Reality gallery 

Breaking new ground is old territory for Regina Smith, a longtime local artist, mother, educator and organizer. Her getting-people-together attentions date back to Orlando Museum of Art's '90s precursor to its popular "1st Thursday's" program, called the "Art After Dark" series. She pooled talent into one-night happenings that saw Keith "Scramble" Campbell painting to psychedelic fashion shows and the like.

But it's a new day and time for Smith, whose home base is now Mount Dora, even though she's still a tireless advocate for local art in the heart of downtown Orlando. In addition to her 9-year-old and twin 3-year-olds, Smith's attentions currently are focused on the GARP Gallery that opened in August in the flagging Church Street Market complex. The art forum offers a fresh spin on the many-times-tried concept of bringing local artists together under one roof for maximum exposure and profitability -- Great Art For Real People, get it?

"The energy just feeds off of each other," says Smith of her enthusiastic involvement with GARP, which will host a special 9-11 art and music event on Wednesday, Sept. 11. Like the gallery itself, the evening will be informal and familial, a multicolored light in the dark Church Street corridor. Everyone is invited -- to share art, to share the aftermath experience in a cooperative environment. There's more than safety to be shared in numbers, and GARP's opening its doors to the community especially wide that night.

But it took some work to bring the collective to their current reality. "I'm just so grateful for a patron," says Smith of the viable enterprise. That patron, also referred to on the website ( as the executive director, is Jack Vick. The Winter Haven businessman's involvement was sprung from his required coursework in a personal-development program he enrolled in to change his way of thinking. He was supposed to organize a community project that couldn't benefit him directly, and with the eventual goal of his "giving it away," having been created to support itself. Vick's project had to address a need, and as an art appreciator he was driven by the image of pieces of art wasting away in area garages -- creations by everyday people that were affordable to other everyday people.

"These are not investment pieces," says Vick, but they are original art with a value to potential buyers. All that was missing was a place for the transaction, where art could meet with buyers. In little more than two months, he brought the idea to reality.

A few phone calls found that the Church Street Market management company were up for negotiation, making the high-profile space available for conditions that the gallery could afford (participation by 50 artists alone can cover the rent, plus the gallery takes a 25 percent share of any art sold).

Local artist Cris Field ( jumped in as director of administration (titles are not really observed but they're in the paperwork), and she brings her own personal experience, maintaining her own exhibit space in the gallery. Artist Suzan Elizabeth Ramer, director of operations, returned to town from Colorado, where she started a food co-op, a system that defines the GARP arrangement: Artists pay as little as $30 a month to rent a space at the gallery if they work off a part of the cost by watching the shop, which is open daily except for Sunday. GARP's relaxed approach solves some of the problems Ramer has encountered in the struggle to be seen, acknowledging that "it's very hard to jump through art snobs' hoops."

When Smith came on board as director of promotions, she brought not only her commitment to local art but her endless roster of connections in area culture. Not surprisingly then, GARP's calendar is already citing music on weekends. Much like the art that hangs on the walls, the names on the concert schedule mix area notables (David Schweizer, Sept. 21 and Oct. 26; the Ox Project and Seraphin, Sept. 28; The Legendary JC's, Nov. 8) with lesser-knowns ("apocalyptic folk" by Peter Emerson Williams, Saturday, Sept. 7).

The enhancements come on top of regular exhibition dates. Every third Thursday, an art-music event introduces three members of the gallery for an extended show; currently in the spotlight, Anna Young, Eric Money and Michael Ennis, with a new crew to debut Sept. 19.

Sure the concept has been tried before, but the world is decidedly a different place now.


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