Eric Vaughn Holowacz Archives

Archives Items Relating to the Life, Times, and Cultural Engineering Work of Eric Vaughn Holowacz of Wellington, New Zealand and Sedona, Arizona

June 03, 2013


Dig Magazine Talks with Newly Appointed Arts Council President and CEO about Zen in the Art of Cultural Management


On April 26, the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge announced that Eric Vaughn Holowacz would take over as President and CEO of the organization beginning in June.
A native of South Carolina, Holowacz has spent nearly 25 years working in diverse arts communities and developing a reputation in arts administration and community engagement. In his most recent position, Holowacz served as Arts & Culture Manager for the Mildura Rural City Council in Mildura, Victoria, Australia.
Holowacz also claims a stint as producer and director of the Cairns Festival in North Queensland from 2010 to 2012. For three years before Cairns, he worked as the founding executive director of The Studios of Key West in Florida.
“After the passing of Arts Council CEO, Derek Gordon, last September, we knew the importance of finding the right individual to build upon the incredible imprint that Derek created for the arts in Baton Rouge,” said Cheri Ausberry, Arts Council Board chair. “The Search Committee and Board of Directors of the Arts Council were thrilled when Eric Holowacz expressed an interest in bringing his creative vision to our community to continue to advance the arts.”
Holowacz still resides in Mildura, so to conquer the considerable time difference, DIGexchanged emails with him to find out more about his passion for arts collaboration, his move across the world to Louisiana, and what he hopes to bring to the Baton Rouge community.
DIG: I’m sure leaving Australia for Louisiana must be a bittersweet experience.
Eric Holowacz: Actually, I’m really looking forward to “coming home,” and reconnecting with America and the creative people, places, and organizations that have been missing from my life down under. So it’s mostly just sweet. 
We’ve spent a combined eight years living in the Southern Hemisphere, and it’s a long way away from family and friends. Australia and New Zealand have been good to us, and there are unique and wonderful things about life on this side of the globe. But deep down, I miss the vibe, the ethos, the culture, the goodness of America too much. 

DIG: After living outside of the U.S. for so long, why do you feel now is a good time to come back – outside of the appointment to the arts council?
EH: I’m excited about the move to Baton Rouge for several reasons. First, the Arts Council has such a strong sense of identity and mission, and there is no doubt in my mind that the organization is driven by a wonderful staff and board. Derek did an amazing job over the past six years, and his sense of profound community engagement through the arts is shared by everybody I’ve met. I’d like to be part of that continuum.
Second, the greater community and parishes have a robust and creative soul – a unique place as a distinct aspect of American identity. Working to support that sense of place is very appealing to me. On the ground and in the neighborhoods, Baton Rouge has one of the strongest community spirits that I’ve ever encountered – and that is an essential ingredient for a thriving arts organization. It’s what takes the Arts Council from good to great. And finally, as our daughters (Eva, Mila and Anais) grow up, and our parents (in South Carolina and New York) get older, my wife and I felt like we needed to reconnect with our roots and the sorely missed friends and family back home in the States. So at a very human level, I’m looking forward to getting back into the American groove and calling you my neighbor!

DIG: Your CV reads off one arts organization after another, and you’ve had such an impact on several important projects – i.e. Drive by Art, Cairns Festival and The Studios of Key West – what is it about this type of arts community work that has attracted you?
EH: This is a hard question to answer, but I’ll give it a go. I feel truly blessed to have been a part of the creative communities in South Carolina, Wellington, Key West, Australia, and (soon) Baton Rouge. Each of my previous leadership roles has been its own unique scenario, with diverse challenges, missions, partners, and resources. I got my start at the South Carolina Arts Commission and then moved on to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. After that I spent six years directing the arts council in Beaufort, South Carolina, then five as the arts manager for New Zealand’s capital city. I had a three-year tenure as founding director of America’s newest artists colony, The Studios of Key West, followed by another three-year gig as producer and director of a diverse arts festival in the tropical Far North Queensland. Each setting has quite different from the others, but all have given me new experiences, distinct perspectives, creative connections and wonderful friends. 
There are a few common threads, more like persistent questions, that run throughout my inter-continental career:  how can we foster meaningful connections between artist and audience? What is the relationship between a person and his or her creative potential? How can communities and cities build sense of place through the arts? Why should they? What exactly is cultural identity? How do we define this thing we call culture? 
Most of my work – whether planning a new arts center in Wellington or programming a 17-day festival at the top end of Australia – has been about answering those questions. 

