(Naples Daily News) To those of you who never knew it was there — and there are way too many of you, the Naples Art District believes — signs are coming.
Beginning after September, that is. Collier County needs to design and order signage that designates an L-shaped neighborhood in the northwest quadrant of Airport-Pulling and Pine Ridge roads as the Naples Art District. County commissioners passed the resolution July 14 approving the official title. New brown-and-white signs will identify its entrances, just as the ones on U.S. 41 North point out the approach to performing arts venue Artis—Naples and The Baker Museum.
“That designation really means the world to us, because it designates us as an actual place within the county,” declared Paula Brody, president of the district’s organization.
“I’m looking forward to celebrating when that street signage finally goes up — I’m hoping in both directions — on Shirley Street and also on Airport.”
“I didn’t even know you existed”
To learn why a painted, rust-resistant aluminum rectangle affixed to a pole is so important, talk to artists working in the district. They offer classes and workshops in their studios, some of them year-round. They have held tours and talks. They have sponsored — and advertised and promoted — monthly Art Alive evenings and weekend open studios during the visitor season for at least six years.
Yet artists interviewed about the designation say they still hear the refrain silk artist Leigh Herndon has memorized from its repetitions: “I didn’t even know you existed.”
There have been no directional signs, and Naples Art District’s entry streets don’t hew to the formula of awning-shaded store fronts with hanging flower baskets. An auto glass shop and a gas station mark the Shirley Street intersection with Pine Ridge Road on the west; a Mazda dealership and a carpet store face the Airport-Pulling Road juncture with J&C Boulevard at its north end. (To see a map of the district, visit its website at naplesartdistrict.com)
The Naples Art District also mingles with a commercial business district that holds everything from golf cart rental to automotive parts, gymnastics, self-storage and a music store.
Still, many of the businesses involve the aesthetics of home life: upholstery, granite countertops, draperies and cabinetry.
Emilio Sadez owns International Design Source with his wife, Linda, and operates 60,000 square feet of showroom for furniture, wallpaper, fabrics to the design trade. Eleven interior design professionals rent space in the seven buildings they own in the area, “so the art and design element is very strong here — has been for a long time. It just hasn’t been very outspoken,” he said.
Sadez, who has been in the neighborhood since 1997, said he was happy to support the art district’s petition to the commissioners: “I think it’s going to draw more consumers to the area, and more artists.”
“Many of our designers that rent space in our buildings collaborate with the artists, so it’s nice for a designer to be in her office and say, ‘You know what? A block over is the artist that I use,’ (and) even take the client over there. There’s a synergy to the area.”
Dawn Burke, owner of TEC Construction and Development in the district, is a licensed contractor who specializes in remodeling. She said she likes “being able to have everything right there and to be able to bring clients, or say to a client, this artist has this.”
Conversely, she said, the artists’ events give them exposure when people drive into the area to visit its 60 to 70 galleries, actively at work on painting, sculpture, glass cutting, fabric design, pottery and jewelry making. Naples Art District planned to nurture that collaboration with its first Art & Design Expo in March. They canceled it when the coronavirus pandemic struck, but are hoping it can be remounted in November.
It’s a sign of the times
Herndon and Sara Wilson of Clay More Ceramics, conduct classes year-round in the district. They’re necessarily smaller and socially distanced now, but they’ve been appreciated by locals, Herndon said: “People here are pretty happy to have something to do.”
If creating their own rich rozome prints on scarves or clothing with Herndon isn’t enough, students can peek over at Tara Funk Grim, an acrylics artist at work in the same studio, Inspirations. She and Susan Shipman, a watercolor and water-based oil artist who has her own studio, said the art district was magnetic for them: “I came here for one of their art openings and said, ‘I love it!'” Shipman recalled.
Wilson has made plans to expand her Shirley Street business, an airy 4,000-square-foot space tucked into a long building behind a cabinetry shop. With the new art district designation, she’ll add 2,500 square feet to give two more operations — artisans teach resin pouring and glasswork — more space.
“I figured it was time to either go big or go home,” said Wilson, who is excited about the district’s recognition. “I think it’s the next best thing to pasteurized milk and sliced bread.”
Several of the artists credited Collier County’s newly adopted arts and culture strategic plan for the more confident arts atmosphere. Brody said she was energized by its finding that residents would choose to visit an art gallery or studio (72 percent) over a museum (49 percent).
“We were really surprised and gratified with that research, which really made us realize the (importance of) opportunities to make us more accessible to the public.”
It hasn’t hurt that the industrial area is undergoing some of its own facelift, said former Naples Art District president Cynthia Adams. She and her husband, Steve, actually moved into the district with a business of faux finishing, handmade wallpapers and custom murals but found themselves moving steadily into the art realm with the large-format paintings they sell today.
“There’s just so much about the area that has made the arts flourish,” she said.
With new signage, Brody said the district is planning more events, “something like a ‘Spring into the Arts’ weekend.” What else its new designation might bring to the district is still in the future. This entrée, official recognition, is a low-cost, high-return.
Those signs, she said, will beckon locals and visitors alike past the commercial frontage and onto the two streets that hold “the largest concentration of studios, not only within the county, but well beyond the county, actually.”
Ceramics artist Richard Rosen, the district’s informal patriarch, would extend that distinction to Tampa. Rosen, its first president in 2008, has done his own lobbying with tourism officials because he believes the area is one of a kind with its density of working art. He’s seen leadership pull together the strands for it: organizing the membership, acquiring its 501-C3 nonprofit status, creating public events and, finally, pursuing formal recognition and identification by the county.
“This could be a good thing for Naples,” Rosen said, then remembered he lives in a community nicknamed Paradise.
“I mean another good thing for Naples.”
Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.