In September, The Studios of Key West sifted through 75 applications to find Executive Director Jed Dodds.
Now, after an equally thorough search, the local art colony has found a new artistic director in Erin Stover-Sickmen, who arrived in town the day before Christmas Eve.
With fresh leadership, and a full schedule of events on the horizon, TSKW is set to enter its sixth year brimming with optimism and bursting with creative energy.
"This organization has come a long way," said Dodds, who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University, and a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "It's not a big secret that we lost a major source of funding a few years ago. It forced us to broaden our organization, and base, and to reach out to the community. We're trying to think about the arts in a creative manner."
Before coming to Key West, Dodds spent 13 years working at an organization similar to TSKW, the Creative Alliance, in Baltimore.
Stover-Sickmen cut her teeth working as the exhibition and program manager at Riverviews Artspace, a "live/work artspace" in central Virginia. She's also a working artist, drawing and painting.
"I'm really going to focus on inclusivity," said Stover-Sickmen, whose credentials include a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Illinois State University, and a Master of Fine Arts from James Madison University. "And on the variety of people here. This is a place that I've always gravitated towards. There's a wealth of arts and creativity here."
Though both are newcomers to the island, neither is under any illusions that Key West is a homogeneous, liberal, hippie enclave, with alfalfa sprouts growing in every planter. They're also both aware that from the get-go, the White Street facility has been viewed warily by some of the island's long-term residents, including, but not limited to, the blue-collar working class eking out a living as commercial fishermen and women, boat captains, bartenders, cabbies and the like.
For example, the recent "Hidden in Plain Sight" photography exhibit was a big hit with gallery-goers, while The Key West Citizen's letters to the editor and Citizens' Voice column are cluttered with "buy the homeless a ticket and send them to the mainland" comments. Can this gulf be bridged?
"Dialogue is healthy," Dodds said. "I understand that there are a lot of people invested in this island, who are not afraid to voice their opinions about change. But these are city conversations we're having, as we're engaging the community, not suburban conversations. The arts contribute a lot to the local economy and the number is growing."
As evidence, Dodds points to a report by the nonprofit Americans for the Arts report that shows during the lean years of 2008-09 alone, the nonprofit arts and culture industry in Monroe County generated $86.9 million in local economic activity. That doesn't include for-profit arts endeavors such as commercial art galleries, street performers, or anything in between.
Yet all that money pouring into the community comes at a price, Dodds acknowledged, in the form of higher prices for locals for everything from rents to groceries. It's the paradox of locales with vibrant artistic communities, such as San Francisco, Aspen, Colo., and even Dodd's hometown of Baltimore: they become such fun places to live, and so successful economically, that the artists get driven out, leaving the local population all the poorer, culturally and economically.
Among the personalities featured in the "Plain Sight" exhibit was artist Tom "Monkey" Forshier, a Key West resident for so long that he remembers the Beatles' visit in 1964.
In his early years, Forshier's unique nautical masterpieces, sold in bars for cheap, were enough to pay the rent at a rooming house downtown, Henry Chinaski-style.
Nowadays, he's been pushed out to boats and trailers on Stock Island, making just enough from his paintings to keep him in Night Train and Basic cigarettes.
It's a cautionary tale, one which Dodds and Stover-Sickmen are eager to avoid seeing repeated.
"Right now we're providing studio space for 16 artists, but obviously on an island this small, space is always going to be an issue," Dodds said. "Every artist is a creative entrepreneur. But people who get into the arts to make money are kidding themselves. They haven't done the research. In Key West, the market forces at work against artists, and all working people, really, are intense, and there really are no easy solutions. But there again, art is a great way to facilitate conversations between different groups."
Beyond the economics, and the tug-of-war over scarce space, however, TSKW has become a cornerstone of the local arts scene, providing a venue for concerts, lectures, workshops and, of course, art exhibits.
Both new directors are thrilled to be involved in the upcoming season.
"There's a real edge-of-the-world type of feeling to Key West," Stover-Sickmen said. "And I think the upcoming Vandenberg exhibit ("The Sinking World of Andreas Franke," opening Jan. 17) is a perfect example of this relationship you see here between art and natural beauty -- the ocean, in this case. I expect this show will be of particular interest to divers, who may or may not be huge gallery patrons, which is an idea that we love."
In a sense, the artistic director has lucked into a great situation.
"The season was already in place when we got here," she admitted. "But we're already planning for next year's. We're really trying hard to grow this place. And so far, things are working out well."
For more information on The Studios of Key West's upcoming season, visit http://tskw.org.