DIG: Derek Gordon left a significant impact in the Baton Rouge arts community. How do you hope to continue what he started?
EH: The short answer is: in every way possible. I am honored by the opportunity to follow in Derek’s footsteps and sustain the goodwill and creative platforms he engineered. My goal upon arrival is to keep his legacy intact, ensure a happy and productive team, invite new ideas and partnerships, and then use all of our combined magical powers to support local creative people and organizations in every way. The “Big Hairy Audacious Goal,” to borrow a rather humorous management term, is to leverage innovative ideas, great people, and the creative spark in south Louisiana to build America’s next great arts organization. 

DIG: What do you see as weaknesses in the Baton Rouge arts community? And how do you hope to address those weaknesses?
EH: The usual weaknesses identified by the non-profit world have to do with diminished funding, audience attrition, governance and compliance, clarity of purpose and mission, staff development, and barriers to participation. These are some of the things – not really weaknesses but more like the prosaic requirements of organizational leadership – that keep most chief executives busy and on their toes.  
I have a very Zen-like notion about the importance of real weaknesses. First, they are an active ingredient for learning and growing. And while I don’t usually advocate for failure, when it leads to an innovation or positive change, failing harder can actually help us overcome a stubborn weakness. Second, understanding our weaknesses can put us on the path of continuous improvement – and a process of adjustments that make ourselves better people and our communities better places. 
The arts offer us unlimited opportunities to understand and address our problems, privately or communally. The creative process – a wondrous thing that resides deep within each and every person on earth – is there to help us meet the challenges of life head on, and emerge with new questions and bold solutions for humanity. 
The moral of my story here is follow your Zen, don’t be afraid to fail, learn and adjust for the better, and when you run out of answers or explanations, the arts will give you new ones.    

DIG: How do you hope to engage the general Baton Rouge community?
EH: I may have come up with some interesting projects in my life, but everything I’ve ever pioneered or successfully established has been a collaborative effort involving many wonderful people and contributors. The idea of Zen again comes into play in that I never try to force something to happen, and I usually don’t make any assumptions or mandates. Instead, I try to combine the right elements, engage others as mutual partners, respect the creative process, be as patient yet as sure as a monk, and then let the over-riding idea take us where it wants to go. I have learned that the archer doesn’t hit the bull’s eye: the arrow goes there, because we let it, and because the target is where it needs to be. Maybe that is the engagement metaphor I will bring to Baton Rouge.

May 08, 2013

The Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge announces Eric Holowacz as incoming President and CEO

The Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge is delighted to announce that Eric Vaughn Holowacz will join the organization as President and CEO beginning in June

Eric Holowacz
A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Mr. Holowacz brings a diverse background in arts programming and presenting, non-profit and organizational leadership, and creative community engagement. With almost twenty-five years of experience in the arts, he has established an impressive track record of successes in arts administration and dynamic cultural endeavors in the United States and abroad.

Cheri Ausberry, Arts Council Board Chair says, "After the passing of Arts Council CEO, Derek Gordon last September, we knew the importance of finding the right individual to build upon the incredible imprint that Derek created for the arts in Baton Rouge. The Search Committee and Board of Directors of the Arts Council were thrilled when Eric Holowacz expressed an interest in bringing his creative vision to our community to continue to advance the arts."

Mr. Holowacz comes to Baton Rouge from Mildura, Victoria, Australia, where he served as Arts & Culture Manager, where he was responsible for a $2.2 million operating budget, facilities and assets of over $25 million, and the artistic direction for multiple disciplines and venues. In late 2012, he opened Australia's newest proscenium theatre, and established bold new arts programming and community engagement efforts. 

From 2010 to 2012, Mr. Holowacz was producer and director of Cairns Festival in Tropical North Queensland from 2010-2012, where he oversaw the revival of the Far North's major creative celebration, and the delivery of 106 unique events over 17 days. He established dynamic artistic programming, a new brand and identity for the Festival, a slate of ambitious community engagement ideas, and collaborative projects in support of the region's creative people.

