Like many, I immigrated to Naples, thanks to John Jr. and Margaret Meek, traveling from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., to locate a future retirement lot and reaching the end of the west coast at Naples in 1954.
I was 4, so I can barely remember playing in the sand and walking the pier. After three years in Pisa, Italy, three in Tacoma, Wash., three in Orleans, France, and one in Northern Virginia, we finally returned for my final two years at Naples High School (1966-68).
Having experienced many of the great art museums in Europe, I did have a keen desire to view art, but never imagined being a part of that world.
While at NHS, I was more interested in playing organ in a rock band called The Banana Factory than visiting the Harmon Gallery on Third Street South, which had opened two years earlier.
It would take another five years before my destiny led me to the gallery.
Anyone interested in the 50-year history of Harmon-Meek Gallery in Naples can learn more about it in a book published last year by Arcadia Publishing in the series called “Images of America,” available at the gallery.
When Foster Harmon arrived in the fall of 1963 to open his gallery the next year, the only people collecting any art were essentially confined to the then-10-year-old Port Royal area. Artists who painted the local scenery and sold their works for hundreds of dollars were all that was required to be accepted into that society of three-month winter visitors. After all, this was a hurricane zone and Donna had laid waste in 1960 to much of the tiny fishing village of Naples.
A watercolor by William Henry or oil by Emile Gruppe were the rage to collect.
Harmon launched his gallery with distinguished American contemporary masters and forever changed the course of art appreciation in Southwest Florida.
By 1972, when I became his assistant director right out of college and the military, notable collectors had already discovered the pristine Old Naples.
Mr. and Mrs. Joseph H. Hirshhorn of Connecticut and Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley of Milwaukee were mentioned as two of the 10 top art collectors in America in 1974, and they both wintered in Naples.
Others would follow and eventually fuel the need for more culture, which would finally appear after Myra Daniels led the charge to build a visual and performing arts center inspired by plans first set forth by William and Wyn Hutchinson of Chicago and Naples, whose idea to build a larger center for the arts was eclipsed by Daniels’ plan that we all enjoy now as Artis—Naples and The Baker Museum.
To help set forth the idea of public art collections, I approached Daniels in 1996 with the idea to build an art museum and then presented her two weeks later with a “starter collection” of contemporary American masters worth about $1 million as gifts from the artists or their estates to thank Naples for all the support residents of the area had shown to our gallery. The Naples Museum of Art was built in five years. I started another collection at the von Liebig Art Center to address the need to remember the artists who lived or visited Naples from 1950 to 2000 and collected 60 works as gifts.
During all these years, the gallery ushered through thousands of schoolchildren and scores of adult groups essentially playing the role of art educator for 25 years before the Philharmonic Center for the Arts was established. It continues even now as two groups from the Women’s Cultural Alliance visited for a Tobi Kahn lecture.
The Harmon-Meek Gallery’s most significant contribution beyond the hundreds of shows it has brought to Naples is its loan program of entire exhibitions more than 300 times at 80 museums in 27 states. For its size, it has advertised Naples to the rest of the country.
As a developer of collections, I have always enjoyed helping people with their selections of art for their home or office, and now with daughters Kristine and Juliana back home and ensconced as part owners, the gallery will continue its leadership role into the future. The backbone of the gallery is my wife, Barbara.
My last endeavor is perhaps the one I am most proud of because it specifically addresses the need to expose children to fine art, much in the same way I was exposed to fine art by my parents while traveling around Europe. That is the collection of Children and/or Animals as a Subject in American Art at the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples. It is really the first museum of its kind out of 250 others around the country to have a dedicated art collection and art gallery, named The Loos Gallery. The paintings are all hung lower for the children to view more easily, and the paintings are all covered in unbreakable and reflection-proof Optium plexiglas.
Finally, we have announced a new awards program to recognize Visionaries of the Visual Arts in Southwest Florida. Jennie Lee Zipperer of Fort Myers, Virginia Grace Small and Joan T. Loos of Naples were named as the first recipients. About 180 people attended our first banquet, which was a benefit for the Harmon-Meek Fund at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.