Bonita Springs -
An Art Center

by Carol DeFrank

BRINGING CULTURE AND ART into the community, specifically to children, has been the mission of the Center for the Arts of Bonita Springs for 50 years. The name may have changed to reflect that it is now a complete performance center, but the goals remain the same. Meghan Easterly, Marketing Director for the organization, explains, “We accomplish our goals through community outreach, free family events, and art lessons for children and adults.”

Originally named The Art League of Bonita Springs, the non-profit organization was founded by a handful of women whose primary purpose was to bring art into the schools. They soon grew to 300 members who chugged along in donated spaces during most of their existence. Eventually they concluded that they needed their own home.

“The location on Old Route 41 wasn’t planned,” says Susan Bridges, president of the Center. “We were contacted by a real estate agent with a client who owned land that included a preserve. The owner of the property had neither the time nor money to care for a preserve and was willing to donate it. The realtor asked if we would be interested in the land. We were delighted and proceeded to purchase two adjoining acres. The preserve was perfect for us. We cut walking trails and installed outdoor music to encourage artists to paint and sculpt out in the elements.”

In 2000 the group applied for grants and started a grass roots campaign to raise money to build two 1,700 square foot buildings. They succeeded and when the project was completed their new home was debt free. However, the original profile wasn’t sufficient, as there was no room for growth or to separate departments. So they applied for another grant, did some more fundraising, and two years later, had enough money to erect two additional buildings.

The staff, membership and programs continued to expand. Bridges says, “We now have 13 employees, 1,600 members plus 2,000 volunteers who clocked around 22,000 hours last year. When you consider that many of our volunteers perform high level jobs that would demand far above minimum wage, we are blessed.” The organization currently provides service to thousands of students each year and awards $77,000 in scholarships.

With that kind of growth it didn’t take long before space was once again at a premium. “Our live performances were held in our gallery, which meant it had to be transformed into a theater,” says Easterly. “For each performance we’d set up a stage, chairs, the whole gambit, then take it down again. Not the best scenario.”

Last year the Center was fortunate enough to partner with the Promenade at Bonita Bay, who donated space for a dedicated theater and 13 studios that are used by illustrators, photographers, potters, glass workers and other artists. Candidates must submit to a qualification process to acquire studio space. Bridges explains, “When they are accepted we help them set up and get the accommodation ready for work. In return the artist allocates 35% of his or her proceeds to our programming and community outreach events.”

Now up and running, the studios are open to the public. People are encouraged to stroll through and are greeted personally by the artist. “This is a much more personal shopping experience,” says Bridges. “The buyer meets the creator and learns about the inspiration that went into a particular piece.”

The artists participate in an Art Walk the last Thursday of each month. They provide hors d’oeuvres, wine and beverages for their guests. Musicians perform in the courtyard, creating a delightful mix of art and music.

The performance space was especially welcome. “This gives us a designated theater with a seating capacity for 183,” says Easterly.

Art programs in the schools is still one of the main focuses of the organization. “We feel it’s just as important to have a presence in the schools today as it was 50 years ago because, due to budget cuts, so many of the schools were forced to cut art from the curriculum,” Bridges explains.

“We also have many other programs for children,” she continued. “We produce three performances a year for kids 12 years of age or older. Participants learn everything involved in putting together a production; from costuming and creating sets to selling tickets and promotion. They can also participate in a variety of summer camps, art classes and mentoring sessions.”

A major source of revenue for the Center is the semi-annual art festivals. “Thousands of people attend the tightly juried outdoor events, which features nationally and internationally acclaimed artists showing their painting, glass, jewelry, clay work, photography, and sculptures. “Our shows are different from others in the area because we do everything ourselves, including the planning and promotion. All proceeds support our community art activities,” Bridges explains.

Another popular ongoing series is Affairs of the Art, 18 diverse social events scheduled throughout the year that include everything from gourmet dining to a river cruise. These events are open to the public.

New this year is a Films for Film Lovers series held at the Promenade. At the conclusion of each screening there is an in-depth discussion about the film. In addition, a film society has been formed and meets monthly.

“Our future looks bright.” says Bridges. Our wish list includes a performing arts center right on campus, complete with our own theater. We’d also like to add music and dance classes for kids.

She continues, “Many departments are bursting at the seams. We are in the planning stages right now to add a couple of buildings on ten acres of allocated space.”

The arts enrich the culture of a community by providing opportunities for artistic expression, education and appreciation in a supportive and nurturing environment. The Center for the Arts of Bonita Springs is doing their part to enrich the lives of the people living in Southwest Florida. •

from the January-February 2011 issue

The Center for the Arts of Bonita Springs
has 13 employees and 1,600 members
plus 2,000 volunteers.
26100 Old 41
Bonita Springs.
Galleries open
Monday-Friday 10am-4pm
& Sunday 1-5pm.