Lake Wales Arts Center: Community Takes Leap, Continues Lake Wales Art Center
By Brenda Eggert Brader

Driven by community pride and directed by an active arts council, the Lake Wales community has taken on the challenge of continuing the Lake Wales Art Center on State Road 60 — as well as aiming to increase programming. The council has returned to governing jurisdiction over the Lake Wales Arts Center as of January from Polk State College.

The building, built in Spanish mission style architecture in 1927 as a Catholic church, became vacant in 1988 when that church built anew and moved out. Not long after, the arts council, originally established in 1972, moved into what is now known as the Lake Wales Arts Center.

Later in 2011, the center, then under the direction of the Lake Wales Arts Council, was deeded over to the Polk State College for class use and primarily the arts. The council recognized the need for major renovations and not being able to afford the updates, sought a sponsor which they found at Polk State and deeded the property to the college.

Under its supervision, the college made substantial upgrades to the building and spent $128,000 recently for repairs to the building due to recent Hurricane Irma, repairing roof sections, a water damaged gallery and windows.

However, last year when the Florida State Legislature designated $60 million for funds for arts and the department at Polk State, funds were allotted for the department’s needs but nothing extra this time for support of the arts center. The center was then deeded back to the original owners, the Lake Wales Arts Council.   

“We never anticipated this time last year to be where we are, back to square one and to be responsible for the building and center,” says Katie Bell Lippert, volunteer with the center and chair and coordinator for the Marilyn Newell Youth Music Festival held annually in April in Lake Wales. “Polk State was so good to us and such a friend of the arts in Lake Wales. We miss that partnership for lots of different reasons. Now we have an executive director to lead us into the future and take some responsibility from the board.”

Many Lake Wale residents and donors have already stepped forward to support the arts center, says Erica O’Neill, president for the Lake Wales Arts Council, governing board of the arts center. Plans are for the public to become members of the arts center.

Andrew Allen, Lake Wales native and new executive director of the arts center, has begun investigating memberships.

“Andrew is reaching out to other arts organizations trying to find out what they offer for memberships and how they structure their memberships,” O’Neill says during a recent chat. “He is checking to see if we are looking to maybe making some changes to whole membership levels making it more beneficial and attractive. Sponsorships, memberships and grants are some of the main areas we are looking for funding to run the building. The other thing is creating a rental program for building rent for corporate events and weddings. We have contacted an event planner to create our rental program and the pricing structure and guidelines.”

Some members of the board and Allen have experience in writing grants, adds O’Neill. Additional fundraising will also be explored.

“It is our plan to increase our programming,” O’Neill says. “We are certainly offering more programming than we had in the past. The arts festival is our signature event and it is profitable for us. Depending on all the factors, it’s a net positive event for us. We do an annual appeal and back in November that more than doubled. That signals to us the community really has an interest in sustaining the building and making the arts center. It was such a wonderful response to our annual appeal.”

The board has anticipated expenses.

“As far as utilities and the building itself, I think we are planning $50,000 to $60,000, but it will probably take us a year to find out what it will take,” O’Neill says. “But we need funds for maintenance and to keep the building.”

Staffing includes one full-time executive director, a part-time bookkeeper, and this summer plans are to hire an assistant. The salary is already built into our budget. Additional funds needed to support the salaries have been pledged funds, adds O’Neill.

But what about the programs? What can the public anticipate happening next season at the center? Primary programming, gallery art showings, classes and concerts are all tossed into the mix with big plans for fulfilling next season.

The new executive director, Allen, has a performing arts background from the University of South Florida in Tampa, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. Some will remember he was the band director at the Lake Wales High School in 2014. Hired in March by the arts council, he has visions of programming and many plans.

“We are interested in educational programs in the visual and performing arts,” Allen says. “So, we are hoping to offer a community orchestra, a community band class in association with the (Lake Wales High School) Highlander Band Association alumni, elementary music classes for and art classes for elementary and adult. We are in the process of doing a survey through email and social media based on what the community desires and will try to compile as much as possible before we make any concrete decisions.”

Right in the middle of his strategic planning for the 2019-20 season, Allen says he is hoping to include local artists.

“We are planning already for monthly concerts, increasing the concert series, possibly doing some type of Oktoberfest in October, the annual arts festival, of course in February,” O’Neill says. “We are trying to add a few larger events throughout the year. Also, this summer we are having art camp at the center. We have not had an art camp since Polk State took over the building. The summer art camp is mostly funded by local private foundations who have been very supportive and helped us to have almost all the funds available for the art camp. We are certainly looking to expanding our program and offering it to the community.”

“Displays for the art gallery will last six to eight weeks,” Allen adds. “We are in the midst of nailing down the rest of the exhibits for fall.”

The future plans also include resident artists if the council finds the eventual financial capability to do that in the future, O’Neill says.

“It is something that we would love to introduce. It is on our list of hopes.”

The final seasonal gallery exhibit will be Sculptor George O’Neill Jr. with one of his friends, professional sculptor Peter France of Washington, NH. The show is mostly in bronze, according to O’Neill and continues now through June 1.

“We realize we have a huge challenge in front of us, but we have a great hardworking committed group of working people who are really excited about the program we are putting together for the next season,” O’Neill says. “It is a big task, but there is a lot of excitement about the possibilities.”

Art center hours are currently 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Because of the center’s mission architecture, it can’t be missed on State Road 60, but it is right behind the Lake Wales Medical Center parking lot and next to Hillcrest Elementary School on State Road 60.

For more info visit LakeWalesArtsCouncil.org. To arrange rental at the center email rentals@lw-arts.org.