the Idaho Horror Film Festival in 2013. The move came out of “pure frustration” at seeing all her talented friends from art school move to states with more dynamic arts scenes.
Eight years later, when she got the position as executive director at the Alliance for the Arts, she was giddy about the access to the 10-acre campus in the heart of Fort Myers that came with the job. What better opportunity for placemaking, cultivating local talent and garnering excitement around the arts? After starting in the role last February, it didn’t take long for Deckart to figure out how to occupy a tennis court-sized parcel of that acreage. She immediately kicked off fundraising efforts for a National Fitness Campaign (NFC) Fitness Court—one of 10 in the country—that integrates art and fitness, with an outdoor gym decorated with work from an established artist, like Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat. Alliance’s proposal won out from among 100 competitors that applied. “The process included a feasibility study that delved into the city of Fort Myers, visibility of the site and traffic patterns,” Deckart says. “The foundation selected us based on our commitment to the arts and the accessibility of the project to the community.”
The Fitness Court is but one of the big ideas Deckart has for the Alliance. Her “baby” is the digital arts lab, slated to debut this summer in the Alliance’s previous boardroom. Deckart is glad to see the formerly “useless space” put to good use with 13 computers for aspiring and seasoned creators to edit podcasts and films, design posters, work on digital illustrations or create mixed media art. “If you’re a novice, you can take classes; if you’re experienced, you can book lab time,” she explains. She understands digital art is not only a growing field, it represents a language that is second nature for younger generations.
To further cultivate our region’s future creative talent, she also formed a youth board, partnering with The School District of Lee County to select one student from each of the 15 county high schools and three alternative programs. “Kids have a voice, and they have a lot to say,” she says. “The arts provide a platform for all sorts of groups, but particularly children. We want to hear what they want to see and talk about the impact they can have in their community with arts as the vehicle.”
She’s ever mindful of the strong foundation she has to build on, having replaced executive director Lydia Black, who left the position last year after an impressive 13-year run. “Lydia’s love for the Alliance is evident everywhere on campus,” Deckart says. “I am acutely aware of the big shoes I need to fill. We share many of the same priorities such as advocacy, access and inclusion in the arts.” To honor her predecessor, the Alliance recently dedicated the front entrance plaza to Black and The Price Foundation established a scholarship fund in Black’s name for Lee County children to benefit from the organization’s educational programming.
For her part, Deckart brings a wealth of experience gleaned at the Idaho Horror Film Festival (which doubled in attendance all six years she was involved), as well as the Boise Film Foundation, which she founded in 2016 to incentivize the funding of films shot in Idaho. Traces of her background are seen in creative programming she’s already kicked off, like a Blair Witch Project screening with a director Q&A session at Nice Guys Pizza in Cape Coral last fall. It’s all part of her goal to expand the presence and access to the arts in Lee County.
Geography aside, she finds a lot of similarities between Boise and Fort Myers. “Both are experiencing explosive growth,” she points out. “They are young cities with burgeoning arts scenes, and people are coming in droves. It’s up to us to figure out how the community changes programming to meet those challenges.” When she closes her eyes, she envisions every square inch of those 10 acres filled with opportunities for creative expression. One early win involved removing the berm in the middle of a field at the Alliance to make the outdoor space more versatile for live music and other productions.
Overall, accessibility and community engagement are her priorities. “I like to say if I can sell horror in Idaho, I can sell art in Florida,” she says. And, the self-described coalition-builder is more than up for the task of fueling a dynamic creative community where local artists want to, and can, stay and create. “If you don’t have a vibrant arts scene, you don’t have a vibrant city,” she says.