Eric Holowacz took the reins of The Studios of Key West when the nonprofit art and cultural organization was struggling to define itself and its long-term future, or at least its uncertain relevance in the community.
Nearly three years later, Holowacz will resign as executive director in June knowing the organization has earned its place in the Key West art, music and cultural scene, and that its financial future is bright, he said. Successor Jay Scott, the board's development chair, has helped the organization become more financially solvent, Holowacz said.
When it first started in 2006, some feared the organization would become a snobby art program catering to Key West's elite and providing work space only to well-established artists who don't need a leg up. Holowacz went to great lengths to welcome struggling local artists, while offering residencies to out-of-town artists who are on the cutting edge or working on the fringes of their craft.
"As soon as I got here, I threw open the front doors and started connecting with creative people in the community," Holowacz said. "Our goal was not to make this elitist. ... I love that we have been able to reach a cross section of the community."
At the same time, he brought a consistency in staff and built up the program so it could survive financially, despite losing its main sponsor in March. The Rodel Charitable Foundation of Key West, which ceased all giving pending personal negotiations between its founders, cut its annual $500,000 donation, two-thirds of the Studios' working budget. The nonprofit since has found new sponsors and grant money, Holowacz said.
"It's been a great three years," said Holowacz, who was hired in May 2007. "We have been able to bring in artists, and the community has latched onto them and been able to support them. That's what Key West has that many other communities don't. There are not a lot of communities that support art the way Key West does."
Holowacz, his wife and three children are returning to Wellington, New Zealand, where the South Carolina native worked before coming to Key West. He promised his family they would return to New Zealand after a few years here.
"I thought it would take three to five years to build staff, programming and a diversified funding base for the Studios, but after our first full season things began to take shape," Holowacz said. "By the second, the organization was humming. While my mission has been accomplished, the hard part will be leaving the exciting and diverse creative community that now surrounds the Armory and its place on the island."
The organization conducts exhibitions, classes, concerts and other events at the historic Armory at White and Southard streets.
Holowacz said he will work with Scott and other staff members, as well as the board, to ensure a smooth transition. After the Rodel announcement was made during Scott's first board meeting, he became the board's development chair. He has worked closely with Holowacz in the past year to stabilize the Studios' financial picture and build business and corporate relationships.
"Until Jay joined us, our fundraising pace was slow and deliberate," Holowacz said. "He jumped right in, picked up the tempo, and soon had half the island joining us as friends, sponsors and major donors. His enthusiasm, smarts and creative soul will surely drive the organization into an even brighter future."
Scott brings years of experience to the position, having most recently served as executive director of the Fleck Foundation in Milwaukee, which granted more than $2 million per year. Scott also has had a long career as a university administrator, specializing in campus programming and student affairs, at the University of Florida and University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
"There is no doubt that The Studios of Key West is an amazing, extraordinary place," Scott said, "and we're going to keep it that way, for a long, long time."