The evolution of art: Art League morphs into cultural center

Marco Island’s Art League of today is not your grandparents’ Art League.

Leaders of the organization, now officially named the Art League, Marco Island’s Center for the Arts, are transforming the place from its roots as more or less a club for artists into a full-service facility for people of all ages, interests, talents and tastes.

It’s a change most non-members may not have noticed, but they should, because the Art League is becoming a cultural force its pioneers may not have foreseen. It certainly is, however, something they’d be proud of.

One of the innovators whose enthusiasm has created the momentum for growth is the League’s executive director for the past five years, Christine Neal.

“When the organization was started in 1969, it was by and for artists,” says Neal. “Now, it has grown into a facility for anyone who wants to support the arts, meet people, have a social aspect to it or take a class. That’s where we’ve seen a big change in the past two years and that’s the momentum that has us running again this year.”

For a first-time visitor to the League headquarters on Winterberry Drive, it’s an experience reminiscent of an old TV quiz show, where a contestant could open several doors to see what was behind them. Peek into door number one and you see two energetic ladies with their hands in mud. Well, not exactly mud; it’s clay, and they’re eagerly making pottery.

Marian Miller, a 15 year member of the League, says she always wanted to try working with clay and began taking classes there four years ago. “Enjoying this place is one of the reasons I moved to Marco full-time, five years ago,” she says. “I love this place and all it offers Islanders. My thing is working with clay. It’s pliable and forgiving. If the piece doesn’t turn out well, I just roll it into a ball and start over.”

Janet DeAnna says friends who visit Marco are agog when they see the Art League’s activities. “When they see all this; the gift shop, the gallery, the parties, the classes and more, their jaws drop, because in their communities, they don’t have anything like it. Back in Ohio, my passion was having horses. Now, my passion is clay. We can’t keep a horse on Marco.” Maybe not, but might DeAnna make a clay horse or two?

Open another door and you’ll find yourself in one of the classrooms where members and school children may be working on any given day with paint and other media, flexing their imaginations and expanding their knowledge with the help of expert teachers.

Door number three may be to the outside area, where stone sculpting takes place. Or, it may lead to the main gallery, where a variety of art shows, displays and sales are held regularly.

Fund raising and recruiting new members sometimes seems to be a full-time job for the League staff and volunteers, especially when money is tight and Islanders, like everybody else, are watching their discretionary spending. The League also has had to overcome some misconceptions about what it is and for whom it exists. “One misconception was that the League had money and didn’t need any assistance,” explains League President, Keith Klipstein. “Also, because we didn’t have a high profile historically and we’re seen as sort of insular, people thought we were a members-only organization, not open to the public. They thought they couldn’t come here without paying or without joining, or that they had to be an artist. They thought we were rich,” says Neal, with a laugh.

In a way, the League has been house poor, so to speak. It expanded its physical facilities, but doesn’t have an endowment or ongoing income stream to pay for the buildings’ maintenance and the activities and services the League wants to provide. “So, out of a passion for the arts and necessity, we had to expand our mission,” Neal says. “It had to go beyond painting studios and beyond the visual arts.”

That explains, in part, the innovative ideas that are on the Art League’s agenda. Plans are in the works to expand the League’s horizons even further. The world of digital communications is a fertile field for art-related enterprises and creativity. Stage, screen and electronic gizmos all have art applications and people who want to practice or see these disciplines in action.

“We’ve added a music course, drama courses and literary courses. Now we’re reaching out to more than just the visual arts. And, we’re doing events where you don’t have to be an artist to participate, and that’s a big jump for us, says Neal.” Venerable, but sometimes neglected, art forms are available, too, such as jewelry as art, classes in woodcarving, memoir writing, basket weaving and even playing the harp.

If you can name it and gather a few people who would be interested in it, Neal and Klipstein want to hear about it. The leaders of the Art League are developing their organization even further, into a center for the arts, as its relatively new name states, not just a club for artists.

Membership is not required to attend most events or to take most classes, but for many newcomers, joining makes sense. The cost, $95 for a single membership or $135 for families, represents a significant bang for the buck. Non-members are welcome to visit the gallery, the gift shop and other amenities whenever the League’s facilities are open. Even the League’s longish new name — the Art League, Marco Island’s Center for the Arts, can’t tell the whole story.

We’ve all heard the cliché, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like,” and there’s nothing not to like about Marco’s fun-with-the-arts headquarters. For more information call 394-4221.

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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