Collier commission once more backs away from conflicted arts plan

Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News

Once again, Collier County has delayed a vote to implement its arts plan.

The longest thorns in this porcupine:

  • Who is qualified to administer the Collier County Arts and Culture Strategic Plan.
  • How it will be paid for.
  • Whether Commissioner Penny Taylor (District Four) and United Arts Council Executive Director Laura Burns will be able to work together. Both are major supporters of the plan, but seem to be oil and water to each other.

As a result, commissioners decided Tuesday to schedule a public hearing so Collier residents can weigh in on at least the first two questions. No date has been set yet. 

Commissioners in March approved working to create such a plan. It would be the first-ever Collier County arts and culture strategic plan that would develop a strategy to successfully promote the county as an arts and culture destination.

The amended arts and cultural strategic vision plan was to add administrative contractual language and name the administrator. The plan brought before commissioners Tuesday had cut out any mention of the United Arts Council, which was initially chosen to administer the plan. Taylor's proposal replaced it with a new staff person reporting to the county. 

"It would be an advantage because of the TDC (Tourist Development Council), CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau), even zoning — there are a lot of things at your fingertips when you work within the system," she said. 

The history:Collier commissioners quash vote on UAC arts contract

Further, by her calculations, the plan would cost less: $100,000 compared to a $125,000 suggested in the United Arts Council administration.

The essential problem, she said, was that in her discussions on how to best implement the plan since the last meeting, the municipalities she spoke with chose to hire staff. A municipally employed person would not have a conflict of interest, earning money from the same sources as the arts organizations they were dealing with. 

"We would be very very hard pressed to find a neutral convener in our community — an arts entity that doesn't derive its income from the people they represent," Taylor said.

Patrons pass by a piece called "Skeleton Crew" created by artist Ron Lemoine of Hernando Beach during a previous Naples National Art Festival. The 42nd annual show is Feb. 20-21, 2021.

She was most critical of the UAC in October for that reason. The UAC had become the sponsor of a new arts festival on 10th Street South, to which Naples Art, longtime producer of similar festivals, objected. It would dilute the market, Naples Art Board President Ricki Baker told city officials; Naples Art has three other major shows it would compete with.

Taylor, a former member of the Naples Art board of directors, took up that cause vocally in October. She offered, the county would delay its vote for three months, to work with the UAC to amend the plan. 

That didn't happen. Taylor recruited a county staff employee to work with her on rewording the plan. Taylor insisted she spoke to Burns; Burns acknowledged they had spoken at a Dec. 16 meeting but that she was not invited into the planning sessions.

The questions of communication between Taylor and Burns became warm enough that Commissioner Bill McDaniel (District Five) put a stipulation on the upcoming hearing.

"As a point of order, I would like us to remember that we were here today on your motion to hire an employee, not go down the rabbit hole of who said what, when where," he said to Taylor.

"There's a tremendous lack of communication somewhere. Somebody's not talking to somebody," he said. "I just want to stay on the items that we're doing."

Your guide to art festival in the Fort Myers and Naples area

Commissioners were already skeptical of Taylor's recommendation because it would involve a continuing commitment from the county.

"We’ve hired a few people. We're probably one of the few governments that have expanded during the pandemic," said Commissioner Burt Saunders (District Three). "I've always been a little nervous about that."

Saunders said he wanted to see any hiring discussion vetted through the county financial staff, which begin deliberations for next year's budget in February.em spoke, Matt Riley, former president of the United Arts Council, made an impassioned plea to the commissioners to explain why the UAC had been cut out of the discussions for the plans amendment and ultimately the plan itself.

The entire arts and culture strategic vision plan was based on a study commissioned by the UAC, he reminded them.

"We invested $30,000 in staff time and $18,000 in fees just for that study," he said. The Community Foundation also contributed $32,000 to the study. It received no county funding, "yet we're using that as the basis for our strategic plan."

Laura Burns, left, executive director of the United Arts Council of Collier County, and David Plettner-Saunders, managing partner at Cultural Planning Group, center, talk at anarts and cultural plan the arts council staffed during a community meeting, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2020, at Naples Botanical Garden.

Further, during the information gathering for the plan itself, the UAC committed $150,000 in staff time and resources to help move the process along, he said. It contributed $10,000 toward a secondary consulting report to detail the plan's administration. The county investment during that information-gathering period since 2018, according to Riley: "A whopping $1,600." 

"So we ask you today, why is the BCC being asked to change the vision and investment of the long-term collaborative effort of Collier County government, the UAC and the community now?"

Burns was in a meeting with the City of Naples Art Advisory Board for the first part of the discussion, and Board President Alyssa Haney had work responsibilities. So Riley addressed commissioners on the intent of the contested festival and on the extent of what the organization saw as strong lobbying from Taylor, who he said was a former Naples Art board member, to drop it. 

The Uptown Arts Festival, he said, was founded to bring visibility to the new 10th Street South Design District, which had been looking for an art fair, as well as to help artists financially impacted by the pandemic and the UAC's own funding.

But after the UAC applied for the festival permit in September, relations with Naples Art, and subsequently Taylor, soured. 

How it started:Naples Uptown Art Festival joins the city calendar

"Later that month, Commissioner Taylor contacted UAC Executive Director Laura Burns, requesting withdrawal of the permit for the Uptown Art Fair, stating that it could threaten the UAC's participating in the strategic plan," Riley told the commissioners and audience.

There were other questions about UAC's administration of the plan Oct. 27 that have not been fully answered yet.

Commissioner Andy Solis (District Two) fretted about its merger with CAPA, the organization that has been working to bring an arts space to south and East Naples. He also questioned whether locating the United Arts Council in the Bayshore CRA District was a harbinger that it would focus on that area, rather than the entire county.

"My hope today is that, as one member of the community, the conversation can remain open," Riley said. "It may be warranted that a fulltime staffer makes a lot of sense .... but I don't think it warrants cutting out ... the UAC."

"I think we need a hearing on this," Saunders said. "I think we need an opportunity for all the stakeholders to come in and tell us how we can best proceed. I think that will make it a whole lot easier for me to make a decision one way or another."

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/ Reach her at 239-213-6091.