From 2007 to 2010, Mr. Holowacz served as founding executive director of The Studios of Key West in Florida, and was responsible for building its campus from an unknown entity into a thriving artists' colony, cultural complex, and center of the island's creative life. There he also oversaw artistic direction and programming which included the establishment of a successful folk music series, new theatre residencies, extensive workshop season, lectures and outreach opportunities, and national and international connections for the organization.

Prior to this, Mr. Holowacz held the role of arts programs and services manager for Wellington City Council in the New Zealand capital. This role involved community arts initiatives, festival event production, new creative initiatives, and the planning and development of a new Arts Centre for Wellington, In New Zealand, he also served as chairman of Wellington Access Broadcasting Society (parent of the country's oldest community radio station), served on the executive committee of the New Zealand American Association, and was member and officer of Wellington South Rotary Club.

From 1996 to 2002, he served as executive director of a small coastal arts council and performing arts centre in Beaufort County, South Carolina. Some of his pioneering efforts there include the engineering of the free Arts in the Park series and a major partnership with the City of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs-resulting in the memorable Cows on Vacation public art project, the River of Art exchange with the Shedd Aquarium, and the gift of a Beaufort Art-o-mat machine to the Chicago Cultural Center. His six-year tenure also saw the successful production of over 100 world-class chamber music concerts, theatre residencies, and visual art exhibitions, the introduction of an engaging public art program, and the hosting of a weekly arts segment for local television station WJWJ. Mr. Holowacz was one of a handful of non-profit executives selected for the 2001-2002 South Carolina Executive Institute, a prestigious year-long leadership and management course developed by the Governor's Office. 

Early in his career, he was given significant responsibility and development with program-based roles at the South Carolina Arts Commission and Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston. He served on the boards of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, the South Carolina Artisans Center, and several committees of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. He later served as Vice Chairman of the South Carolina Presenters Network and board member of the high-profile advocacy consortium, the South Carolina Arts Alliance. 

"Eric has a knack for developing projects and collaborations that engage artists and communities in new and unique ways-often revolving around cultural identity, local heritage, creative process, and the expression of sense of place, " said Ausberry, noting that new stage works, commissions, and complex partnerships have also been a steady presence in his career. 

"I am honored about my appointment, and the opportunity to contribute to the creative and cultural profile of South Louisiana," said Mr. Holowacz. "The opportunity to follow the dynamic path carved out by Derek, the board, and wonderful Arts Council staff is extraordinary."

"And it already feels like a warm homecoming, with new friends and creative opportunities at every corner. After a global odyssey working to advance the arts, I am so looking forward to calling Baton Rouge my home."   

Kathy Scherer, Arts Council Acting Director says, "We are very excited that Eric Holowacz will be taking the helm as CEO. With his multi-faceted background of community engagement and cultural programming, he will bring an innovative spirit to expand upon the creative energy and assets already present in Baton Rouge.  He has accomplished many great endeavors, working creatively with communities around the world, and we are fortunate that he will soon be joining our Arts Council family."

Mr. Holowacz is married to Maureen Hickey, an accomplished Neonatal ICU nurse originally from Albany, New York, and they have three daughters-Eva, Mila, and Anaïs. He is planning to relocate from Victoria, Australia in early June, in time for the Arts Council's annual meeting. 

September 14, 2010

A Look at The Studios of Key West

A short look at the first three years, creative mission, and wonderful people who helped build The Studios of Key West into the island's leading arts organization. Written and narrated by founding executive director, Eric Holowacz, and handed off to hand-picked successor, Jay Scott. Generously shot, crafted and produced by ConchTV.

