There's need for seats and spending cash but we love the arts in Collier County

The Naples Philharmonic Orchestra is the area's professional orchestra and has made a name throughout the state for itself. But there are dozens of small orchestras, bands and even chamber quartets that call Collier County home.

Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI

The Naples Philharmonic Orchestra is the area's professional orchestra and has made a name throughout the state for itself. But there are dozens of small orchestras, bands and even chamber quartets that call Collier County home.

— From its small-town approach to culture in the 1970s — one annual painting show, one musical, a visit from an outside orchestra — Naples and environs have bubbled into a stew of arts.

Much of that growth has come with the population inflation of 2001 to 2007. Even during the recession, arts organizations and events were being birthed here:

■ The ArtsNaples World Festival, which has its inaugural, Russian-themed week beginning May 12

■ The Erich Kunzel concert series and Jazz in the Park from Bayshore Cultural and Performing Arts (CAPA).

■ Public performances by the Ave Maria University Choir

■ The Island Players, who surfaced on Marco Island as an alternative to the longtime Marco Players

Not far away, Florida Gulf Coast University built its new Bower School of Music and has been stoking it with monthly recitals and guest concerts. Marco now has a history museum; Naples, the Golisano children's museum.

Fueling the demand may be the city's buzz as an art-loving town. Since 2005, Naples regularly is in the top 10 in publications from USA Today to John Villani's "100 Best" book.

So when Naples looks to its future, cultural leaders say the arts will be a significant key to the city's success. This past year, there are signs it may be congealing into a force as strong as the lure of palm trees and beaches.

Sea change on the Gulf

A forum for organizations under the wing of the United Arts Council has long worked at keeping performance schedules from becoming head-on crashes. This season, however, the county's major purveyor of culture, the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, has added its muscle to making this huge push-me-pull-you of arts aspirants and organizations work.

Kathleen Van Bergen, CEO at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts since Sept. 1, is behind the seismic shift to collaboration.

"Two organizations can do things so much bigger and better and with more intersections for their strengths than you can have on a solo effort," she said in an interview in her first month in Naples. And with that, she began easing arrangements during her first year for Florida Repertory Theatre to present "Red" in the Daniels Pavilion; an upcoming performance from Gulfshore Playhouse, two December dates for Opera Naples' production of "Tosca"; and several concerts for the ArtsNaples World Festival May 12-18.

Van Bergen is quick to emphasize she wants to be a good steward of the Phil. One of her first moves was to have its board of directors experience all its activities, with the result that President Alan Hilfiker found himself making shirtbox murals with an elementary school class, part of its project at the Phil to learn Jackson Pollock techniques.

Van Bergen says the Phil is aware its audience is changing and that the community's needs from it may be changing. One of her chief thoughts is the arts appreciation responsibility it has for some 44,000 students who attend an event each year.

"We serve 300,000 patrons annually, so that's a fifth of our audience," she says.

There are more changes she and the board's new programming committee have found.

"I guess the new stat is that 26 percent of Collier county is Spanish-speaking," Van Bergen continues.

"So that has been an area we're talking about now. How do we communicate with the public from a performance part of the organization has been part of the question. But also, part of our collection is Mexican modern, so there has to be a natural community-audience building there."

That's also a recent change, adds Hilfiker — one that has come about in the last five years.

More population shifts

At Gulfshore Playhouse, Kristen Coury, its founder and producing artistic director, has found a growth in the demographic sector her professional, off-Broadway and classics theater attracts.

"My audience is different from maybe the community at large. Ours is more between the ages of 40 and 55, and these are people who are intensely interested in theater. They have seen it all over the world and they aren't afraid to push the envelope."

This past season the astringent David Mamet drama, "Race," set a box office record. The record has already been broken by its last comedy, "The Fox on the Fairway." That's part of her motivation to petition city council for more theater space at the Norris Center.

The theater is resident in the multipurpose center at Cambier Park. Its 200-seat auditorium requires at least a three-week run to accommodate demand, Coury says.

Donna McKechnie, playing Marmee, thanks hair stylist Shari Brousseau and costume designer Kathleen Kolacz before dress rehearsal for ìLittle Womenî Monday, March 5,\at The G&L Theatre of The Community School of Naples. TheatreZone is one of four theater companies -- one on Marco, three in Naples -- that have sprung up in the last 10 years.

