If an artist hangs a painting in the forest and no one sees it, does it make a sound?
In the days before the Covid pandemic, Flagler County artists could take exhibition opportunities, as well as publicity and marketing for such shows, for granted. The prodigious, persistent and frequent activities of the Flagler County Art League and the Gargiulo Art Foundation, the area’s premier and most active visual arts organizations, ensured that.
But their apparent demise during the past year — FCAL from the pandemic’s economic pressures, the GAF from the death of artist and co-founder Tom Gargiulo in February — coupled with the retreat of JJ Graham’s Salvo Art Project and the disappearance of several exhibit spaces and other smaller galleries is leaving many area artists feeling like the proverbial tree that falls in a forest with no one to hear it.
The loss is coinciding with the emergence of Flagler County’s arts council, which is attempting to capitalize on a more unified championing of local arts, theater, music and special events. It would do so without two pillars of local arts.
While opportunities for public art exhibitions in Flagler County still exist, none have risen to the level of prominence of FCAL or the GAF.
Their extended period of dormancy (area artists intimate with the organizations’ operations are unsure if either is definitively defunct)- also has severely diminished other tangible, as well as intangible, support for area artists. On the tangible side, FCAL, which was founded in 1978 by Robert Scheibel, offered numerous art classes and workshops that attracted retirees daring to slosh paint on a canvas for the first time, as well as accomplished artists with degrees from the Yale University School of Art and the Cardiff School of Art & Design in Britain.
The Gargiulo Art Foundation was founded by Tom Gargiulo and his life partner Arlene Volpe in 2000 after they had moved to Palm Coast from Connecticut in 1994. The foundation would regularly purchase works from the area artists who were featured in GAF shows held at various area venues. From 2000 to 2021, the foundation selected its Flagler County Artist of the Year, an honor that would bestow not only a celebratory exhibition and purchase awards, but also prestige and media coverage. The GAF championed, and funded, art in public spaces throughout the county, a boon to both artists and art lovers.
In those days when FCAL and the GAF were thriving, no one questioned that Flagler County was home to an “art scene” – and a vibrant one at that.
That scene, with no tangible avenues of resurrection in sight for either organization, appears to be on life support.
“It’s a tremendous loss,” said photographer Skip Westphal, who, with his wife Dex, a painter, joined the art league shortly after they moved here in 2013. Skip served as FCAL’s vice president from 2014-2020, and pulled double duty for a time when the nonprofit’s treasurer quit. Dex was honored as the GAF’s Flagler County Artist of the Year for 2021, making her the last honoree before Gargiulo’s death – and possibly the GAF’s last honoree, period.
For any creative arts scene to flourish on a local level, some sort of public outlet is essential: Poets and singer-songwriters have their open mics at clubs and cafés. Daytona-area organizations such as the Tomoka Poets and the Creative Happiness Institute, run by David Axelrod, one of Volusia County’s two poet laureates, stage poetry readings and slams. Area musicians and bands can strut their stuff on stages at the annual Deland Original Music Festival, Ormond Beach Live, and now the Palm Coast Music Festival, which attract hundreds of music artists performing their own songs at each event before thousands of music fans.
The Flagler County Art League presented a free monthly art exhibit every second Saturday at its gallery and studio space, which last existed at City Marketplace in Palm Coast. After the Covid pandemic and lockdown hit in March 2020, FCAL moved to online shows for a year or so, said Ann DeLucia, a painter and photographer who joined FCAL when she and her husband moved here in 2004 from Connecticut. While exhibiting her artworks in FCAL shows, DeLucia also variously worked as the organization’s membership chair, secretary, program chair and vice president before serving as president from 2012-2018.
While neither DeLucia or Westphal can pinpoint a moment that FCAL officially folded, both agree that the organization is no longer functioning. A click on its website, flaglercountyartleague.org, leads to a “website expired” notice. DeLucia said she believed Francie Shepherd, the president who succeeded her, has moved back to Maine.
