An era of explosively creative art shows and cutting edge theater is nearing its end at City Marketplace in Palm Coast. The days of Hollingsworth Gallery’s location there are numbered, as gallery owner JJ Graham announced Friday he will not sign a lease with the new owner of City Marketplace, because the landlord’s demands are too steep.
That will put an end to almost six years of Second Saturday gallery openings that had livened up the otherwise moribund strip mall in conjunction with the Flagler County Art League’s monthly openings. The league, which has a long-term lease, will be staying out and continuing its shows. Graham will stage his gallery’s openings elsewhere.
Graham hopes to stay at City Marketplace several months longer as he prepares his move, possibly to a stately 6,000 square-foot brick building on the property of Nature Scapes, the nursery in Bunnell, just off of State Road 100.
“It’s almost a done deal. We’re ready to sign a lease, everything has been ironed out,” Nature Scapes owner Marylou Baiata said Friday. She and Graham have been working on a deal since April. “We both have the same vision. This is win-win for me, for the community and for the arts. We’re going to have education, we’re going to have lots of events. He’s going to do a residency program, and so it all fits in with my vision, and actually my husband’s vision, as he was an artist. So it’s kind of his legacy and mine.” (Richard Biata, a builder, died eight years ago.)
City Repertory Theatre’s Fate in the Air
Hollingsworth Gallery’s departure from City Marketplace removes an anchor that will drag out what had become another centerpiece of the art scene Hollingsworth spun off there for the past three years: City Repertory Theatre. Founded by John Sbordone three years ago, the company has since grown into a full-fledged non-profit with a board of directors and a company of actors who have been putting on a dizzying number of plays, from popular Broadway musicals to politically and socially challenging shows about sexuality, race, social status, death, art and the JFK assassination, among others. CRT’s home was one of Hollingsworth’s storefronts. But CRT will not be following Hollingsworth at its new destination, and Sbordone doesn’t yet have a new place in mind.
“We’re up in the air, up the creek, without a paddle,” Sbordone said Friday. “I was kind of anticipating that he’d be staying longer so we’re going to have to find another space or negotiate for space there, because we’ve never even talked to these people.”
A week ago, Sbordone said, Graham “he thought he’d be around until November, December.” Graham is talking more along the lines moving by September—if Graham is able to stretch his stay at City Marketplace, month to month. But he refuses to sign a new lease there.
“Currently, I do not have a lease agreement with city marketplace,” Graham said in a statement to FlaglerLive and the Palm Coast Observer Friday. “My hope is that they respect the fact that I’ve been an anchor here for six years, and allow me the time I need to respectfully withdraw from this facility. Regardless of whether or not I am here or at another location, the arts are an asset to this community as a whole, and will attract culturally minded people to this city. I will be sending them a rent check each month. My hope is that they cash it and I don’t receive an eviction notice on my door. I hope that we will be at the new location by late September, and I wish them no ill will in finding a new tenant who can afford to pay the rate of rent they desire.”
Characters In Search Of a Stage
Regarding Sbordone and the theater, he said: “I feel like they’re at a point where they should be able to stand on their own two feet when I leave. I consider John a friend, and an unusual talent, and I think it would be a shame for the new owners to lose both of our organizations. I hope that the new owners will work with him to preserve the unique brand of theater that he has created. My hope is also that John will respect me as a business owner, and wait to enter negotiations with them until I have withdrawn from this facility. Not having a gallery to work around would allow him to expand and to have performances on more nights. Whatever transpires I hope that John and I, as well as our organizations, will remain friends and supportive to one another.”
CRT Board President Brett Cunningham has been on vacation until this weekend, and Sbordone has been busy with CRT’s summer workshop–“Inferno: a Long Way from Dante,” a play he wrote featuring 10 actors ages 15 to 22, with performances set for the last weekend in July—which has prevented much effort being devoted to finding a new home for the theater. Sbordone has looked around, but nothing solid has materialized.
And the new season is only a few weeks away—with “One Flew Over the Cucoo’s Nest” scheduled to open Sept. 12, followed by such plays as “Grace and Glorie,” “Venus in Fur” and an all-star musical revue in March. If CRT has a home.
“It all boils down to how much funds it’s going to require,” Sbordone said. “You say $2,000 a month rent, that’s $24,000 a year, that’s our operating budget, so we can’t do those things.” It is unlikely that City Marketplace will allow CRT to stay on terms anywhere near as generous as it’s been able to operate for the past three years.
City Marketplace’s Inexplicable End Game
Graham, like other tenants who have been faced with sudden and skyrocketing rent or CAM fee demands from the new landlord—Palm Beach gardens’ John C. Bill Properties—did not mince words about the new regime. “I will say that my heart goes out to my friends and fellow business owners, who have signed leases and suddenly find themselves facing a cam charge which is outside of their budget,” Graham said. (John C. Bills compelled some tenants to sign a lease at a reasonable rent, only to then send them a notice about Common Area Fees, which have increased from 200 to 300 percent.) “I hope that the new owners will not choose to hold them to a contract that is outside of their financial means. I’m an artist first and foremost above and beyond my role as a business owner, and I feel compelled to say that a 300 percent increase in cam charge, without allowing a tenant to exit the lease agreement if, they cannot afford it, is unjust, and places profit above good human conduct.”
Graham had been in talks with the Flagler County School Board to take over adult education facilities in the Hammock, along State Road A1A. The board was interested in the partnership, as was Graham. But a couple of hitches developed, one having to do with the condition of the buildings Graham would occupy, which were in poorer condition than he’d expected, the other having to do with alcohol on school-owned properties. Graham, serves wine at gallery openings. School board policy forbids alcohol on board-owned grounds.
“The main reason that I backed away from the A1A center is that I would not be able to serve wine at my openings,” Graham said. “There are other reasons, but that alone is a bit of a deal-breaker. I will say that I have no hard feelings towards the school board, they were very kind in considering my proposal.”
But that only firmed up the Nature Scapes deal.
Twin Visions at Nature Scapes
“It’s a match made in heaven,” Baiata, the Nature Scapes owner, said, recalling how she’d been dreaming of developing something like an artists’ colony on the grounds at Nature Scapes for years. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long, long time. We’re going to collaborate with events, art, nature, plants, everything. It’s not going to be like anything else anybody else is doing in this doing in the state. A full-on art, nature community.”
The building there is not air conditioned. That’s been a concern for Graham, but only to the extent that it’s a challenge he must overcome—by lining up the fund-raisers and grants that will enable the installation of an air conditioning system. That, too, is in the works, Baiata said.
Graham’s vision statement for the new setting entails what he describes as a metamorphosis for his business, and a new name, too. “When the butterfly emerges,” he writes in his vision statement, “we will have a new name. The Salvo Art Project and the Neotheric School of Art.” Referring to his combined vision with Baiata’s, he said “we can create a magical experience that will not only enrich the lives of our fellow artists and nature enthusiasts, but also provide a cultural service to the community as a whole. Our goal is to play an important role alongside other community-based organizations in transforming Flagler County into a thriving artistic cultural destination. We would greatly appreciate and encourage the community as a whole to support us in this journey.”
For the past two years, she said, she’d been looking every day at a quote: “I’m on the verge of a really big dream come true.”
“Every day I look at that,” Baiata said. “And now it’s happening.”