Past, Present, Future

by Jeri Magg

COLORFUL SUNSETS of orange and blue coupled with the peaceful sound of water slapping against sand have always attracted artists to Sanibel and Captiva islands. In 1979, a like-minded group spearheaded by Pete Smith, Polly Matsumoto, George Campbell, and Martin Grassgreen formed the Barrier Island Group for the Arts (BIG ARTS). Until 1987, with no formal building, the group held concerts on the beach, classes at the Sanibel Community House and used local galleries to display members’ works. As their reputation grew, residents and tourists alike flocked to their different events. It became obvious that BIG ARTS needed their own home.

In 1987, after the City of Sanibel agreed to provide land, Smith and Grassgreen were able to convince builder Scott Naumann to donate one of the original Colony Resort duplexes slated for demolition. Backed by a cadre of dedicated islanders, the group raised the $75,000 necessary to move the building to its present site on Dunlop Road. Gifting the building back to the City and renaming it ‘the Founders Gallery,’ BIG ARTS began their first season of concerts, classes, discussion groups, and juried art shows. The larger events were held on an outside deck.

Community response was so overwhelming that in 1990 fund raising efforts began for an addition. This need became even more apparent during a Christmas cold snap that year when Carrie Lund Productions was forced to cancel four shows and 85-year-old Carnegie Hall pianist Art Hodes had to perform on the outside deck in frigid conditions.

Lavern and Bill Phillips, members of the group since 1985, were responsible for raising the money needed to build this new wing, named the Phillips Gallery in their honor. Bill, a retired CEO, became treasurer and Lavern, the consummate volunteer, known for her fund raising abilities, led the organization as President.

Under Lavern’s tutelage, this new 150-seat gallery housed a myriad of different programs. Locals could enjoy watching a ballet, listen to a jazz concert or learn how to paint with water colors. BIG ARTS, run mostly by volunteers, became so successful that less than five years later another expansion was necessary.

In 1996, following the plans of architect Joe St. Cyr, Harvey Schein and others were able to generate the $750,000 needed for the West Wing Expansion, later named Schein Hall. With its auditorium, classrooms and art studios, the hall is now the center of the group’s activities. Phillips Gallery is still noted for its wonderful local art displays and juried art shows.

As BIG ARTS celebrates its 35th Anniversary in 2014, current President Don Rice believes the organization once again has needs. “In order to fulfill our cultural commitment to the community, we need to expand our educational facilities,” states Rice. However, at their present location on Dunlop, sandwiched between the Sanibel Historical Museum & Village and Sanibel City Hall, there is no room available. Realizing this a few years ago, the BIG ARTS board started brainstorming for a solution. It became evident that updating Schein Hall would be too costly given the changes in the city’s building codes. But then another idea was floated by the newly elected president.

One night, while Don was a volunteer server pouring wine at a Kiwanis function on Sanibel, he was paired with City Manager Judy Zimomra. “Sanibel’s still a small town, and we got to talking,” laughs Rice. He learned about a master plan for a Civic Core Campus encompassing BIG ARTS, Sanibel Historical Museum & Village, Town Hall, Sanibel Community House, and the Herb Strauss Theater. Zimomra wondered if a larger site farther down Dunlop could be used to complete the concept while fulfilling BIG ARTS’ needs.

That idea started the ball rolling and before long special workshops were set up for all interested parties. A proposed master plan was drawn up and presented to the City Council in November. “So far,” says Rice, “the idea has been welcomed by the community.”

After the first of the year, the City will host a series of public meetings. Once approved and properly permitted, their new campus, built on city land adjacent to the recycling plant, will include a theater/arts building and additional rooms and classrooms for their Life Long Learning Center. If these initial plans move forward, the present BIG ARTS complex will be torn down and turned into green space. The current building housing the Herb Strauss Theater may also be scheduled for demolition and be replaced with a Black Box Theater within the new complex.

The Civic Core will be a public/private partnership with BIG ARTS mounting a capital campaign so as not to incur any debt. When will all this happen? Rice expects that once the design is completed and the project approved, the lights should be lit for events in the new performance hall within 36 months

Don Rice is typical of the hundreds of volunteers who have made BIG ARTS special during the past 35 years. As a former business executive, Rice worked with many non-profit organizations and was a member of many boards and environmental groups. In 2004, he and his wife Joyce retired to Sanibel. Not one to be idle long, Rice joined the BIG ARTS family as a volunteer. “I flipped hamburgers at fundraisers and parked cars,” he jokes. Then he was asked to join the board and this past year became President.

According to Rice, things changed dramatically for BIG ARTS when it acquired the Herb Strauss Theater in 2010-11. The professionals and volunteers at Herb Strauss blended perfectly with BIG ARTS, which before this acquisition was run almost exclusively by volunteers and a staff of four or five. Now the staff numbers sixteen. “There’s no way we could run all our programs today without our staff,” Rice concedes. But it’s the volunteers who come up with most of the ideas. Former President Chuck Bonzer, for example, initiated the very successful Winter Academy seminars, digital projection for live streaming and launch of the Community Players.

Rice is very excited about this new BIG ARTS campus set within an integrated civic core idea. He likes to remind residents of the important part a complex like BIG ARTS plays in the life of the community. Its ability to educate and stimulate residents and visitors is critical to the vitality of Sanibel and Captiva. •

January-February 2014

Herb Strauss

900 Dunlop Road