Photo by KHARLI ROSE

Donna McKechnie, playing Marmee, thanks hair stylist Shari Brousseau and costume designer Kathleen Kolacz before dress rehearsal for ìLittle Womenî Monday, March 5,\at The G&L Theatre of The Community School of Naples. TheatreZone is one of four theater companies -- one on Marco, three in Naples -- that have sprung up in the last 10 years.

Until now, Gulfshore Playhouse has eaten up additional theater time with several weeks of rehearsal between each performance. Next year, the group will field a six-play season. One of those, Terrence McNally's "Master Class," will be in the Daniels Pavilion at the Phil. For one of the others, Gulfshore will rehearse in a side room to cut down theater dark time at the Norris.

However, the space also has other demands on it. The Southwest Florida Bluegrass Association and Naples City Improv, a local comedy troupe, also depend on it as a venue.

Coury won't say whether Gulfshore wants to expand the proscenium hall or add as a black-box stage.

"What I really would like to do is have a dialogue with the city, so I hold out no dreams until we sit down at the table," Coury says.

J.C. "Chick" Heithaus, president of the Bayshore Cultural and Performing Arts (CAPA), is more focused.

"What Southwest Florida needs is more venues," he says. Heithaus ran smack into the problem, which CAPA hopes to solve, when seeking a new home for the group's popular Erich Kunzel concert series after he learned Edison College would be tearing down the hall it currently uses. (Heithaus is married to Harriet Howard Heithaus, one of the reporters for this article.)

CAPA aspires to be a venue. The group envisions a multiuse, flex space for up to 1,000 seats for visual and performing artists from the community to perform.

"This part of Florida is just teeming with early retired professionals, a lot of whom ply their trade on the stage or in combos and they can play and act rings around me," he says.

Over the past few years, CAPA has raised its community profile and volunteer base, operating two concert series and a music festival that emphasizes local talent. Heithaus points proudly to the fact that the group has about 100 volunteers, board members and leadership council members — up from a dozen just 18 months ago.

The group now sets its sights on securing land for its long-held dream of a performing arts center emphasizing local talent.

"I think there is always need for more performance space, and definitely beyond (U.S.) 41," agrees Elaine Hamilton, executive director of the United Arts Council.

But money is tight. Government funding has been nearly dead and buried — "At one time Florida ranked fourth in funding for arts from government sources. Now we rank 49th," she says.

So arts organizations must work harder and harder, with costs that have not gone down.

We want more

William Noll, artistic director of the Classic Chamber Concert Series, has growing pains too.

Three seasons ago the organization shifted from a too-roomy, two-performance program divided between Edison and the Sugden Community Theatre for a single performance at the Sugden.

The three Magi bring their gifts to the newborn infant including gold, frankincense and a welfare basket canned ham during ìThe Best Christmas Pageant Ever!î by The Island Players, a theater group not quiet a year old on Marco Island. Cheryl Ferrara / Eagle Correspondent

The three Magi bring their gifts to the newborn infant including gold, frankincense and a welfare basket canned ham during ìThe Best Christmas Pageant Ever!î by The Island Players, a theater group not quiet a year old on Marco Island. Cheryl Ferrara / Eagle Correspondent

Now there's not enough room. This past season sold out last spring. But Noll is more interested in expanding the series to a larger number of concerts, having seen that his audiences seem to relish everything from 21st-century music to Bach.

"It's amazing that CCC's audiences have experienced an incredibly diverse selection of repertoire from Bach to Dutilleux over the past four years," he said in an email response to questions about the future of his organization.

"The only change I wish I could make is to perform about a dozen concerts or so every year. There's just such a bountiful amount of repertoire out there that I would love to hurry up and share with our great patrons."

As ArtsNaples World Festival artistic director, he says he was happily surprised that the concept study "enjoyed very positive feedback during a feasibility that was conducted during the height of the recession."

"It has always been my desire and private vision to see our town and region become the Salzburg of the USA," he wrote. "All of the required resources are here. As things stand now, it just might happen."

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