History & Organization
1975 may not seem like long ago, but in that year the “database” of founding members was handwritten in careful script in a thin red journal. The $5 entry after the name attests that each made a commitment to the future of arts and culture in Lee County.
Each could see that Lee County needed an Arts Alliance. Cultured citizens were making diverse efforts to teach art, sponsor recitals, and produce theater, but what about an umbrella to cover those in need of recognition, publicity, marketing and a venue where it could all happen?
A field of gladiolus had covered the acres south of Colonial Boulevard and Royal Palms lined McGregor Boulevard on antique postcards circulated throughout the world. At this intersection the eleven-acre site of the old Schultz farmhouse was chosen for the Alliance.
Fort Myers attorney Charles B. Edwards, architect William R. Frizzell and other local businessmen donated the land to the federal Bicentennial Commission in 1976. They planned to use a Bicentennial grant to pay for construction of the arts center, but the Bicentennial Commission was dissolved in 1978, before any progress was made toward building the arts center. Because the Commission could no longer hold title to the property, Edward and the others transferred the land to Lee County.
One of the first seminars instructed cultural organizations on applying for grant money. All-arts festivals were staged in downtown Fort Myers. An “Arts Blitz” went to the schools. A first cultural directory and events calendar were published. In 1980, the Foulds Foundation awarded $50,000 for the support of arts in Lee County. Classes, arts and crafts shows, concerts and recitals found thousands of participants. Volunteers refurbished vintage homes into designer showcases.
By 1983, “Arts group cooped up at farmhouse dreams of campus-like expansion”, said the headlines. Renovations were made and an outdoor stage was constructed. A donated condemned house was moved to the grounds and became the home of the Southwest Florida Historical Society.
Construction funds from the State of Florida department of Cultural Affairs were awarded in the amount of $400,000 in 1987, and by October 1990, the Alliance had about $900,000 from the state, $168,000 from the Foulds Foundation, plus smaller donations for a total of about $1.1 million. After expending $1.2 million, the facility was completed and the Alliance was debt free. The modern facility was 12,100 square feet, with five classrooms, a library, a gallery, an inside theatre and outdoor stage.
More than 2,000 visitors and 125 craftsmen visited the brand-new William R. Frizzell Cultural Centre and Claiborne and Ned Foulds Theatre in March 1992. Summer Arts Camp was in its third year. The old Schultz Farmhouse continued to be used, housing music and instrumental classes.
In June 1995, the seventy-three year old Schultz Farmhouse was demolished because of the prohibitive expense of bringing it to required building code levels. The same year Lee County exchanged 200 feet of land for the Midpoint Bridge project for one of the Florida style buildings from the Key West Professional Center. In April 1996, the Key West building was dedicated to Charles B. Edwards for his early vision of the Alliance. In May 1998, the outdoor stage was renovated, funded through a donation by the widow of William R. Frizzell, and renamed in her honor the “Margaret Morrow Frizzell Amphitheatre”.
People Who Made It Happen and The People We Serve
As co-chair of The Bicentennial Commission beginning in 1974, Dr. David G. Robinson advocated the need for a cultural center. A long-time resident of Lee County and president of Edison Community College, Dr. Robinson held meetings at the College organizing an Alliance.
For five years people had been talking and meeting, so when Virginia Burr called for action, she was named chairman of an ad hoc committee. Referred to as a “super organizer”, she stated, “United, we can get someplace – get monies. Individually, it’s almost impossible.”
Mary Robinson coordinated with the Edison Pageant of Light Association a series of performances bringing hundreds of performers to downtown Fort Myers. As President of the Alliance in 1977, Mary Robinson organized other festivals throughout Lee County and published an annual calendar of cultural events.
Barbara B. Mann was described as a “star of sorts in Fort Myers”, as she undertook fundraising for music and arts. Symphony and choral music were her focus, however, hosting functions and appearing before Lee County Commission for the Alliance was her vocation as the first President of the Board of Directors.
Nina Conner, an accomplished portrait painter and teacher, and Spencer Eldridge staged an “Arts Blitz” downtown in 1978, convincing artists, dancers, and musicians to show the many facets of art. As artists-in-residence for the Alliance under a CETA grant they worked from a small office at the Arcade Theater and redesigned the blitz for schools.
At the formal opening of the Alliance at the old Schultz farmhouse in December 1978, Tom Walters was at the helm. Dancer and teacher Jeanne Bochette was an early Board Member who commented that without Walters indicating the way, we might not have taken the giant steps.
Gladys G. Land was the glue that held the Alliance together in those days. On two occasions she acted as Director, she funded the “Open Doors” program, a visual arts class for children at risk developed by Jean Dean in 1988. The “Gladys G. Land School of Art” at the Alliance honors her memory. Children at the “Open Doors” classes and Summer Arts Camp prize well-known local artist and teacher Leo Johnson. Artists Gale Bennett and Eugenia Kell have long taught at the Alliance.
Bill Taylor had already attracted a following when “Theatre Conspiracy” became a resident company at the Alliance in 1993. Described as “unafraid to push the envelope of live theatre”, Taylor performed as an Alliance administrator as well. Taylor had worked with “The Company”, the first Actor’s Equity Association group in the area co-founded by Richard Westlake, Professor at Edison State College.
Reaching out to serve the special needs members of the community, the Alliance has held performances and workshops as a part of “Very Special Arts” for the handicapped. When the “Sanibel Jazz” performances were looking for a new venue, the Alliance was chosen a partner for the series of outdoor concerts. Musicians Ed Calle and Brian Culberson have entertained from the Amphitheatre. “New Arts Festival” joined the Alliance after its beginnings in downtown as attempt by the City to promote the Arcade Theatre as a venue. Nationally known dancer David Parsons was a part of the festival.
Education in the arts remains a constant theme of Alliance initiatives. Artist Dorothy Causey writes a “Self-Guided Tour” of the exhibitions in the Frizzell Gallery, for young viewers and a version for adults. Families are nurtured at the Alliance through the “Art in the Schools” program that brings the artwork of Lee County students to the Gallery. The 16th year of Summer Arts Camp found the Alliance full of young energy for eight one-week sessions, which each culminated with a performance for family and friends in the Foulds Theatre. Year round classes for adults and children continue to grow by community demand. Thousands of tourists visit the Frizzell Gallery and the Alliance’s www.artinlee.org website annually.