Work in progress

Right now in the minds of people who care about our city's vital cultural signs, there is the real Orlando, and then there are several imaginary Orlandos: one includes a performing-arts center, another an arts corridor, and yet another a downtown theater district. These possibilities are like constellations in the nighttime sky. It takes some serious creative vision to turn the random stars of Orion into the shape of a hunter, and it takes a generous imagination to see challenging art galleries, discerning theater groups, and hip stores and restaurants -- without a theme, please -- lining downtown's streets.

Local government is drawing up a strategy for these projects, and organizations like the Central Florida Theatre Alliance have come together and joined the team. But one of the most effective players might be a recruit from the private sector who's thrown himself into the Orlando arts game: Ford Kiene, president of City Beverages, board member of the Theatre Alliance, and renovator of the Rogers Building, a major downtown historic structure that he alone is re-creating as a coffeehouse and gallery. He's a one-man arts-patron band.

Basically, Kiene "puts his money where his mouth is," notes Brenda Robinson, the city of Orlando's executive director of arts and cultural affairs.

When Kiene -- who moved in August 1997 from Seattle, a city more than twice the size of this one -- talks about what he wants to see in Orlando, what does it sound like?

"I wanted to surround myself with as much of what I like in art," says Kiene, easily admitting the self-interest he has in helping to jump-start the arts scene of his adopted town. He has an enviable reference point: The deep and eclectic culture of Seattle makes Orlando's offerings look pale and watered-down -- like an arts scene poured through a sieve. And Kiene isn't shy about pointing this out. "My first impression coming down into Orlando," he says, "was that it was culturally deprived and missing most of what I enjoyed about Seattle itself -- a great symphony, music hall, theaters, art galleries, gallery walks, public art. And that was a little bit of a shock for me."

Kiene is one of those people who manage to be both direct and warm at the same time. When talking about him, several people actually hit upon the same word. Says Robinson: "He's very genuine." Says director, theater critic and Theatre Alliance board member Bobbie Bell: "Certainly his concern [for the arts] is genuine."

The 50-year-old Kiene (it's pronounced key-ney) comes from a family that has been in the Seattle area since the late 1800s. In that rain-soaked city he, among other things, ran a beer distributorship, was president of the Washington Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, served on the task force that decided the fate of the Kingdome stadium and "was active in the arts community, but behind the scenes," as he puts it -- meaning mostly fund-raising, not decision-making. He left Seattle "looking for sunshine" when the opportunity arose: He bought a big share of the late Wayne Densch's Central Florida Anheuser-Busch distributorship. The recently relocated City Beverages headquarters sits among the bland flatness southwest of Orlando International Airport, but pieces from Kiene's personal collection of artwork rescue the interior from office-space anonymity.

He hasn't completely left behind the overcast, grungy, coffee-swamped Northwest in favor of herons, palm fronds, roadside attractions and hurricane threats. He still owns a home in Seattle, and visits it regularly. Indeed, the distance to Seattle -- you can't get much farther from Florida and still be in the continental U.S. -- seems almost symbolic. "Because I still frequently travel back and forth, I'm able to get what I want," he says. "I still keep theater tickets and symphony tickets in Seattle."

Nonetheless, he's a sharp commentator on his new hometown. Take, for example, these observations: "It seems like there's a lot of interest in the Orlando area for the arts, and I've been very pleased to see that there's almost a hidden subculture of artists throughout Orlando in different pockets," he notes. "The Theatre Alliance has really become a voice for the theater. But unfortunately, the [visual] artists -- there's small groups, such as [the] McRae group and some others, that have developed a voice for artists, but not anywhere near as unified as what the Theatre Alliance has done. So they tend to be a little more independent. You have to search them out. I've also found that in Orlando most people aren't willing to pay the higher prices for art that the artists here need to get to sustain themselves. So there seems to be a void in providing opportunity and space for artists to develop so that they can get more exposure for their work and hopefully then grow and become more substantial in the fields that they've chosen." Given this situation, what does he see as his role? "I'm trying to help out some," he shrugs.