January 09, 2010

Summer Brings Changes to Arts Mecca, The Studios of Key Westby Timothy O'Hara (Key West Citizen, 9 January 2010)

Eric Holowacz took the reins of The Studios of Key West when the nonprofit art and cultural organization was struggling to define itself and its long-term future, or at least its uncertain relevance in the community.
Nearly three years later, Holowacz will resign as executive director in June knowing the organization has earned its place in the Key West art, music and cultural scene, and that its financial future is bright, he said. Successor Jay Scott, the board's development chair, has helped the organization become more financially solvent, Holowacz said.
When it first started in 2006, some feared the organization would become a snobby art program catering to Key West's elite and providing work space only to well-established artists who don't need a leg up. Holowacz went to great lengths to welcome struggling local artists, while offering residencies to out-of-town artists who are on the cutting edge or working on the fringes of their craft.
"As soon as I got here, I threw open the front doors and started connecting with creative people in the community," Holowacz said. "Our goal was not to make this elitist. ... I love that we have been able to reach a cross section of the community."
At the same time, he brought a consistency in staff and built up the program so it could survive financially, despite losing its main sponsor in March. The Rodel Charitable Foundation of Key West, which ceased all giving pending personal negotiations between its founders, cut its annual $500,000 donation, two-thirds of the Studios' working budget. The nonprofit since has found new sponsors and grant money, Holowacz said.
"It's been a great three years," said Holowacz, who was hired in May 2007. "We have been able to bring in artists, and the community has latched onto them and been able to support them. That's what Key West has that many other communities don't. There are not a lot of communities that support art the way Key West does."
Holowacz, his wife and three children are returning to Wellington, New Zealand, where the South Carolina native worked before coming to Key West. He promised his family they would return to New Zealand after a few years here.
"I thought it would take three to five years to build staff, programming and a diversified funding base for the Studios, but after our first full season things began to take shape," Holowacz said. "By the second, the organization was humming. While my mission has been accomplished, the hard part will be leaving the exciting and diverse creative community that now surrounds the Armory and its place on the island."
The organization conducts exhibitions, classes, concerts and other events at the historic Armory at White and Southard streets.
Holowacz said he will work with Scott and other staff members, as well as the board, to ensure a smooth transition. After the Rodel announcement was made during Scott's first board meeting, he became the board's development chair. He has worked closely with Holowacz in the past year to stabilize the Studios' financial picture and build business and corporate relationships.
"Until Jay joined us, our fundraising pace was slow and deliberate," Holowacz said. "He jumped right in, picked up the tempo, and soon had half the island joining us as friends, sponsors and major donors. His enthusiasm, smarts and creative soul will surely drive the organization into an even brighter future."
Scott brings years of experience to the position, having most recently served as executive director of the Fleck Foundation in Milwaukee, which granted more than $2 million per year. Scott also has had a long career as a university administrator, specializing in campus programming and student affairs, at the University of Florida and University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
"There is no doubt that The Studios of Key West is an amazing, extraordinary place," Scott said, "and we're going to keep it that way, for a long, long time."

January 08, 2010

Madison Smartt Bell, TSKW Writer in Residence

Reflects on Islands, Trembling Trees, Rebirth, and Works in Progress..

On January 24, 2010, a few weeks after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Key West's artists and creative community came together for Souls Not Lost: A Fundraiser for Haiti's Survivors. The event was held at The Studios of Key West, and after less than a week of organizing, raised over $25,000 for relief and recovery organization, Partners in Health.

As it just so happens, the January Writer in Residence at The Studios of Key West was none other than Madison Smartt Bell, author of a trilogy of critically-acclaimed novels about the Haitian Revolution - "All Souls Rising," "Master of the Crossroads" and "The Stone That the Builder Refused." Also the author of a biography of Haitian Revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture, Bell graciously agreed to address the event audience gathered that Sunday night in the Historic Armory main hall. Following his residency and return to Baltimore, the writer sent the following reflection on islands, trembling trees, rebirth, and his own works in progress...

I got to know some of the good people at The Studios of Key West in the winter of 2009 when I was in Old Town on other business. When I thought to inquire, somewhat belatedly, if they could find a spot for me in January 2010, I was pleasantly startled to find that the answer was yes.

A working holiday in Paradise, I thought. Okay, Key West is a little louche to fit the Judeo-Christian image of Paradise, but then that's why I like it. I was also getting to come with my wife, Elizabeth Spires, who is as fond of the place as I am, in part because of Elizabeth's Bishop's connection to it.

