Making a Scene

(C) Agnes Lopez Photography 2014

// photo by Agnes Lopez

The conversations about fine arts in Jacksonville often sound the same as those had about Downtown. “It has potential.” “We’re not there yet.” “If only we had…” Jax residents are particularly hard on ourselves, frequently focusing on shortcomings and things we wish we had. However, there’s more here than meets the eye—if one knows where to look. On the ground, in studios, in our schools, on stages, in boardrooms and offices and elsewhere, one will find women artists and creative thinkers—they’re a natural resource that may be among the River City’s greatest strengths.

“I recently began a friendship with an astounding giant of a female artist at her home in Lavilla. She’s an artist many times over in fashion and costume design, opera, dance and performance. Her name is Padrica Mendez. She’s 80 years old. She was born and raised here. She worked in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar and after with people like Alvin Ailey and Josephine Baker. Her walls are literally covered with arts and humanitarian awards,” says musician, professor and playwright Jennifer Chase. “She’s been back 45 years. I think we are just starting to pay attention. They’ve been here all along.”

Jacksonville does have a rich history of women in the arts, even if too few people know about it. Claudia L’Engle Adams founded what is now known as the Friday Musicale in 1890. Ninah Cummer began work on her gardens in 1931, and on her death in 1958 willed her estate to the creation of a museum to house her art collection. Helen Lane, Jacqueline Holmes and Ann Baker founded the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville in 1973, which eventually became the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. Today, women remain at the forefront of the city’s cultural evolution. The Museum of Science and History (MOSH), the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCA), the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Friday Musicale, Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and dozens of other organizations and institutions in Northeast Florida are helmed by women. And then there are the multitudes of ladies getting their hands dirty to raise up the arts—and other women—in Jax.

“I am fortunate to see the work of Katie McCaughan and Tiffany Santeiro—executive and creative directors of Jacksonville Dance Theatre, respectively—up close,” says Rebecca R. Levy, artistic director of Jacksonville Dance Theatre and professor of dance at FSCJ. “Shawana Brooks is doing incredible work with the Jax Makerspace at the Downtown Library.”

“The Jacksonville Public Library’s immediate past director Barbara Gubbin and current interim director Jennifer Giltrop created the Jax Makerspace and Jax Makerspace Gallery,” says Brooks, the Library’s arts and culture developer. The Makerspace, under Brooks’ direction, now fills the first floor of the Main Library with equipment and resources for current and aspiring musicians, hobbyists, photographers, writers and more. “These women made a way for me to do passionate and purposeful work.”

“Diane Brunet-Garcia constantly helps organizations,” says Heather Moore, Cathedral Arts Project board chair and board president of Phase Eight Theatre. “Anyone in the arts community—mention Diane and they know exactly who you’re talking about.”

“I love that a small group of very engaged citizens have just taken the bull by horns and started things, like Christy [Frazier] right here with the Phoenix Arts District,” says Lisa Goodrich, art collector, donor and activist. “Women have been leading the arts organizations and female artists in our community are creating great work. Princess Rashid. Marsha Hatcher. Marisa Yow. There’s lots of female artists who are making really great things.”

“Adrienne Houghton is a gifted mentor to some of our very talented fashion designers,” says Frazier, an entrepreneur and developer of Phoenix Arts District, a former industrial building in Springfield she’s transforming into workspace for artists and the upcoming Jacksonville School of the Arts that served as the backdrop for this issue’s cover photo. “Alicia Somers is legendary in her tireless pursuit of helping non-profits get the money they need to make their dreams happen.”

“Betsy Lovett, Helen Lane, Marty Lanahan, Cindy Edelman,” says Somers, area marketing manager for RegionsBank and an avid art supporter, cheerleader, collaborator and connector. “When we look at museum directorship across the city, it’s all women. [Caitlin Doherty] at MOCA. Hope [McMath] previously at the Cummer and now Holly [Keris] at the Cummer.”

“With a lot of our women artists, actresses like Barbara Colaciello, musicians like Jennifer Chase, artists like Princess Rashid, Shawana Brooks who’s doing her thing, you’re really seeing growth, dynamism and meaningful work happening,” McMath says.

