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Local visual artists fear they'll be left out of the arts center picture

Caught in the wake of rising rents and disappearing space, visual artists are scrambling for studios and galleries. This comes at a time when painters, sculptors, photographers and potters seemed to be finding creative homes in a struggling arts district near downtown and between Florida Hospital and Lake Ivanhoe.

"I saw it emerge from basically nothing to something," says Cal LaFollette, who runs McRae on the Lake, a co-op of about two dozen artists. "Just when you think it is getting good, the bottom falls out."

That's just the beginning. In the last year, two major venues -- Arts Works Orlando and the Winter Park ArtsMall -- closed. Several studios, home to a dozen visual artists, have closed or will soon because of the expansion of Florida Hospital. Things at McRae on the Lake, an artists' co-op, are "up in the air," according LaFollette. And a fledgling effort to showcase emerging artists, the monthly Open Air Gallery in Winter Park, recently closed after about a year.

"This city doesn't make many accommodations for visual artists," says Rima Jabbur, who runs a studio being crowded out by the hospital expansion. "We all kind of freaked out at the realization that there aren't many other choices for studio space."

All this is happening as the city mounts its campaign to raise support -- and money -- for a performing-arts center. One of the main selling points of this massive civic project is that the center will serve as an anchor for a larger arts district. That district would, in the long run, help offset construction costs by attracting visitors and generating taxes.

But Kitty Petterson, who led Art Works Orlando, says the community has watched passively as the seeds of a grass- roots effort with the same goal were blown away.

Petterson, a painter, says Art Works, the ArtsMall and the burgeoning arts district "were doing exactly what (city leaders) say they want. But when we are thrown out of the buildings -- so be it. It is without a whimper from anyone in any sort of political position in the city."

"They have kind of pushed the visual artists out," says LaFollette.

The campaign being mounted by The Orlando Sentinel in support of more theater space downtown puts additional pressure on displaced artists trying to find new studio space near their audience -- urban dwellers.

"Sure you can find space," says Joe Lallement, an illustrator at Brujodada in Winter Park, "out in Taft."

Both performing and visual arts groups covet the same kinds of large, post-industrial space -- space that is at premium -- because downtown Orlando never had the industrial core found in many older cities. While unanimously supporting their counterparts, visual artists wish they could somehow share a little of the spotlight.

"There have been visual artists who have attended the meetings" of the theater alliance, says Petterson. But because they are competing for the same resources, she says, "From what is being written and said, you would never know they were in the audience."

Artists themselves are going to have to take some action or nothing is going to change, says sculptor David Jordan, a partner in Brujodada and a "self-proclaimed torch holder" for visual artists. Jordan and Brujodada organized the Open Air Gallery. Over the years, he also has been involved in several other efforts to organize artists.

"It would be nice if there were some people in the government or some civic leaders who saw the need for the visual arts. It is where our society comments on itself," he says. But, "We are still sort of ‘cowpoky' in our view of the fine arts."

There are other obstacles to organizing visual artists.

Performing-arts groups such as the ballet or theater are collaborative efforts, so there is a natural rallying point for community efforts. But visual artists don't always work and play well with others. Plus, the large number of art festivals in Florida can dilute the local focus. Artists who concentrate exclusively on festival shows see no need to get involved locally.

But the help isn't likely to come from anyone else.

LaFollette says performing arts are "the safe choice. It is rare that a Shakespeare festival in the park is going to be offensive." But, he says, with an artist's grant you can't be sure what is produced won't cause controversy.

Gallery space is included in the arts-center plan, but there has been no serious discussion of it. Studio space isn't even mentioned in the plan

Currently the city's budget for public art equals 1 percent of what it spends on capital-improvement projects, a figure rising from $26,000 in 1995-96 to $34,000 in 1996-97 to $42,000 in 1997-98. Frank Holt, the city's public-art coordinator, says some of that money is devoted to maintenance and installation. And, he says, although the city buys 15 to 20 pieces of art a year, the sales are spread among artists statewide.

City hall hosts about five shows a year, but its gallery is booked through the year 2000. And due to their natures, the city hall and the county courthouse galleries must appeal to the most conservative tastes.

United Arts of Central Florida supports the Crealdé School of Arts and Maitland Center for the Arts. As associate members, they are provided grants but aren't required to raise money. United Arts also provides Individual Artists Recognition Awards: in 1996, five for $1,500 each; in 1997, six ranging from $750 to $2,000. The Crealdé and Maitland centers also provide classes, workshops and gallery space. But they have limited resources and space, and -- because they are in the suburbs -- don't directly add to the downtown art community.

Considering the government galleries and arts centers offer the bulk of the available space, visual artists may face a continued struggle to be seen and sold.

"That's the way it's always been," says artist and gallery owner Tony Eitharong. "We can talk about art all day long but it is still a matter of support, buying the work. The city is getting bigger but the people are still the same size."

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