A few days before our departure, the earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince and the surrounding region of Haiti. It upset my world a little bit also. One night I packed a bag for Haiti. The next day I unpacked it, reasoning that I don't have the first response skills immediately needed, that if I went I would be consuming resources scarce enough for those already there, and that I might be able to be more useful for the Haitian cause by trying to get various words on the subject out and around the United States.

Key West, small as it is, does remind me of what Haiti could be (maybe now has another chance to become) with political stability, basic security, a functioning economy and a sound infrastructure. The two spots share a world's end feel-and a sense that there is no other place on earth quite like this one. In front of the abandoned school on Southard and Margaret Streets there is a magnificent ancient tree where last year I wanted to make a jete dlo, the Haitian water sacrifice. This year I did it.

Haitians consider old trees to be reposwa, resting places for ancestral spirits, and there are some magnificent trees like that in the back garden of Heritage House where we were put up, thanks to the kindness of her descendants, in Miss Jean Porter Poirier's cottage. One of the best things about our stay was to inhabit for a little while the aura of her life, which must have been a very rich one, judging from all the wonderful art she made and collected, a library ranging from South Florida history to the implications of the Mayan long calendar and taking in a whole lot in between, a full-size rickshaw she must have ridden in, outside on the gallery, and a scale model of the same rickshaw inside on a bookshelf, complete in every detail down to the paint job. One of the books I brought was William Vollmann's forthcoming book on Noh theater; lo, there was a Noh mask hanging among a thousand other artifacts on the cottage walls.

Thanks to the flexibility and generosity of TSKW I was able to keep getting words out on Haiti, tying up their land line to talk on the radio, and giving a talk at a benefit (around twenty-five thousand dollars were raised I am told) that they hosted at the Armory. I met some good people from the Key West Haitian community, especially those who congregate at Mo's Restaurant (which furnished some excellent Haitian food to the benefit).

At first I intended to work on a novel in progress tentatively entitled Red Stick, about the Creek Wars of the early nineteenths century, in which Andrew Jackson participated, among many others. I had proposed that as a project to TSKW because it is describable, where as the other novel I'm working on, a thing called Behind the Moon, is thoroughly indescribable at this point. But the earthquake in Haiti scrambled my brain too much for me to call up the proper Red Stick state of mind, so I worked on Behind the Moon instead and made some decent progress.

I would like to thank people including but not limited to Elena Devers, Eric Holowacz, Martha Barnes, Lauren McAloon, Marc Hedden and Nan Klingener for doing huge amounts of work with an apparently effortless grace. Key West was a very good place for me to be at what was otherwise a very bad time. I hoped and prayed for a lot of people I know in the earthquake zone in Haiti, and quite a few of them came back out of the wreckage. There's more than a little magic in Key West as well as in Haiti, in the movement of the water and the trembling of the leaves.

The last few words I finished on Behind the Moon are these.

She set her parking brake and got out. The small house sat half in, half out of a thicket of evergreen brush, at the bottom of a dish in the prairie, scattered with sharp white stones. It did not exactly look abandoned, but the door hung open in a way that dismayed her. She started to call to the house but did not. To the left of it the rusted carcass of an old Mustang stood on blocks and beside it a washing machine so ancient it had a wringer bolted on top. A dented aluminum saucepan lay upside down among the stones.

The sky darkened abruptly, though it could scarcely have been noon. Marissa looked up to see a black squall line hurrying from the west, dense inky cloud that blotted out the sun. She could no longer remember why she had come here. Out of the thicket to the right of the house came an old man with long white hair, wearing a green quilted vest with the stuffing coming out from its parted seams. He shook a rattle at the end of one bony arm and made a thin keening sound with his voice. Although he did not seem to see her he was coming toward her certainly, as if everything in this day, in her whole life, existed to carry her to this moment and him to her. When he had reached her, his free hand took hers.

Marissa said, Why?

You have a hollow in your heart, the shaman said. Or maybe he said hunger. The rattle shook in his other hand. Hunger. Hollow. Now Marissa was weeping, with no sound or sobbing. She only knew because the water from her eyes ran into the neck of her shirt and pooled in the shell of her collar bone.

Go to it now, the shaman said. Don't hesitate.

