Yuks to Bucks

At the center of the small and relatively closed circle of arts activists in Central Florida currently sit the two Terrys.

Terry Hummel, the artist, took the lead in creating the Orlando Visual Artists' League and its city-subsidized gallery and studios downtown. Terry Olson, the theater advocate, directs and helped create the Central Florida Theatre Alliance, the grassroots group striving with the city's backing to establish a downtown arts district.

When the former recently depicted the latter in a painting, the result was an instantly recognizable portrait, with Olson's heavy-lidded eyes behind thick-framed, art-nerd-chic glasses and his high forehead topped by short, spikey hair.

But it's an image that is no longer accurate. For while Hummel is bowing out -- frustrated, he says, by withering peer support and unmet promises -- Olson is moving up, to a place where he can help bring those promises to life. And on the day last month that his appointment as Orange County's first administrator for arts and culture was announced, his hair was flat and combed-over, a concession to his new role. It was, he said, his attempt to "fit in" with government.

He has the wrong idea. Terry Olson -- a buoyant arts innovator who launched not only the theater alliance but also SAK Comedy Lab, Orlando Theatre Project and the Orlando International Fringe Festival -- should not become more like government. Government -- stodgy, lumbering and typically restrained by political shackles -- needs to become more like Terry Olson.

But can it? Olson, and the rest of Orange County's hopeful cultural community, is about to find out.

The county's decision to skim off tourist tax dollars and create an Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs may have come as a surprise to the inchoate arts community. The man chosen to run the estimated $3 million-a-year program, however, isn't a surprise at all.

"I had a sense he was angling for something like this," says a theater-scene veteran of Olson's ambitions. Indeed, for 15 years, Olson, 48, has remained vibrant, starting one project and then moving to another as the first established its independence. As head of the Central Florida Theatre Alliance (CFTA) for the past three years, he has been a vital player in the city's ongoing if sluggish effort to flesh out a downtown arts district.

The newly created county office grew out of long-winded debate on the use of tax dollars paid mostly by overnight hotel guests. Hoteliers want to pour every cent into expansion of the Orange County Convention Center, thereby luring more visitors to their hotels; the public, according to polls, wants the money spent on schools and roads, though that's currently illegal under state law. (Proposals to change that law have made little headway in the Florida Legislature.) Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos launched a campaign for a new, tourist-funded arena, at one point telling hoteliers to get their "grubby little fingers" off "our" money; when that bombed, DeVos backed away and, in the wake of Sept. 11, pulled plans for a new arena off the table indefinitely.

Public spending on the arts, meanwhile, grew more prominent with repeated bailouts by the city and county of the struggling Orlando Science Center and the now-shuttered Civic Theatres of Central Florida. Advocates for the center took a particularly convincing tactic, arguing that as a regional draw, the science center deserved a share of tourist taxes as much as anybody.

The county commission agreed. A task force was formed to consider other uses for the tax, and a small but insistent band of individuals and arts groups, many of them rallied by Olson, moved in to lobby. In August -- some say as a slap to DeVos -- the Tourist Development Council endorsed the idea of promoting "cultural tourism." The commission followed up by allocating 3 percent of all tourist taxes to arts and cultural groups.

But when Olson begins his $65,000 job on Nov. 12, he'll face a number of hurdles: For starters, tourism revenues are down after September's terrorist attacks, though for many just-scraping-by artists, anything is better than nothing. Also, his job is ill-defined. He's waiting on a 13-member advisory committee the county commission will appoint to offer him direction.

More to the point, Olson concedes, there are overstated expectations about what he can accomplish -- and quite frankly, many arts groups may find themselves disappointed.

Olson's no stranger to that. Unmet goals go hand in hand with grand ambitions. And yet, while the theater alliance succeeds as a support group, its unmet goals are many.