“I’m working with Barbara Colaciello right now on my project Renunciant. Her wisdom and ability to help each who studies with her find the essence of what she can be as an artist,” says Chase. “Hope McMath has provocative and honest super-human strengths in the arenas of art, activism, collaboration and support.”

Unfortunately, it seems a large swath of Jaxons aren’t familiar enough with these names and the work they are doing. To some, arena concerts, the Downtown murals created for the inaugural ArtRepublic (the 2016 expo, founded by entrepreneur Jessica Santiago, which brought in internationally known muralists to cover the Urban Core with art—returning for round two this November) and Art Walk are about as deep as the cultural world in Jacksonville goes.
“People have no idea,” Goodrich says. “We have to get outside of our little bubble and stop talking to ourselves about it.”

Hope McMath served as director of the Cummer Museum from 2009 to 2016. This year, she founded Yellow House, an organization which, in her words, focuses on the connection between arts and social action. “It is about showing art and supporting artists who are doing work that is socially relevant and deals with topics that we all need to be in conversation with.” This fusing of art and activism is what she feels the city needs—along with funding—to get to the next level.

“I’m rethinking about where our power is—and our power is really with the broader community. But the resources to support our work tend to come from the very few. So it’s about building bridges between those who can support the arts and those who are really in some ways dependent on having access to the arts,” McMath says.

That’s where organizations like the nonprofit Cathedral Arts Project come in, hiring local artists to go into schools in underserved communities and teach art—painting the next generation of artists with brushes of more colors and backgrounds than ever before. “It allows you to go in and work one on one with the children,” says Moore. “They do an art project, and it brings out who they are. They get to be an artist.”

Of course, these types of programs are limited by the financial support they receive.

“When I look at the conversations around Downtown and about uplifting neighborhoods, a lot of people are saying arts are part of that solution but I don’t see an increase in the revenues to make that happen,” McMath says. “I believe that whether we’re talking about racial equity, or about education or neighborhood development, the arts have a huge role to play. So we have people who not only like the arts, but who need the arts to be their whole selves. We need to be treating it the same way we would other interventions and programs.”

Over and over, the same issue was raised. Money. Financial support from both public and private institutions may be the biggest stumbling block on the city’s road to a flourishing arts community.

“The percentage of our community’s tax dollars that goes to the arts has been level for several years now,” Goodrich says. “We need to better support individual artists and small startup organizations. Because there’s kind of a barrier to receiving public support for the arts. You have to be a nonprofit for three years. You have to have audited statements. You have to be a certain size. It’s very difficult to break through to get public support.”

Those rules are part of a city ordinance that governs how public funds are distributed by the Cultural Council, which manages the public dollars spent on the arts in Jacksonville. Since 1990, the City of Jacksonville has invested more than $70 million in arts and culture nonprofits. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the $2.4 million invested created a $77 million economic impact in the form of public admissions, artist collaborations and volunteer hours.

“We constantly have to remind those in representation what arts does for this community. It’s a huge return on investment,” says Somers. “It should just be that the citizens of Jacksonville decide that the arts are something we’re always going to fund. When we know it decides our quality of life, we have to dedicate the funding to make it sustainable.”

We could also better utilize the resources right in front of us.

“When you think about the cool places in the United States, where do people want to go? Austin, Seattle, San Francisco, New York City. People want to go where it’s cool. Arts and culture define a cool city,” Somers continues. “Jacksonville has the largest park system in the U.S. How do we make that park system super cool? How do we activate that with arts?”

She suggests sculptures, regular Shakespeare in the Park-type events and music performances to draw people in and get them talking.

All that is dependent on funding, of course. But the women of Jacksonville’s arts and culture community are intent on finding a way to get it done.

“Arts and culture tourists spend more per visit and will travel for innovative culture. We have it! It's time to let others know it too,” says Brooks. “We don't need to be New York. We're Jacksonville. Women here know and believe that. They are taking charge and will be influential in making that happen. They are writing articles, opening new art areas, taking pictures, being donors and leaving a legacy.”