As for the Gargiulo Art Foundation, Tom Gargiulo wrote poignantly about Volpe, “my soulmate for more than half my life,” in the Winter 2021 GAF newsletter, detailing her diminishing memory without specifically naming her medical condition – thus making it clear that Volpe, a “driving force for the arts in Flagler County” Gargiulo wrote, would be unable to continue the GAF in his absence.
“Tom’s death has been such a shock,” Westphal said. “I still have a photo of him on my desk. With Tom, if you were talking about something and you mentioned the word ‘art’ at all (hearty laugh), off he’d go into the never-never lands of talking about art. That was it for that day!
“Arlene is gone, she’s up in North Carolina (with her family),” Westphal added. “Their kids were going to try to perpetuate the GAF if they could, but I don’t see how they could possibly do that from long distance. They had said they would need to lean on me a lot and on JJ a lot. Neither one of us are in that much of a position to know about the business.”
JJ Graham owns Salvo Art Project in Bunnell and was the GAF Artist of the Year in 2009. His gallery was the most searching, daring and accomplished in the region, a sort of City Repertory Theatre for the visual arts. It was ambitious, and it was must-see arts every month when Graham, used to produce shows with astounding regularity. But that ended before Covid, when he moved Salvo to Bunnell, where shows were barely occasional.
“I’m still adjusting to the loss of Tom,” said Graham, who considered Gargiulo to be not just a friend, patron and mentor, but also “a father figure. Of course, I still think about Tom every day. And it saddens me greatly that the art league is no more. I supported them and they were a very important part of this community.”
Graham added he is “just trying to get my momentum back” artistically and is “going through some major adjustments,” but that he is “still hopeful” about the Flagler County visual arts scene.
“I’m still here, the artists are still painting,” he said.
For those artists, exhibition opportunities are “very important,” Westphal said. “It’s the reason we all joined FCAL, because we all were producing work and we didn’t have any place to show it. We can’t finance a place to do it by ourselves, so if there is an organization who is financing a location where they have a gallery going and you can have once-a-month shows — FCAL was doing that. That was the main impetus.
“It was a place for all of us to show our work. It was quite a mixture of professional artists and beginners. We just wanted a place to go hang some of our stuff, you know. Just for the hell of it. If it sold, fine. If it didn’t sell — meh.”
“There is a shortage of venues to do exhibitions since rents are so high,” DeLucia said in an email interview. (See FlaglerLive’s January 2021 story “Critical Lack of Exhibit Space Hobbling Palm Coast Art Scene Even as Organizations Thrive.”) The art league occupied its most recent – and perhaps last — storefront in Palm Coast’s City Marketplace in 2018 “after a major renovation by 50 volunteers, a few with serious skills!” DeLucia said. “We tore down walls, built walls, installed tile and wood flooring, etc. We were paying $2500 a month and were making it, but Covid really changed all that.”
As for the Gargiulo Art Foundation, over the years it held its exhibitions at numerous area galleries and venues, including FCAL, Salvo Art Project in Bunnell, GOLA (Gallery of Local Art) in Flagler Beach, the now-defunct Galleria d’Arte in Palm Coast, the now-defunct Berkshire Hathaway realty office in European Village, and other spaces.
“I personally know many artists who have still not gone back to producing art and some who have moved to exhibiting in Daytona, St. Augustine, Ormond Beach, New Smyrna Beach and beyond,” DeLucia said. “However, that leaves the public here in Palm Coast with few opportunities to enjoy art – especially families who would like to expose their children to the arts. It’s a real shame.
“What I really think is sad is that our high school students no longer have a venue to exhibit their work as FCAL did every year. There are shows at the schools, but when they exhibited at FCAL they could exhibit works not allowed in school — that’s happened more than once.”
Classes and workshops offered by FCAL played a huge role in bolstering the local visual arts scene, Westphal and DeLucia said. That was true not only with the technical skills conveyed to students, but also with the resulting esprit de corps conjured by the classes.
Those classes “gave an opportunity for experienced artists to share their expertise with those who wanted to try something new or hone their skills,” DeLucia said. “It also fostered a sense of community — people loved just ‘hanging out’ there. It also wound up forming ‘families’ of folks who worked in different media. There was the watercolor group, colored pencil, pastel, altered art, etc. They would socialize outside of FCAL and go on trips together to expand their knowledge. I have had people tell me they moved to Palm Coast because we were here and after a lifetime of working at a career, they wanted to now pursue the arts — their first passion.”
