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BIG ARTS celebrating 35 years on Sanibel Island

By Staff | Oct 29, 2013

BIG ARTS Watercolor. Lee Horton.

BIG ARTS is celebrating its 35th anniversary, one in which it can look back and see how far its come.

Over the years it has grown from a small group of artists to a fully-developed center for the arts, offering a variety of programs, classes, and shows for Sanibel Island and Southwest Florida.

Visitors to BIG ARTS can purchase tickets for multi-genre musical performances, national ballets and contemporary dance shows in the Schein Performance Hall, Tony-award winning musicals in the Herb Strauss Theater, art exhibitions in the Phillips and Founders Galleries, documentary film series, and forum lectures.

BIG ARTS also offers a variety of classes taught by retired university faculty in the Winter Academy and arts workshops in a growing range of disciplines and mediums.

“It’s just amazing the growth over the last 35 years. It started with a dozen or so artists and now more than 23,000 people attended ticketed events and another 7,500 registered for classes, and that doesn’t count the people who walk in,” said Lee Ellen Harder, executive director of BIG ARTS. “It’s wonderful we have this space for the community, where they can take advantage of it.”

The Herb Strauss Theater. PHOTO PROVIDED.

In honor of their anniversary celebration, BIG ARTS offered discounts on tickets for the upcoming season at the Herb Strauss Theater. Customers took advantage of an Early Bird Special with savings on tickets until the end of October.

This year’s theater season includes Hamlet {solo} on Nov. 30, Holiday Spectacular on Dec. 19, Into The Woods on Jan. 10, Defamation on Feb. 20, Romance/Romance on March 7, and The Big Bang on April 11.

BIG ARTS acquired the Herb Strauss Theater in July 2010-gifted to them with the understanding to keep theater alive and well on Sanibel Island-and they have been partnering with Richard Jordan Productions from London, England, to stage innovative shows. Each of the productions are professionally staffed with experienced actors, designers, and choreographers from New York City.

A vibrant community theater group also produces shows in the off-season such as Jersey Girls, written by Sanibel resident June Koc.

BIG ARTS is also unrolling its Film Society’s popular Monday Night Film Series with the British documentary “56 Up” and hosting two exhibitions by the International Society of Experimental Artists that push the boundaries of traditional art.


The last 35 years have favored BIG ARTS and Harder said the organization will continue to accept new requests for programs and classes from the community.

“We are really excited by the fact that we’ve been here 35 years, and we continue being relevant on the island,” said Harder, describing BIG ARTS as a home to all of the arts. “There is something for everyone.”

BIG ARTS has always been deeply woven into the Sanibel Island community, just as it was in the beginning.

In 1979 the newly incorporated City of Sanibel voted to levy a $15 occupational license tax on resident artists and craftsmen. Although the adopted fee was much lower than the $100 originally proposed, local artists spoke out against it.

“They were going to start taxing artists and it was a group of artists who formed a non-profit so they wouldn’t be taxed,” said Harder.

Soon, these artists met to craft the details of a new group to serve as an artist’s collective that promoted the visual and performing arts. According to an article from the Island Reporter in 1979, sixteen residents were meeting informally at the home of Sanibel artists, like Ikki and Polly Matsumoto, to brainstorm the organization’s name and mission.

Later, in the fall of 1979, the Island Reporter began running advertisements for the Barrier Island Group for the Arts, asking for contributors and developers. They needed developers to help organize and promote cultural events, develop educational opportunities in the arts, and locate a much needed culture center. Membership was $25 for individuals, $50 for sustaining members and $500 for life members.

BIG ARTS activities were originally held in people’s homes until a cottage was donated and moved to the center’s current location on Dunlop Road in 1987, and opened as the Founders Gallery. It expanded in 1990 with the Phillips Gallery and once again in 1997 with the West Wing, Schein Performance Hall and sculpture garden in 1997.

While BIG ARTS first opened and operated entirely with the help of volunteers, it’s first paid-staff were hired in the mid-1990’s. Of course, it maintained its deep community ties through accepting volunteers each season. Today, it operates with the help of over 300 volunteers.

“It has always been a community effort and community supported,” said Harder.

For more information about BIG ARTS, visit bigarts.org.