Naples Art, the one-time von Liebig Center, has been eerily quiet for six months. But the art association behind it is getting out the noisemakers. And showing some naked ambition.
This weekend it’s announcing an overhauled curriculum of classes with a populist bent, including seasonal lures such as face-painting artistry for Halloween. Also in the mix are kite design, mask making, jewelry making and even simply sculptured make-up. Classes in Spanish and evening classes for working people are part of it.
Also this week, it will begin dispatching “Art,” a live male character who will dominate its new advertising campaign. Art will make appearances around town, often unannounced, but with his own figurative fig leaf to conform to local laws.
“We needed it to be fun,” said Doug Olsen, a board member who has assumed the position of creative director for the organization. “We’ve had that lingering thing that we’re a von Liebig museum.”
Art, the character who will represent Naples Art in its new campaign. (Photo: Michael A Caronchi)
Naples Art follows the same mission, but bigger
That doesn’t mean its classic fare — watercolor, the basics of drawing, landscape painting and collage — have been abandoned, said Ricki Baker, president of the organization. In fact, she added, the center is adding its most requested class: human figure drawing. It’s what she calls “an expanded direction” for the organization.
“Our goal for the new Naples Art, emphasis on new, is to become the central address for visual arts in Naples,” Baker said. “That means more interesting, more challenging, more edgy, more inclusive programs, courses and events to widen and broaden the audience, the number of people who integrate and deal with us.”
Its exhibitions, lectures, its classes, its popular small-group concepts such as “Dinner With the Artist” and its avant garde fashion show, “Scene to Be Seen,” apparently haven’t been enough to entrench it in the tiara of local art destinations. The center was still getting the backhanded compliment of “Naples’ best kept secret,” she said.
“On the scale from predictable to approachable, we were predictable. We need to move toward the approachable.”
‘Meh’ meets a trio of train wrecks
That “meh” image intersected this spring with what Baker refers to as the “perfect trifecta” for disaster:
The coronavirus. County-imposed restrictions and a concern for safety among its own students and instructors shut down its spring semester classes. Its final art show of the season was dropped, and its splashy spring fundraiser, “For the Love of Art,” was canceled.
“Along with ‘Scene to Be Seen,’ that’s several hundred thousand dollars that flew out the door right there,” Olsen said. The fall fashion runway show and boutique, generally in early November, has been postponed until next spring.
The cooling system. Naples Art lagged behind neighbors like the Center for the Arts Bonita Springs, which forged an online curriculum of private lessons and franchised classes within a month. But before it could establish something, its air conditioning system, with a cooler that is custom-produced, died.
“Essentially anything that would bring in revenue,” observed Merlin Lickhalter, interim executive director for Naples Art. The gift shop, which specialized in locally and regionally created items, also had to close.
More: Naples Art loses its executive director in a trying year for area’s oldest arts group
A temporary commercial unit at its 585 Park St. building has been the only sign of life. It sends out a background of bass rumble, pouring just enough cooled air into the building to maintain it for its inventory and allow a few staff members in for essential work. Estimated cost: at least $140,000.
The RIFS: Executive Director Aimee Schlehr let most employees go, including its respected long-time curator, Jack O’ Brien. Some patrons offered to contribute to his salary to keep O’Brien on. But the amount was “considerably less than his salary in exchange for bringing him back, and we weren’t financially able to do that,” Baker said.
In July, Schlehr resigned herself, saying she felt the board wanted to move in a different direction.
Naples’ oldest arts organization found itself floating toward the falls.
“What we discovered was we had some serious financial problems,” Baker said. “Many of the things that were done by our employees, we could no longer do, like hold major shows indoors that needed to be curated and do major events that involve volunteers, person-to-person, and so forth.
“We were able to retain, thank goodness, some our key, and most versatile, staff members. We then convinced two wonderful people, one being Doug Olsen, who was a board member, to take (the new position of) creative director.
“And then, heaven and several other people in the community dropped Merlin, just like the stork down the chimney, right into our laps to become our executive director.” (Although Lickhalter is technically the interim, he is being titled executive director.)
The Naples Art Association is one of the nonprofit organizations dedicated to the arts in Collier County that was surveyed as part of The Arts & Economic Prosperity. (Photo: Dorothy Edwards/Naples Daily News)
From a corona-imposed hiatus, renewal
Lickhalter is a former president of the United Arts Council and the Classic Chamber Concerts Series. He was cofounder of the ArtsNaples World Festival, which became the Stay in May Festival until its demise this year.
He is also a retired architect. In his first month, Lickhalter’s job has entailed nudging the air conditioning system toward completion. Oct. 19 is the firm date for installation, with some updated management control systems he hopes will save at least $100 a month.
He’s working with Olsen to create the buzz he thinks the center deserves. That includes salting the community with appearances by Art, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Olsen.
“We bring visitors to the community,” Lickhalter declared. Police estimates put the total crowds coming to Fifth Avenue South for its shows as 17,000 to 35,000, according to Ed Clay, of Dragon Horse, the center’s media relations company.
The pandemic, ironically, has worked in the association’s favor, Baker said. Its summer would regularly be wall to wall with children’s programs in its popular ArtsCool, which brings in more than 900 youth over school vacations, along with adult summer art classes.
“What this crazy time has given us is literally the time, the hours in the day, to reimagine what we want to do and how we want to do it, how we want to emerge from this. And then we’ll look and sound and feel really different. And that’s the fun part of this.”
“One of the things that attracted me when I was asked to step in on this interim basis was the excitement and the boldness with which we are launching forward,” Lickhalter added.
“It’s not same old-same old.”
Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.
For more information
Naples Art’s online class curriculum can be found by clicking under “Learn and teach” on its website: naplesart.org or call 239-262-6517 to leave a message since work is being done remotely.
Read or Share this story: https://www.naplesnews.com/story/entertainment/arts/2020/09/27/naples-art-remakes-itself/5853239002/