It set out in 1998 to create six performance spaces in close proximity. That envisioned downtown district simply doesn't exist today. True, while the alliance and the city together raised $400,000 toward the effort, its one almost-tangible result -- awarding a lease to the Orlando Youth Theatre and Academy -- was never realized. (All sides recently abandoned the project, in the former Don Asher Realty building at Magnolia Avenue and South Street, when they were told they'd have to vacate in a year to make way for a hoped-for performing arts center.) Moreover, another of its goals -- a same-day, half-price ticket booth -- is in place but wobbling because few theaters deliver tickets for sale as promised.

The one bona fide success on the downtown theater scene -- Mad Cow Theatre Co.'s move into a second-floor space above the Gallery at Avalon Island -- resulted more from two private entities coming together than CFTA playing matchmaker (although the alliance did buy and donate chairs for the space). That leaves the visual arts league's gallery, subsidized by CFTA and located at Orange Avenue and Pine Street in a space deemed unfit for theater, as the alliance's only downtown anchor -- a far cry from the dream.

The alliance itself, with 85 members and a $100,000 budget, comprises mostly weekend-warriors, not full-time artists. And with an overwhelmingly insular audience, it's struggling to expand its fan base. "It would be nice to have a theater district," says Yvonne Suhor, owner of the Winter-Park-based Art's Sake Studio, "but we've been hearing talk of that for some time." Her comments come off as the audible eye-rolling of someone dejected by a long, even pointless battle.

Even so, Olson is cheered as a driving force. Peers universally hail him as a visionary. In his new role, he says, he wants to emphasize marketing and fund raising; set aside money to create performing/gallery spaces and boost fledgling arts groups. But his larger focus will be to define a vision for arts spending and create a foundation to nurture young groups to long-term health.

It won't be easy. "He's really helped a lot," says Matt Wohl, a past CFTA president and former producer of the Fringe Festival. "Has he helped as much as his vision dictated? No."

"I always liked to show off as a kid," Olson says, leaning back with his legs crossed at a desk in CFTA's Church Street Market office, where he oversees the O-Tix! half-price ticket sales and shares space with ailing LizArt statues.

His theater life began with a work-study program at Bethel College in St. Paul, in his native Minnesota. His school's theater department, Olson says, was pitiful. It didn't produce full seasons or even have an organized staff. When Olson later became the department chairman, he changed all of that.

Meanwhile, he and a few friends performed with one of their professors at nearby Renaissance festivals. When the professor left, Olson and five pals soldiered on, telling improvisation-heavy stories that often involved audience members. SAK -- the name stems from a "sack full of costume pieces" -- was born.

"I wouldn't say we were pretty good," Olson says. As the players familiarized themselves with the story lines (they eventually wrote them down), the plays became tighter, and they started touring, doing fringe festivals in Canada and occasionally making their way to Florida. Disney spotted them and offered a contract. After Epcot opened in 1982, SAK performed (under a different name) at the Italy and United Kingdom pavilions. Before long, as many as five SAK troupes and 60 actors worked in the park daily.

Those were the fat times. During the next seven years, SAK played to an astounding 12 million people -- until, in 1989, Disney ended its contract, choosing to put its own people in place.

Thus, the lean years. Without a guaranteed paycheck, most SAK-tors left Orlando. Olson and 11 others stuck with it full-time and began pursuing a place of their own. Unfortunately, they had no money.

City Hall pulled through. With downtown storefronts nearly deserted at the time, the city and private landlords offered arts groups the chance to move in rent-free for six months, if they could make the utilities. SAK Comedy Lab, an improv school and performance center, opened its doors.

That year, 1990, Olson attended a meeting of fringe festival producers. It was a networking thing -- during SAK's fringe tours, he had met some of the circuit's renowned international touring troupes. Never did it occur to Olson to start his own Fringe. Especially not in Orlando, which lay far off the usual touring circuit. Yet when a fellow producer brought it up, Olson says, he couldn't think of a reason not to. He had the connections, though he didn't know if he could draw an audience here for a short-term run of comedy and drama in makeshift storefront theaters. But he knew the cost of building venues would be the same whether for two days or more, and so he rejected the idea of a weekend event and announced his first 10-day run.