Westphal likewise cherished the opportunity “to be in camaraderie with people who think like you do.” For him and his wife Dex, their involvement with FCAL and the GAF, as well Salvo Art Project in Bunnell and art events in Ormond Beach, Daytona Beach and New Smyrna Beach, “was like our social scene,” Skip said. “Everybody was like ‘Oh, it’s so good to see you’ and everybody’s hugging each other. It was wonderful. That was literally our social life for the most part. And now that that’s gone, it’s like ‘ugh.’ I miss it tremendously.”
However, Flagler County isn’t devoid of art galleries and organizations.
Marge Barnhill founded GOLA, a gallery and recently expanded art exhibition space, 15 years ago on Central Avenue in Flagler Beach. Her business, which is “not really a co-op” she said, features the works of 70 area artists and crafts people. Each artist pays $60 a year. The commission they pay GOLA on sales is 30 percent if they choose to work two days a month in the shop, 40 percent if they work one day a month, and 50 percent if they work no days.
The shop includes “a room that we call the Pineapple Gallery because it’s set up like a high-end gallery,” Barnhill says. GOLA also has one wall that features month-long exhibits by a single member artist, and another wall that features monthly shows of works by member artists based on that month’s theme (“birds,” “sea life,” “the color red,” etc.), with patrons voting for their favorite piece.
GOLA recently completed work on its new, covered backyard deck, which includes a stage and will host “Third Sunday” events with art and music. Nonmembers can vend on Third Sundays for a $25 fee.
“We were very close with the Gargiulo Art Foundation,” Barnhill said. “Tom would come over and support us and be active in what we did. We supported him and gave substantial money to him for his foundation. He did really good work. We didn’t have very much to do with the Flagler County Art League, but a lot of our members were also members of the art league.”
Concerning the demise of FCAL and the GAF, Barnhill said she “misses that atmosphere of people showing their art, going to the art shows. That is why we set up one room as the Pineapple Gallery (prior to the closings of those two organizations), so it would be like the art show thing. I just don’t see that out there anymore. More shows would be nice.”
Expressions Art Gallery on Colbert, located at Grand Living Realty on Colbert Lane in Palm Coast, is managed by Jan Jackson, the GAF Flagler County Artist of the Year for 2020. The gallery’s website home page is headlined “Artistic Expressions Deserve To Be Displayed” and proclaims “Our gallery is dedicated to providing space for local artists to display and sell their creations.”
DeLucia noted that the City of Palm Coast’s Community Center “has a weekly program on Wednesday mornings where artists gather to work – rather an ‘open studio’ with no real classes.” Also, the Flagler Beach Photography Club, which was “very active within FCAL,” meets at the African American Cultural Center and has exhibits there, she said.
The local arts scene is about more than just the creators, Westphal and DeLucia said.
“We had quite a number of people who just wanted to support us – they didn’t take classes, they didn’t enter shows,” Westphal said. “But they were always on our membership list because they thought that what we were doing was important to the community and they wanted to support us. They would buy a membership just for that reason.”
“I’ve written so much on this from so many perspectives for more years than I can remember!” DeLucia said, while citing pro-arts studies by such organizations as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Americans for the Arts.
“From cave paintings to the most modern murals, artists have expressed themselves to communicate ideas, record history and connect people on a deeper level,” DeLucia said. “Creating art has been shown to be therapeutic for those with mental health difficulties, dementia and similar issues. Studies have shown that students involved in the arts have higher GPAs, standardized tests and lower dropout rates. Creating improves our problem-solving skills, too.
“People need joy in their lives and many artists I know can’t live without creating. Art can bring communities together and are an economic engine. For example, in Florida arts and culture organizations create $8 for every $1 that federal, state and local governments invested in arts and culture organizations. I wish our local politicians were more aware of not just the economic benefits but the benefits to the quality of life here in our community.”
–Rick de Yampert for FlaglerLive