January 02, 2010

Bold Ideas and Unexpected Forces
Creating America's Southernmost Arts Community
by Eric Holowacz, CEO

“Go at it boldly,” wrote Canadian spiritualist Basil King, “and you’ll find unexpected forces closing round you and coming to your aid.” In a way, that notion has been the ethic of The Studios of Key West ever since we launched this non-profit organization in late 2006. Before that arrival, there was a long process of dreaming, planning, researching, and gathering the island’s creative people and community leaders. The gestation period took many forms, involved dozens of people, and lasted more than a few years. But by late-2007, The Studios of Key West had a professional staff in place, a beautifully renovated campus, an expanded board, and the origins of a program now recognized as an exciting part of the Key West season. In five simple words: we went at it boldly.
From day one, my staff and I also flung open the Armory doors and invited anyone and everyone to experience our organization. We asked people to come inside and share their ideas with us. We listened to creative proposals, responded and nurtured them. And we welcomed friends and neighbors to help us build community. These early years were about discovery, exploration, and partnerships. They were about the great unknown entities and artistic efforts that would come to define us. The writer Robert Collier once put it this way: “You can do anything you think you can. This knowledge is literally the gift of the gods, for through it you can solve every human problem. It should make of you an incurable optimist. It is the open door.” With a nod to that sentiment, we propped open the Armory portal, and extraordinary new forces have been coming to visit ever since.
The Studios of Key West now stands at the threshold of its third and most ambitious season. The program and operational models are fully established, and our 2009/2010 workshops, exhibitions, and events are off to a great start. A full-color catalog just hit the streets, and the brand new website is up and running. For our organization and its creative community, the discovery, exploration, and partnerships continue. But behind the scenes, the board of directors and staff have turned our attention to planning for the future.

In early 2007, The Studios of Key West had zero annual donors, no business sponsors, and one very significant operating grant from a local Foundation. That last commitment is over, but we’ve since grown our development efforts to include over 400 annual donors, a portfolio of managed local grant sources, 75 new business and corporate sponsors, and over 50 major donors we call our Patrons. All the while our organization’s fundraising strategy was fueled by one overriding notion: before asking anybody to support us, make sure what we do is exciting, interesting, creative, and important to people’s lives. Make sure that TSKW is following its bold strategic plan, delivering on its mission, and increasing its shared vision for a creative community.
More recently, our board, staff, and I have been working hard behind the scenes to develop a sustainable long-range plan. We’ve held strategy sessions, convened committees, investigated other models and pondered new ideas, all with the intention of keeping TSKW solid and growing. Heroic work has been done to ensure the future of The Studios of Key West.
Following my departure in mid-2010, after three years at the helm of the organization, the bold and fearless Jay Scott will assume leadership of staff and programming. He will continue extraordinary development efforts, galvanize our support base and creative community, and drive TSKW into the future. I have no doubt that exciting and interesting things will continue to happen under the Historic Armory roof.
As we all plan for 2011 and beyond, our organization promises to keep an open door to the community. In our mission to foster the arts and express the island’s cultural essence, we will continue to go at it boldly. But our next few years now request your presence, input, and help. So if you enjoy this latest creative season and feel inclined to come to the aid of The Studios of Key West, please remember us in your 2010 charitable giving. Simply contact any TSKW board member, me or my staff, or incoming executive director, Jay Scott, to learn about all of the ways you can help. With your support, we are sure that boldness, open doors, and unexpected forces will continue to see us through.