Lo and behold, people came. And they kept coming. In the early years, Olson and his producing partner mostly floated the expense on their personal credit cards; growth attracted corporate sponsorships and an ever-increasing head count. More important, as the crowds grew, so did the number of local theater groups that wanted in -- so many that Olson had to limit them.

The heat of that spark can't be underestimated; it allowed theater to thrive. Through the festival, "People who would otherwise not have the opportunity to produce a show find a doable way of doing a show," says Tod Kimbro, a former UCF theater major who has written and performed in increasingly ambitious Fringe shows with his iMPACTE! Productions, a troupe that now has its own theater. "It certainly gave me my start. I don't know how `else` I would have broken into this town."

Another Olson fan is Paula Wigham, who had never been involved with theater before signing up as a Fringe volunteer five years ago. She later followed Olson back to SAK, and then to the CFTA; she now works for the SunTrust Broadway in Orlando Series, and cheers Olson's ability to instill in those around him a sense that they can do things they didn't know they could do. "I wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for Terry Olson," says Wigham.

As the annual spring festival blossomed, Olson found himself drowned in work: in SAK, in Fringe, in the Orlando Theatre Project, a professional theater company now aligned with Seminole Community College that he helped found in 1986. Olson watched as some of SAK's founders moved to California, and decided to refocus on that as his first priority. He quit everything else.

But he didn't stay put long. Sentinel theater critic Elizabeth Maupin and others saw the Fringe as proof that theater could anchor a more permanent arts district. In December 1997, the daily hosted a forum on the topic. "It had been forever since we were all in the same room together," Olson says.

The room bubbled with ideas, and by night's end, a task force formed to consider creating a district. Olson was its chairman. Over time, that task force became the CFTA, and not long after that, Olson was hired as its full-time executive director.

There was immediate support from City Hall and Mayor Glenda Hood, who was struggling to raise money and public backing for a downtown performing-arts center (a project since turned over to the University of Central Florida). Hood tapped city administrator Brenda Robinson to head the city's cultural affairs office. Soon after, the city and Downtown Development Board offered $100,000 each if the CFTA could match it. The alliance created the Downtown Arts District Commission, and the fund-raising was on.

When Orange County created the arts-administrator position, Olson became the obvious choice. "My first thought," he says, "was that I needed to follow through the process. Whoever that person was could be very helpful, or could waste a lot of money."

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"I don't know that it was a winnable war in the short term," says Wohl, the former Fringe producer, of the effort to establish a theater beachhead. "It isn't as simple as people thought."

The biggest problem is finding space. Historically, theaters have emerged in low-rent urban areas because that's where it can be done cheaply. But it creates a Catch-22, as Hummel points out. "Where the artists go," he says, "it tends to be trendy and the property values go up."

Indeed, by the time the CFTA was actually able to move ahead with leasing possible theater spaces downtown, "the rents had doubled," recalls Wohl. Every time the alliance found a space, he says, it negotiated a lease price -- often to be undercut by big-budget law firms or other businesses returning to downtown spaces that had been largely empty through much of the 1990s.

Money remains the problem. The $400,000 raised for the Downtown Arts District by the city and the theater alliance has, from all indications, gone to two places: One, the city's subsidy of Hummel's OVAL art gallery, which is run through CFTA; the other, the not-gonna-happen Orlando Youth Theatre and Academy.

By now, the youth theater should have opened. The CFTA already had secured a lease for the Don Asher building. Then, less than two months ago, the CFTA and the youth theater canceled the lease after hearing the building must be vacated by the end of 2002. That building lay in the path of the proposed performing-arts center, and the city told Olson that UCF was going to begin work at the site.

But UCF's first goal, says Kathryn Seidel, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, is to renovate the Civic Theatres to house UCF's graduate program in theater. How soon, she says, depends on how much the Legislature slashes the university's budget.

