Taking Action with Art

by Cindy-jo Dietz

PICTURE FIRST STREET, with its quaint little shops and brick lined streets. It’s a beautiful Tuesday morning in lovely downtown Fort Myers; the perfect day to people watch, wander and shop, have ice cream and walk aimlessly, peering in windows as you go. Here you will find Arts for Act, tucked away on First Street between Hendry & Jackson. Arts For Act presents artworks by local member artists alongside vintage clothing, shoes and gifts, all with the purpose of helping abused women and children throughout Lee, Hendry and Glades counties. It’s a cornucopia of treasures from the moment of entry all the way into the back rooms.

I had the opportunity to interview the curator, Claudia Goode.

How did you find yourself curator of Arts for ACT gallery?

Claudia: I was hired as the Administrative Assistant at Abuse Counseling & Treatment in December 1999. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that ACT not only had two shelters in Lee County, but also a thrift store, Second ACT, and an art gallery, Arts for ACT Gallery. I have been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember so the art gallery really peaked my interest. I soon found out that the gallery was in need of a manager and curator. I quickly told the CEO of ACT, Jennifer Benton that I was interested and would do it and my administrative duties as well. Long story shortened to today… I’m still doing Human Services things for ACT and have been the curator of ACT Gallery for sixteen years.

What makes you passionate about your job?

Arts for ACT Gallery feeds my creative soul. Even if I’m not painting or creating my own art, I’m picking featured or co-op artists for the gallery and hanging their art each and every month. More than half of the art that is at ACT Gallery changes monthly and I would say I hang an average of 125-150 art pieces each month. I take pride in hanging the featured and co-op artists artworks and making our gallery look unique and different each month. I love to arrange and rearrange the look of Arts for ACT Gallery.

How has this job changed you?

ACT changed me in a variety of ways. It makes me appreciate what I have: a family, a job and a nonviolent home! ACT shelter has 109 beds in its three locations that are mostly full. We have over 55 children in shelter right now. I’m most appreciative of my time at the gallery, too — the days that I am there enjoying the creativity of over 50 member artists and what they are exhibiting for sale.

Tell me a little bit about the history of the gallery.

Arts for ACT Gallery was created and opened by Jennifer Benton. She is the sister of internationally acclaimed artist Darryl Pottorf and a friend of the world-renowned artist the late Bob Rauschenberg. Many years ago, she started as a volunteer with ACT and thought of having a fundraiser auctioning art to raise money for our cause. This led her to open the cutest thrift store and a small art gallery in the Royal Palm Square. The artists Mel Meo, Elaine Hayes and Michael Smith were involved with the gallery.

Shortly after I was hired, Jennifer felt that we had outgrown the space and another space opened in the front of the Royal Palm Square by the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, so to enlarge the thrift store we moved into both spaces. That is when I took over the gallery and we started doing featured artists and a First Friday artists reception, in about 2000. This location was also perfect to start art classes and we did quite well with after-school classes and adult classes and ‘make it – take it’ classes. The bad thing about the location was that it was next to our thrift store and everyone that came in wanted thrift store pricing.

One of my artist volunteers, Kitty Tyler (owner of April’s Eatery) told us about a spot that would be perfect for the gallery in downtown Fort Myers that was right next to her on First Street. Jennifer Benton and I went downtown to look at the spot, which had been the Sydney Davis Men’s Store, but was now a derelict medical transcription office. We each saw a similar vision of turning it into what it is today, a SoHo-like space that I hope most people will find quaint and charming. It took Jennifer, our maintenance man, Riley, myself, and a handful of volunteers about 10 months of hard work to tear down walls, refurbish the pine floors, drywall, paint, mosaic, and move all 2000 plus square feet of ACT Gallery. It was a labor of love. Still is.

Describe the metamorphosis of the gallery since its inception until now.

When the gallery first opened downtown, we were the second gallery downtown. There was a small gallery where The Standard is now, but it closed shortly after we opened. We have seen First Street redone three times, lived through the green fence time when the city bricked the streets. Slowly, others saw the potential of downtown and the creativity that it brings. The Fort Myers Art League moved to Monroe St. and Terry Tincher opened Space 39. We had our first Art Walk shortly after that. I can’t remember the year, but the paint brush decal that Dan Paight’s Community Redevelopment Office provided for us is still on my floor today. Galleries started springing up in 2008, we formed an art coalition and Fort Myers Art Walk was born. We now have fourteen galleries in the River District. This event was the catalyst that transformed the River District into what it is today.

Tell me about the merchandise for sale in the gallery beyond art.

