When Austin Bell was called to the stage to accept his award as the Marco Island Foundation for the Arts' 2017 Artist of the Year, he cut to the chase, laying out the central paradox of his selection. The presentation was the culmination of the MIFA Scholarship Luncheon, held Saturday at the Wesley United Methodist Church.
“I was amazed," Bell said when he heard he was being named Artist of the Year. "I cannot paint. I cannot draw. I cannot play an instrument. I definitely cannot sing.” He doesn't think of himself as an artist, he said.
Bell is the curator of collections at the Marco Island Historical Museum, and his artistic work is on display there. In fact, his work is the museum, and its displays depicting the different eras of the island’s history. The sophisticated, layered presentations lay out Marco’s history over three distinct periods, giving the small-town museum the gloss of much larger and longer-pedigreed institutions.
“I rarely saw Austin” in her visits to the museum, said MIFA past president and Artist of the Year chair Carolyn Burger. “He’s in the background all the time. But he’s done so much for the island’s culture, and for the historical museum. The four exhibits are historically rich and visually beautiful.”
“This year, they finished the exhibits,” MIFA president Clark Lindberg said. “We’d like to thank (him) for that wonderful gift to the island.”
Separate rooms cover Marco Island’s thousands of years as home of early Native Americans, and the most recent “Modern Marco" which tells the story of the island’s development from the 1960s on.
“The Pioneer Era: A Tale of Two Villages” exhibit fills in the gap in between, the rustic time of early Western settlers; it opened at the beginning of this year.
A parallel exhibit takes the museum outside, with a series of “windows to the past” that tell the story of island history even when the museum inside is closed. These were painted by noted local and national artists, including two, Malenda Trick and Tara O’Neill, who are previous recipients of MIFA’s Artist of the Year award.
Bell, who is also author of a forthcoming book on Marco Island history, due in October, pointed out that creating museum exhibits is a team effort, and thanked those who worked with him in putting together the museum exhibits.
“I consider this a group award, and I’m so grateful for the recognition of this as an art form,” he said, noting also the many talented local artists who could have been chosen in his place. “There are so many creative, artistic, hardworking people who don’t get recognized.”
He also added a plug for the museum: “I have to, for (executive director) Pat Rutledge. We’re open Tuesday through Saturday, nine to four, and free of charge.”
In his remarks, Bell also addressed the five students in creative fields who were presented with scholarships, $1,500 each, at the luncheon.
“You have to be a little bit stubborn. You have to be a little bit crazy,” he told them.
These students, Anastasia Baran, Joseph Byrne, Livia Lenhoff, Emily Orgass, and Brenda Perez, received their awards and recognition before the Artist of the Year presentation, and one of them, musical theater major Byrne, son of Marco Island assistant fire chief Chris Byrne, performed for the luncheon, singing “The Origin of Love” from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” MIFA founder Sandi Johnson made the presentations, assisted by Karen Swanker.
Before the lunch, attendees were treated to a brief dance performance by students from Island Dance Academy, including Celina Alber, daughter of MIFA board member Clara Alber, who wove in and out between the tables in a sort of conga line, recreating a bit of the dance they performed at Walt Disney World.
The luncheon fell on the fourth anniversary of Bell’s first day at the Historical Museum, he told the group, highlighting how 10,000 years of history could be encapsulated in such a relatively brief time. It was also the four week anniversary of his marriage to his bride Erin, who said she had “loaned Austin out” to the museum for many weeks and months of long hours in creating the exhibits.