From the beginning, the theater alliance had multiple problems with converting the Don Asher building. It relied on volunteer, rather than paid, architects, which delayed renovations for months. Also, it couldn't bring the renovation costs down to what Olson saw as reasonable. So what has become of the $106,034 pledged to the youth theater over the next five years?

With $40,000, the CFTA brought chairs and lighting equipment that Mad Cow Theatre Co. will use in its new space, which the formerly itinerant Mad Cow has leased for a year from Gallery at Avalon Island owner Ford Kiene. The equipment, Robinson stresses, wasn't given to Mad Cow -- technically it still belongs to the Downtown Arts District.

(Similar is the creative accounting attached to the theater alliance's lease on Church Street: Church Street Market's landlords donated a storefront to the city rent-free for the LizArt project, and LizArt in turn leased it to the CFTA for free. The CFTA relocated to Church Street from its former offices in a public parking garage on Amelia Street, where it paid rent to the city of $1 a year.)

The other $60,000 or so, Olson says, still may be directed toward additional theater spaces, the locations of which were not available at press time.

Certainly the lack of spaces up to this point isn't Olson's fault. But his reputation is as more a thinker than a doer -- a weakness he's the first to admit.

Both Olson and Robinson now say their original goals were overshot, and Olson confesses a bit of naivet? about how easy it would be to carry through. "Yeah, we didn't really know," he says. "My personal philosophy is, let's go for it and see what we can get. `Later`, we might have to adjust and say it's not possible."

Hummel is more direct: "There's not a lot of theater downtown `but` without the theater alliance, there'd be zero." Nonetheless, with the unmet expectations, there came a sense that the CFTA and the Downtown Arts District weren't accomplishing anything.

"The realities you may not be aware of come into conflict with your vision," says the theater veteran, who asked not to be identified. "Terry's certainly made stuff happen -- or almost happen -- that most people would have given up on fairly quickly. Not just anybody would have what it takes to stick with it."

A lot of Olson's accomplishments occurred behind the scenes, bridging communication gaps between various theater groups. Olson's "Monday Memo" is a weekly e-mailed listing of performances, auditions, reviews and other theater news. And the alliance put together a marketing plan in which theater groups share their mailing lists with one another.

In a community that counts 5,000 artists, Olson says, there are 100,000 potential arts patrons. But right now, they're not showing up. Because of that fact, theaters -- and the very idea of a theater district -- struggle. Still, Olson says of his time at the alliance, "We have raised awareness and changed the environment."

If anything, his new job promises the same problems, only on a grander scale. He'll have roughly 30 times the alliance's budget and hundreds of artists knocking on his door with their hands out. At the same time, he'll answer to politicians who want quick, clean results -- things they can point to in a reelection campaign -- and a hotel-motel industry that will be demanding accountability for the dollars being diverted from them.

"My biggest fear," Olson says, "is that I would be bogged down in bureaucracy."

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"A big part of my job," Olson says, "will be defining what my job is and helping to form specifically what we want to accomplish."

It's not defined because, quite simply, county leaders are unsure of what they want to see happen. They gave a thumbs-up to art in the abstract sense; as Chairman Rich Crotty puts it, "I was very interested in `having` some of the tourist taxes benefit local people," not just the hotel industry. Indeed, Crotty says, Olson's office was set up to "depoliticize" the process of arts groups looking for county money. Now, instead of having the county commission sort through proposals -- such as the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community's recently approved request for $75,000 to market author Zora Neale Hurston's home as a tourist attraction -- Olson and the advisory panel will do it.

"Either they let `Olson` handle it, or they can listen to all of the groups cry," says Hummel. "If you deal with artists, `you know` they're just like little crack babies."

As for playing politics with the county commissioners, Olson says he's confident he'll have their long-term support. "I have no fear that we won't do things people like," he says.