Of course it's easier to "help out some" when one has money to spare. A big chunk of it helps out even more. "He's been there numerous times when we've had a need," says Terry Olson, executive director of the Theatre Alliance. "You can't ask for a better board member than that." At times Kiene has simply written a check to cover some expense, but Olson notes, "Sometimes it's a creative solution. For instance, we're developing a script and video library, and a video store is going out of business, so we had an opportunity to purchase a video collection, but not the money. [Kiene] purchased it and lent it to us for as long as we exist." He's even bought out theater performances for a night -- like Theatre Downtown's "Death of a Salesman" and Performance Space Orlando's "Love Notes" -- and invited his City Beverages staff. You can't ask for a better board member, indeed.

"He has none of the arrogance that you find sometimes in the 'money' people behind the arts," says Bobbie Bell.

What's remarkable about Kiene's actions -- and perhaps this explains the regular use of the adjective "genuine" -- is that for all his ability to buy what strikes his fancy, he has committed himself to the less-immediately-gratifying community projects. Says Robinson: "He understands the significance of the arts in the downtown economy."

Oh, downtown. The place that everybody pokes and prods, looking for signs of life. The place that holds some worthwhile destinations but offers few surprises. The place of could and should and might be, if only.

But Kiene has faith in the promise that those imaginary, art-enlivened visions of downtown hold. Kiene "was the very first [Theatre Alliance] board member I was paired with at my very first orientation and board meeting," Bell relates. One conversation they had centered around what Bell calls "my cynical view that the power brokers of Orlando do not want an arts district, they want an ‘entertainment' district. Ford made a convincing argument that wasn't the case."

The two-year-old Theatre Alliance was created as a voice for local performance groups, to identify common goals, share resources and market themselves together. A major need was for more theater spaces downtown, and this aim overlaps with some of Mayor Glenda Hood's arts-district plans, which specifically mention the acquisition of new performance and gallery spaces. To that end in July 1999 the City Council awarded $200,000 to the Theatre Alliance, with the requirement that the group find $200,000 in matching funds. It's been Kiene and Robinson who have done most of the fund-raising in the private sector to acquire the arts-district cash.

The creation of new art spaces, as Kiene sees it, plays into, and depends upon, the overall downtown economy.

"In that [district], you have to have restaurants, you have to have galleries, you have to have other things than just theater there for people to come," says Kiene, who showed up almost offhandedly at an early Theatre Alliance meeting after hearing about a group being formed "to talk about theater in Central Florida."

Who's the target audience, the people who will sustain this new, busy, wandering-friendly downtown? "My first impression, two-and-a-half years ago," notes Kiene, "was that downtown Orlando was still trying to attract tourists. And I never understood that, because it seems that a downtown is for the residents -- for the people who live here full-time.

"And the key to that is creating housing downtown so that people can live and work downtown at the same time," he insists. "But then as you're creating that, you've got to give the people something to do."

For all his boosterism, his getting behind the city's big schemes, Kiene doesn't shrink from criticizing some of the mayor's ideas. "Orlando unfortunately confuses artists," he observes, "because on the one hand you have the mayor's very big project [the performing-arts center], and on the other hand you have a Theatre Alliance, or groups that are just trying to get basic arts in Orlando. I think it's important to have a grass-roots art program going and to build into the much larger organizations -- music halls, arts centers. Because unless you can create that base, you haven't established what the public will see as a real need for it. And I'm having a difficult time -- and I think a lot of artists are -- how can we go all the way to this big center before we develop this nice, comfortable, easily accessible arts organization?" he wonders.

