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Transforming from a Courthouse to an Art Center
Christine Lee
Fort Myers' former courtroom will soon transform into Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center. The architecture of this entire building will be restored and renovated in time for the "Phantom of the Art Center" gala on November 3rd. This report takes you inside the historic building and shows you how you can get involved. For more information, you can log onto sbDavisArtCenter.com or call 239-337-1933.


 

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I would venture to say that this is possibly the biggest project to ever take place in downtown Ft. Myers. I really hope they can create a quality project from this. I've seen the building in person and it really is awesome.
 

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Even though I don't live in Ft. Myers, I don't think the idea is bad at all. It reminds me of a similar plan for Tampa's art museum. But the city's mayor basically killed it. I hope your mayor doesn't do that to this plan.
 

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An artful touch to Fort Myers River District
Phantoms converge for downtown debut

By MARY WOZNIAK
[email protected]
Originally posted on November 04, 2007




JOHN DAVID EMMETT/news-press.com
• Dot and Tom Orthman and Mavis Miller, right, all of Fort Myers, donned costumes Saturday for the “Phantom of the Arts Center” show at the new Sidney and Berne Davis Art Center.

news-press.com

The former federal courthouse’s reincarnation as the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center could be a spectacular boon to downtown art events, entertainment and business.

For some people, though, the jury is still out.

The federal building, which also once served as a post office, is now in its third life, said Jim Griffith, the center’s executive director. He is determined it will be the most creative and prosperous.

“This will be an economic catalyst for all of downtown rejuvenation,” Griffith said.

Most business owners and heads of other arts organizations say the center is needed to revive the River District entertainment scene, which is faltering under a street and utilities renovation project.

“Most of us can’t even imagine what the impact would be of that center,” said Tony Allen, Fort Myers redevelopment manager. “That building is going to mean so much to art and culture downtown.”

The art center got off to a festive start Saturday evening. A couple of hundred people, many dressed in tuxedos, suits or evening gowns, converged in front of the art center on First Street, which was closed to traffic between Jackson and Lee streets and converted into an outdoor ballroom. Some attending the Phantom of the Art Center Gala were dressed in costume, ranging from Colonial dress to phantoms complete with flowing capes.

About an hour into the event, a banner was lifted off the top of the building, revealing the new engraving, “Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center.”

Suzy Lewis, owner of Spirits of Bacchus at Bay and Hendry streets, sees activities at the center bringing business her way.

“Well, first of all it will add diversity to what we already have and I believe people will not just go there, but they will visit other establishments, other stores and galleries and hopefully eat dinner and have a good time while they’re down here.”

But others are critical of what they say appears to be sketchy programming and the plodding rate of the massive structure’s renovation.

Larry Wilkerson, co-owner of the French Connection bar and restaurant, which has been on the corner opposite the building that now houses the art center for 21 years, said time will tell what the building’s impact will be.

“It’s been absolutely nothing for a long time. Anything will help. I hope it does real well. I guess we’ll just see,” he said. “It’s been dead space for quite a few years now.”

The building, which commands the corner of First and Jackson streets, was reborn a third time when the Fort Myers City Council granted the nonprofit Florida Arts group a 99-year lease at $1 per year in August 2003.

Griffith, who is chairman of Florida Arts as well as the center’s executive director, was given four years to raise the money to make the center a reality. The four years were up in August.

There was a delay in design stages of the renovation and restoration project, Griffith said. But now everything is right on track, with a new roof, new interior walls, air conditioning and electrical systems, and a soon-to-be installed granite floor.

The challenge is still daunting — raise $4.6 million to put back together the ruined interior of a two-story, 23,000-square-foot building.

Griffith has raised $3 million through government grants and donations. Another $1.6 million is needed. He hoped to raise the rest at the center’s third annual fundraising gala Saturday night. Results were not available.

“If we raise the full amount, with another year of construction, at this time a year from now the entire building will be open,” Griffith said.

