Mount Dora Center for the Arts

In 1985 I was the founding director for the Mount Dora Center for the Arts. In those days, the Mount Dora Art Festival was 14 years old and was being managed by a group of volunteers who called themselves the Mount Dora Cultural Council. In 1984 I volunteered to be their art consultant with the goal of consolidating all the festival’s files in one central location, achieve better marketing of the festival and get more people to attend. I was also to help the Council on how to best deal with the artists, prices, jurying, etc. The Cultural Council would meet in the Lamp Post (a great restaurant in downtown MD in those days) to jury the entries. Other than myself there was one more artist in the group. The rest were all merchants, lawyers, etc. which made for a not so great choice of artists.

In those days, the artists in town would measure how bad the festival was by the amount of duck and geese paintings they allowed in. We rated it as 1-10 fowl. Innovative and modern work need not apply. If they got in it was because one of the merchants pushed for a niece or friend to get in. The old timers still use that term and ask: how many fowl was it?

After that, I came up with a logo and started coming up with ideas to better promote the festival. I suggested that we did a poster. I was told that they couldn’t afford it. I had successfully promoted Altos de Chavon – an artist village in the Dominican Republic – using silkscreened posters and couldn’t see why we couldn’t go the same direction. I asked the Council if they could afford just a couple hundred dollars for the price and I started the Mount Dora Art Festival Poster Competition. We offered $300 for the contest price and spread the word. This allowed us to run 200 silkscreened posters for promotion printed on cheap paper, and 100 limited edition, signed and numbered, printed on fine art papers. The better posters were signed by the contest winner and they would be sold during the festival for $30. The proceeds from the sales would go into paying the printing and next year’s contest prize. The posters were a complete success and everyone of the signed posters was sold. I still get a pleasant surprise when I go to a doctor’s office in town and see that they have a collection of those silkscrened posters. The first year we only had three entries, the next year, we had a larger contest prize and ten people entered. And so on. At some point the center stopped silkscreening the posters.

In 1985, it was decided that the Art Festival needed an office in which to organize and manage the event. Until then, volunteers were managing the event from their homes and organizing the entries in shoe boxes. Not very professional. In fact, when I started organizing all the shoe boxes, I ran into un-cashed checks and many entries with photo slides from several years that were never processed or returned to the artists. I imagine the artists thought their package got lost in the mail.

I found the perfect location and mentioned it to Harlow Middleton, my partner in crime, who was the attorney for the Cultural Council and City Attorney for the city of Mount Dora. Harlow and I had dated and, even though we were no longer together, realized that we had great ideas together. We contacted the lady who owned the building and convinced her to rent the space to us for $300 a month. It was quite a large space, perfect for our needs. She agreed. With the space secure, I started painting and conditioning the space.

Painting the walls at MDCA 1985Originally, the idea was to rent a space large enough to house the Festival’s art collection. Every year, a purchase prize was given for the best-in-show, and the art would be added to the collection. For 14 years the collection had lived in the Mount Dora Chamber of Commerce which was also the town’s visitor center. Unfortunately, the pieces were getting damaged or worse. So, the new festival office would display the collection for the public in a safer space. The space could also be used for exhibits.

It was agreed that I would become the center’s director and help put together exhibits and do a lot of the festival marketing and PR. We sanded, painted and cleaned. My friend Michael was a huge help. Harlow even more. He went out and got sponsors for everything: rugs, lights, hangers, and more. I contracted my friend, who was a great carpenter in town, to build several structures that I designed: a few pedestals that were capped on both sides and could be used as modular pieces, pedestals, or tables. And two other pieces that could be used as very large sitting spaces, but turned on their side could act as desks or bars for openings. My friend, who was a famous seamstress, sewed a huge banner that just said The Gallery for the front of the building. Everyone in town was so excited that we had a lot of help hangin shows, etc. I organized all the Art Festival Files into one filing cabinet and we were off to a good start.

Since we were going to have the gallery anyhow, I got the idea of offering the space to up and coming young artists that had not had an exhibit. I also wanted to bring Museum-quality exhibits to the gallery. Being an artist and having so many artist friends, I called on some to exhibit at the gallery. I ended up with a great exhibit calendar. That first year we had quite the line up of upscale exhibits: Gary Hopcraft (a local artist) was the first artist to exhibit. Robin Ambrose who went on to become the director of the Maitland Art Museum had the second. Then Mary Nesler who worked as an artist for Disney for years, Ann Parker and Avon Neal who did lots of work for National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution, Stephen Jepson a local potter, followed. We had contests like the images of Mount Dora–a contest of area photos and historical exhibits like the postcards of Mount Dora exhibit–vintage, hand-panted postcards of Mount Dora collected by several town residents.

But one of the most important things that the museum did was to open its door to emerging artists and as a place for artists to meet and exchange ideas. This was light years before computer, the Internet and Facebook.

The center opened its doors in 1985. It was well received. People loved the idea of the center and felt that it was very necessary in the town since Mount Dora was know as an artist town and yet, we had no galleries or artists. We had some amazing exhibits and many people attended the openings.

However, things were not so nice in the background. I had problems with the council’s treasurer. Even though I was donating most of my time and I was supposed to be working 4 hours a day and ended up working full-time and only getting paid for 4 hours, and I had a toddler at the time who had been very ill, this woman would not pay me. Some of the old volunteers felt they were being replaced and didn’t want to hand over their shoe boxes. Then the politics started. It was time to leave. I don’t know why it is that all creative things start with the creatives with great ideas, then the non-creatives take it over and then it gets political. All the creatives run for cover. Then things go from bad to worse. The center had some very rocky years, but, after a while, it started moving towards the right direction. I not always agree with what goes on there since they have moved so far away from the original idea to help young artists, but, it is thriving and has become an educational center, and an art force in the community. It is like children, you have to let them go out in the world and hope for the best. You just hope that they continue to support artists.

In the spring of 1986, my mother-in-law called to tell me she had cut out a newspaper ad for a job at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. They were looking for an Assistant Exhibit / Graphic Designer. I should check it out. I made an appointment and my friend Michael and I headed to Sarasota for an interview. I met with the Chief Designer and had a wonderful portfolio review. We hit it off. By the time I got back to Mount Dora, I had a message in the “answering machine” saying that I had been hired and asking if I could start on Monday. I said yes. That job changed my life.