Orange County's arts office will not be an extension of Hood's downtown arts dream -- though Robinson admits that both the city and the Downtown Arts District may seek some of the money. In fact, Crotty says, how the new office will play into the downtown theater district was "not very much discussed." Smaller arts organizations from across the county will, in theory, have an equal shot.

Then again, Olson says, Orlando is the center of the county, and arts anchors are needed there to begin building a sustainable arts presence. His office won't be just a granting agency, he adds. And when money is doled out, it won't go solely to the already-established groups such as the science center, philharmonic orchestra and the ballet.

That is exactly what OVAL's Hummel wants: "I would like to see them find grassroots arts organizations and fund them," he says. "Right now, we don't really have funding for smaller groups."

With a county grant, says Art's Sake's Suhor, her studio might be able to pay its resident writer and director, as well as putting money into set design and advertising for its primarily student productions.

"We end up with no-budget shows," Kimbro echoes. "Getting the money to the artist groups is the way to go. If artist groups can have extra money and not have to worry about scraping by, their products are going to blossom and everything is going to expand."

"There's a big deficit of studio space in town," Hummel adds. "OVAL's not large enough." He suggests the county look at purchasing the old Beacham Theater on Orange Avenue -- now the Tabu nightclub -- to show independent films. That, he adds, might draw a more retail-friendly crowd downtown.

Beyond that, no one points to specifics. Yet once appointed, the 13-member arts advisory panel will focus on five elements, says Harvey Massey, who served as chairman of the county's arts and culture task force: performing arts, festivals, facilities, cultural tourism and education.

Like always, Olson is brimming with ideas: Perhaps, he told those who interviewed him for the job, the county could use some of the existing dollars to apply for larger, federal grants, in essence leveraging the money. Or maybe the county could hire a marketing specialist to publicize the arts overall.

Against such a vague backdrop, those on the arts scene can only be optimistic. "Just having that position `and` proponents of the arts in county government, that's enough for me," says John DiDonna, a playwright, actor and director affiliated with both Theatre Downtown and the SoulFire Traveling Medicine Show. "Terry could be a great go-between."

He'll need to be. The arts community is a fractured bunch. At the top is United Arts, the umbrella organization whose fund-raising mainly supports a handful of the area's largest arts groups, and which is dependent on corporate donors. Though United Arts does award grants to smaller groups, they usually aren't substantial.

United Arts' new president, Margot Knight, says her organization won't seek additional county money. (Orange already gives United Arts about $927,000 a year.) Still, there are some, including DiDonna, who think the new money should go first toward strengthening established groups such as the Shakespeare Festival, Mad Cow and DiDonna's own Soulfire.

However the money is spent, says Massey, who is also a former United Arts chairman, state law requires that the funding source be taken into account. "The only way the money can go to groups," he says, "is if they're directly related to tourism."

However, "cultural tourism," the county's current catchphrase, is broad enough to encompass much arts spending. And cultural tourists stay longer and spend more than their theme-park counterparts, studies show.

According to George Rodon, who directs Orange County's Office of Economic, Tourism and Trade Development, the county is determined that Olson be an "incubator" whose office will subsidize new groups until they can stand on their own.

But if there are no spaces for these new theaters to perform, or no galleries for artists to display and sell their work, how long can they last? "The first thing," Olson says, "is infrastructure." Pressed for details, Olson says there's no set agenda. But "`space` will be one of the things we'll address, yeah."

"The first thing is to make sure the community understands that this is just a small part," says Ford Kiene, the Gallery at Avalon Island owner who has worked closely with Olson and Robinson on the downtown effort. "It's not just this funding that will drive a vibrant cultural-arts `community` within the county."

Kiene's fear is that county dollars will replace, not supplement, the donations that arts groups already receive. "It has the potential for nothing, and the potential to change everything," he says.

The success, then, rides on Olson's shoulders. He knows the expectations are high. But he refuses to back away from the pledge he set for himself at the theater alliance to create "a world-class arts community." And now he says he can do it within five years.

Typically, he's dreaming big.

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