One thing's sure: Downtown doesn't suffer from lack of attention. Those few square blocks have spawned a maze of plans and myriad fix-it-up boards and groups and coalitions. "Not everybody is going to be happy with everything that will happen downtown," Kiene acknowledges. "But I was very disappointed to see that the mayor has absolutely shut out working with the entertainment-district owners, because they're willing to come to the table with a lot of creative things to help downtown. But by just flatly closing them out before she's even heard their full presentation says, 'I don't care what you say. I'm not going to help you.' I think that's very unfortunate."

Kiene knows well the struggles -- some large, some silly, some tedious -- that come with politics, group interests and projects that require heaps of money. After all, the task force to renovate Seattle's football stadium came up against Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who said he'd buy the Seahawks only if the city committed to a new stadium altogether. But Microsoft stock-optioned billionaires aren't the only people with puffy agendas and egos; figuring out how to create a concerted effort requires a light, savvy touch. "Ford wants to make the downtown arts district happen, and he makes allies, friends and collaborators out of the diverse personalities involved in that quest," says Bell. "He's got strong opinions, but I've also seen him change his mind," notes Olson.

At the same time, Kiene is pursuing a major personal project that contributes to the community but is carved out by his own desires. Last summer he purchased the 100-plus-years-old Rogers Building on the northeast corner of Magnolia Avenue and Pine Street, along the mayor's designated but little enhanced arts corridor; his plans for it include art, commerce and living spaces.

The first floor will house a coffeehouse with Internet hook-ups, a video wall and an art gallery. "My goal is to set up the main gallery so that the artists can actually work inside there," explains Kiene, "and if they're willing to do that for normal business hours -- say, 11 to 5 -- they'll get the space for no charge. And then 100 percent of their sales goes directly back to them. If for some reason they're either not able to or they don't want to have a representative there in the normal hours, then there'll be a small maintenance fee. But no commissions on the work."

Another gallery, a private one for Kiene, will occupy the second floor, along with some office space and four studio apartments.

Despite the innovative, trendy gloss of these plans -- the web, the espresso, the free (did I hear that right?) space for artists -- Kiene brings a strong preservationist attitude to the building. "We are doing both the inside and the outside with as much of the original materials as possible," he emphasizes.

"Ford loves that building," says Jodi Rubin, Orlando's historic-preservation officer. Rubin points out that the exterior pressed-metal plating "is probably the best example in the state. But it has deteriorated." Kiene is making an effort to restore as much of it as possible.

"I was surprised to see that the building had been left in such disrepair and as a derelict within the city for so long," muses Kiene. The former owners "preferred to continue to own the building and bring a tenant in. ... After I told them what my ideas were, it fit right into their overall goal for the building, and I've been told by many people that was the clincher that helped them decide to want to sell it rather than just try to maintain it. I was not interested in a lease."

The renovations, which have ended up costing Kiene almost double what he expected to spend, should be done by October. He's says he's gotten "great cooperation" from the city's planning officers, but then again, "They've also been difficult to work with, because it's an old historic building and we want to maintain as much as possible the integrity of the history of the building, and I understand that there are certain safety issues."

When resurrected into its new, art-devoted life, the Rogers Building could serve as a touchstone for the downtown arts district that Kiene has had a hand in developing. Thus the individual desire again feeds into the community's hopes. Says Robinson of Kiene: "He could do [his work] without sharing so much with the public."

In the course of a conversation, Kiene is quick to mention others who are making their ideas about Orlando into concrete realities. He praises those who listen to surrounding opinions while at the same time venturing ahead of the pack to create their own accomplishments. Is this an apt description of himself? He considers this for a few moments. "I feel like I'm just an individual," he offers, "doing something that I love to do."


Since 1990, Orlando Weekly has served as the free, independent voice of Orlando, and we want to keep it that way.

Becoming an Orlando Weekly Supporter for as little as $5 a month allows us to continue offering readers access to our coverage of local news, food, nightlife, events, and culture with no paywalls.

Join today because you love us, too.

Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles

Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.