Knowing that art is very subjective and that original art is expensive, I realized that in order to stay alive and pay our rents and bills, I would have to sell more that just art. My first thought was to utilize a small portion of the donations that stores and individuals give to ACT to help us raise money for the victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. I have two rooms at the gallery for vintage and designer clothing, hats, shoes and purses. We even have antiques and furniture for sale at the gallery.

What are the themes for your upcoming shows?

I only have one themed exhibit at the gallery each year and it is always in July. We usually have three themes, one for each of the featured exhibition salons. This year, I haven’t finalized what the themes will be, but some ideas I’m leaning towards are Shattered Images, Moving Parts, Things with Wings, or Optical Illusions.

What artists will we be seeing in the gallery in those shows?

I’m very excited about our featured artists for 2017. I have Martha Dodd, Peter Zell, Peter Stilton, Bradford Herman, Tom Nagata, Dodo, Rob Goldey, and the Art Quilters Unlimited in the Main Gallery. In the White Gallery, we will be exhibiting Cynthis Egan, Yvonne Krystman, Tracie Thompson, Justin Markley and Annette Brown and Patrick Connelly. There are some openings for the White Gallery, so interested artists should call me.

How do you decide what artist’s work you would like to display?

I usually ask interested artists to email me three of their best images and if I think I can market them and their work fits with ACT Gallery then I contact them for an interview. I have to see their art in person and I usually do these interviews on Friday’s.

How do you pair artists for an exhibition?

I try to have three totally different styles for the featured rooms. Like for the exhibit that is in the gallery for December, I featured a naïve artist, Kim Kraft Beckler, a portrait artist, Lisette Morales, and an urban artist, Nick Masiello.

Tell me about member artists.

ACT Gallery has several co-op rental spaces available through-out its space. Prime front hanging space, space just off the main gallery and several other hangable spaces are available. Co-Op Gallery monthly membership dues range from $25-$100 monthly depending on the size and location of your hanging spot. 20% percentage commission will be taken from sold artwork.

In lieu of the monthly membership dues, we have a few opportunities to volunteer at the gallery for reduced or free membership dues and hanging space. Volunteers also have the privilege of using our gallery as studio or art workshop space when you are volunteering.

ACT Gallery maintains a high standard of curatorial choice when accepting artists into the gallery. This is the perfect opportunity to meet other artists and to showcase your art in a gallery that is visited by thousands of locals and tourists each month.

Who works in the gallery?

Arts for ACT Gallery is run by a handful of volunteers when I’m not in the gallery. Most of these volunteers are artists, too. If it was not for them I could not perform my duties at the administrative offices at ACT. Most have been volunteering at the gallery for years. They open and close the gallery; it is an 11am-5pm day for them. We also have volunteers that help during the Art Walks and Music Walk events. I have two volunteers that help me hang the art each month, Marie and Kate. Each and every one of my volunteers brings a special talent, kindness, knowledge, and love for art.

What events are coming up at Arts For Act gallery?

Any of the featured art exhibits. You can meet the featured artists and some of the co-op artists on the first Friday of each month at ACT Gallery from 6-10pm.

What is ACT’s mission.

ACT protects, supports and educates victims of domestic violence and their children, survivors of sexual assault and human trafficking in Lee, Hendry and Glades counties.

The agency provides the following services to realize its mission: emergency protective shelter, a 24-hour crisis hotline, one-on-one counseling, advocacy, support groups, rape crisis center, outreach counseling, batterer’s intervention groups, children’s program, community and professional education and awareness, and information and referrals to those seeking assistance in other matters.

Services are free and provided to everyone, including those who may have experienced sexual abuse as children and men in same sex relationships.

ACT is a private, nonprofit social service agency funded by grants and donations. Grant funding has changed significantly, along with government funding, which has greatly been reduced or eliminated in many areas.

What would you like to see happen in the near future and long term for ACT and the gallery?

I would love to see an increase in art patrons during our slower summer months and encourage people to collect original art instead of buying prints from big box stores. The local artists are so talented and you will be surprised at the price of an original piece of art. We feature lots of emerging artists whose art is most ecumenical.

Are there any goals you are trying to reach?

We would love to have Arts for ACT Gallery known as the first and foremost place that the Fort Myers’ resident and tourist to Southwest Florida come to buy art! •

Arts for ACT Gallery & Boutique is located at 2265 First Street in downtown Fort Myers’ Historic River District. For information, call 337-5050.

January-February 2017

Claudia Goode

“We saw a vision of turning
it into a SoHo-like space
that most people will find
quaint and charming.”

“More than half of the art
that is at ACT Gallery
changes monthly.”