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BIG ARTS, Schoolhouse are seeking to join forces

By Staff | Apr 20, 2010

Board directors and staff of both BIG ARTS and The Herb Strauss Schoolhouse Theater are proposing to merge as one joint cultural center. The proposed change would help keep live theater on the islands as well as keep the art organizations financially stronger as one.

In the next 10 days, the Sanibel and Captiva community will know if it we become home to a new cultural center, the result of BIG ARTS and The Herb Strauss Schoolhouse Theater merging together to become a single arts entity.

The proposed plans to join the two non-profit art organizations were announced by the board directors of both groups at a press conference held at BIG ARTS on Tuesday morning.

The Schoolhouse Foundation board of directors approved the proposal with an overwhelming majority at a board meeting held on April 19, according to a press report.

However, before the proposal to join the art organizations becomes a reality, Schoolhouse Theater Foundation members must vote on it next week. The members of the Foundation will be sent a letter outlining the proposal this week. They will be asked to vote on the proposed structure change at a special meeting of the members to be held on Friday, April 30 at 10 a.m. at The Herb Strauss Schoolhouse Theater, according to a news release

The Herb Strauss Schoolhouse Theater, located at 2200 Periwinkle Way, will become part of BIG ARTS effective immediately, pending the approval of the theater’s foundation members. A $1 million gift has also been made to the BIG ARTS Endowment Fund. John and Mary Jo Boler, longtime benefactors of The Schoolhouse Theater Foundation and BIG ARTS, have pledged the money.

In addition, Steve and Debbie Klug – along with the Klug Family Foundation – pledged to match the first $500,000 of the Boler’s gift to secure the $1 million endowment to specifically support the theater operations in perpetuity, according to the report.

The second half of the matching grant, also $500,000, will be raised by BIG ARTS and used to support the full range of BIG ARTS programs. Steve Klug is the president of the board of The Schoolhouse Theater Foundation, the supportive organization of The Herb Strauss Schoolhouse Theater.

“The whole point of the merger and gift is to keep live theater alive and well on the islands and to secure the arts in a rough economy. It is our intention to have good theater and good programs,” Boler said. “With this combination of talent, we certainly can make it happen.”

The conditions of the gift include that the annual earnings of the $1 million endowment will support theater operations and the direction of the theater will be under Art Cassell, former president of The Schoolhouse Theater Foundation.

Cassell said that he is delighted to take the volunteer position.

“It’s just such a great thing for the island,” he noted.

Cassell also said the proposal – if approved by Theater Foundation members – would not alter the positions or duties of theater staff. Victor Legarreta, the creative director for the theater, will continue to run productions, Cassell said.

“Nobody’s jobs are going away,” he said.

Legarreta is pleased with the proposed merger of the organizations.

“It’s going to ensure live theater on the islands,” Legarreta said.

BIG ARTS Executive Director Lee Harder said the move will be a positive one for both organizations as well as the community.

“We’re thrilled about collaborating,” she said. “It broadens our scope to the islands.”

BIG ARTS, based at 900 Dunlop Road, states their mission is “to provide quality cultural and educational experiences to the residents of and visitors to Sanibel, Captiva and neighboring communities. From musical concerts, dance performances, family entertainment, visual arts exhibits and programs, writers conferences, lectures series, film society programs and theater productions.”

Both Harder, who will retain her executive duties, and Legarreta report that they are excited about the possibilities they have in being a consolidated cultural center. The move will combine the management, marketing, fundraising and volunteer program operations into one collaborative effort, making the organizations more efficient and financially stable.

Upon approval, assets of The Schoolhouse Foundation will be transferred to BIG

ARTS. Klug will join the BIG ARTS Board of Directors to provide continuity and oversight of the transition of operations at the board level, according to a press release.

Chuck Bonser, president of the BIG ARTS Board of Directors, envisions the merging of the two organizations as “a huge plus” for the community and the arts.

“It helps us solidify our interest in live theater,” Bonser said.

Staff and board members for both organizations are hopeful that the members of the Theater Foundation will vote for the merging of the two organizations.

“I am very confident that this is going to happen,” Boler added.

No immediate changes to staff have been planned during the transition in management, according to BIG ARTS officials. The current members of The Schoolhouse Theater Foundation will become automatic members of BIG ARTS until the annual renewal deadline.