January 01, 2010

Three-year Plan for a Pilgrim Soul
Chief Executive Eric Holowacz Reflects on the Start-up Phase
The first thing we did, the board of directors and I, was create a three-year strategic plan. It was May 2007, my first week on the job. Our small group of founding leaders gathered for a weekend retreat to carve out the mission and objectives of what would become TSKW. The organization was yet unimagined.
Over a few days, our consultant, interim director, and I drafted a boldly imagined strategic plan with overly ambitious goals, impossibly diverse program elements, the strictest professional standards, and a driving vision to connect with the creative community. Those two days of searching felt sort of like reaching an undiscovered country, or charting a new Constitution. The process felt pioneering, beautiful and mysterious.
As that first summer wore on, I had much more practical issues to keep me busy: building renovations needed to be finished, staff had to be hired, the first program year begged to be set, and board policies and operational systems had to be implemented. And while we desperately wanted a brand identity, the organization more importantly needed substance and good will. TSKW could only succeed, once it managed to find a real place in the community. Sitting in the empty main hall of the Armory, one humid afternoon in June, I quietly asked myself a hard question: How in the world would we bring life and cultural importance to The Studios of Key West.
The answer was right next to me. It resided in the talents and energy of three people who would become my staff — the creative souls who would become the professional team and engine of our organization. Elena, Lauren, and first program coordinator Sharon McGauley, jumped headlong into our new vision. In the Fall of 2007, Martha joined our team, and the workshop series and creative classes became a community favorite.
Together we refined our public mission, grew our events and courses, launched new ideas and projects, forged partnerships and collaborations. Elena jazzed up our monthly Walk on White receptions, Lauren installed one outdoor sculpture exhibition after another. I welcomed proposals from all creative inclinations and sought out interesting artists and invited them to our campus. The community began to take note and respond.
Together my team and I developed One Night Stand and devised a collaborated film project, inspired by a classic late 1970s hometown documentary. Humanities scholars delivered their knowledge of Zane Grey, Hemingway, and Elizabeth Bishop. Local artists installed monthly exhibitions to showcase new work being made in the Keys. A small apartment in back of the Armory became our Mango Tree House — a quiet place for visiting artists. The Armory’s main hall was fitted with plasma screens and AppleTV and a 21st century way to tell our on-going story.
Upstairs, our studio artists churned out amazing new things, and visiting artists brought boldideas to town. Crowds appeared for folk music concerts, weekly lectures and painting classes, and special partnerships brought the community more together under one roof. With each attempt, The Studios of Key West gained a clearer, more profound identity. Before we even realized it, that Strategic Plan was becoming real.
Behind the scenes, our staff soon became a highly-dedicated team. “We operate with a Kaizen approach,” I told our board chairman, always seeking small, continual improvements, evaluating what we do and how we do it, and tweaking things for the most good. That granted us the liberty to test concepts, pilot innovative ideas, and further deliver on a once exhaustive plan.
The open door, those giant gateways into the Historic Armory, became our hallmark. We’ve been called a kind of crucible, a nexus, the living room of Old Town. Our campus has become a cultural forge, and a hotbed of artistic process. People know that their creativity will find sanctuary inside. Our remarkable team has created that rare place where the soul and the human element can be nourished. And just two and a half years ago, I stood alone in an empty drill hall, long-term objectives in hand, questioning most of the items etched into our 2007-2009 strategic plan.
The other reason I had nothing to fear, and this was already known by our founding board members, was that Key West is endowed with creative people like no other place in the world. These colleagues — poets, film-makers, dancers, drummers, and painters — have willingly become part of our equation. Their work gives us true substance from the inside out. Mark Hedden, Skipper Kripitz, Cricket Desmarais, Mike Marrero, Andy Thurber, Karley Klopfenstein are fearless and consistent in their cultural contributions. Ros Brackenbury, Rick Worth, Katherine Doughty, Anja Marais, Eric Anfinson, and Jennifer O’Lear have added layers to the contemporary arts scene. Margit Bisztray, Debra Yates, Chris Shultz, Guillermo Orozco, George Murphy, Roberta Marks, and Marky Pierson feed the creative fire. A strategic plan means nothing, without these people and their work.
The Studios of Key West now approaches its third full season. The plan is reaching the end of its lifespan. Yet we are more ambitious than ever. Our small team of professional arts administrators have become the core of our three-year journey. It feels like one diverse extended family, with each season like a reunion.
In a few months, we’ll announce another 5-month gathering of the tribe, and an entire slate of exhibitions, classes, lectures, residencies and special cultural opportunities. The family will continue to grow, and the journey will progress. I speak for all of us when I say thank you to a creative community filled with ideas. Thank you to the Friends and Patrons who have contributed generously towards our future. And thank you to everyone, our island neighbors, for exploring an undiscovered country now known as The Studios of Key West. My pilgrim soul is eternally grateful.