The art center also staged a “Phantom of the Art Center” contest for Lee County schoolchildren. One of the winners was 9-year-old Caroline Maschmeier of Buckingham. Her copper mask with blue lips and black eyes won the three-dimensional category for third through fifth grade. Caroline is a fourth-grader at St. Michael Lutheran School.

“It was the theme of old becoming new,” Caroline said. “‘New Faces in Old Places’ was the title. Copper changes color,” representing the history of the building.

A new crop of venues

The art center joins at least three other major performance arts groups that have developed in the past three years:

• Gulfshore Playhouse, a professional theater troupe that will be based at the Estero on the River project and is at least two years away from breaking ground on its theater.

• Opera Naples, a professional opera company based in Naples and holding performances at the The Performing Arts Hall of Gulf Coast High School, the Norris Center and an upscale restaurant at Bayfront in in downtown Naples.

• The Art District at Rapallo, an Estero mixed use development that just received zoning approval from the Lee County Commissioners. Plans are to begin construction on the project’s 506-seat performing arts center by May and to open in summer 2009.

Two of the three new arts organizations have their own miniseasons, despite lack of a permanent venue.

On the other hand, the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center has a building, not a blueprint, now under transformation. But some say its mission is not well defined.

Griffith said the building will be mainly a visual arts center, with capability for a variety of performing arts events, including chamber orchestra and jazz concerts.
But Griffith is not without critics.

Barbara Hill, former head of the von Liebig Art Center in Naples and former head of the Edison & Ford Estates Foundation, points out Griffith lacks experience in running a visual arts venue, particularly one that is hoped to be of museum quality.

Griffith works as a violist with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, Hill said. He has no visual art background, she said.

Julliard-trained violist

Trained at Julliard in New York City, Griffith has been a violist with The Phil since 1989. He has numerous connections in the music world and has been able to bring noted performers in classical, jazz and voice to the center in concert. In February, internationally known cellist Andres Diaz performed, as did Battleworks Dance Company.

Hill, who is consultant to the city’s Public Arts Committee, lauds the building’s renovation and its potential as a performing arts venue.

But the center appears to lack vision and a long-range plan, she said.

“I looked on their Web site many different times,” she said. “I still have no idea.”

Scott Saxon, general manager of the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, also praises the work that has been done to the building.

“They’re a little ways from having actually anything in the building,” he said.

But any new venue that raises the profile of the arts in the area is a plus and will have an economic impact, “even though they have no programming right now,” Saxon said.

The art center already has held several high profile events, including:

• Two annual Florida Arts Festivals, each of which spanned several days and featured an art show, classical music, jazz and dance.

• Three annual fund-raising bashes

The space, which seats about 500, can be used for Southwest Florida Symphony performances, Griffith said.

The building also will be available for public rental for events, such as corporate functions and weddings, Griffith said.

Art patron Berne Davis, who donated $1 million on behalf of herself and her late husband Sidney to name the center, is convinced it will be a success.

“The building can serve many needs in the town. It can give downtown an anchor,” Davis said.

The center is evolving and special among arts venues in the area, said Will Prather, head of the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Fort Myers.

“I think it’s another piece of the puzzle to complete the artistic and cultural renaissance that’s occurring in Lee County and Southwest Florida,” he said.

— The News-Press staff writer Jason Wermers contributed to this report.

http://www.news-press.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071104/NEWS0110/71103034/1085/NEWS0110
 

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If you are a mid- sized city in Florida, you have to have a Performing Arts Center. The older population loves their art and musical performances.
 

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If you are a mid- sized city in Florida, you have to have a Performing Arts Center. The older population loves their art and musical performances.
We've had a performing arts center for many, many years. It's called Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall. We also have had the Broadway Palm theater, Arcade theater, Alliance for the Arts, Cultural Park theater, and other venues. Performing arts halls are nothing new to this area. This project will specialize in visual arts (at least that is what they are saying). This area definately lacks in visual art venues.
 
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