AA 'Harlequin' by Charlie Brown
Special to The News-Press
Zoom Tower Gallery If You Go
• What: The Tower Gallery 30th Anniversary “Saturday Night Fever” Reception
• Where: 751 Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel Island
• More information: 472-4557
Swirls of snook, magenta sunsets and S-necked great blue herons can all be expected during a visit to Sanibel Island.
But if the weather is foul or you’re hankering for culture, you can still find their alternatives at the Tower Gallery, Lee County’s longest-running art gallery that’s toasting its 30th anniversary.
The 1920s, bright sky blue bungalow housing the gallery is filled with the passionate endeavors of 22 local artists working in various media — including historic black-and-white photographs, the ancient Japanese printmaking technique of gyotaku, hand-built clay, porcelain and fiber art. As an artist’s cooperative, each member-artist pitches in sweat equity for staffing, cleaning, shopping for supplies and accounting.
The artists pay a monthly fee and a percentage of sales pays rent and other bills. If an artist leaves the gallery, a committee of members jury potential replacement candidates.
And it’s a system that works.
“It’s been wonderful. I wouldn’t have been here 20 years if it wasn’t,” says raku clay artist JoAnne Bedient. “You are in charge of your own work and your display. When you sell, you can replace pieces right away. Because we have people from all over the world, we have collectors in Europe.”
In the beginning
The Tower Gallery got its start in 1982 at the Bell Tower Shops in south Fort Myers (hence it’s name). The brand new shopping destination needed to fill space and a group of locally renowned artists, including Greg Biolchini and Ikki Matsumoto, opened the gallery.
As big-name retailers moved into the upscale destination, rent escalated. The artists relocated to Sanibel into a small building (a former garage), now home to the Il Tesoro restaurant. The group was invited to move into the larger building next door to share space with Matsumoto, an acclaimed painter and printmaker. He closed his gallery in 1997, and the co-op took over the building. A group of Tower artists finally purchased the gallery building in 2004, days before Hurricane Charley struck.
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The quaint cracker-box cottage with a tin roof and gingerbread trim was located on the beach. Slated for demolition, the home and its garage were moved to Tarpon Bay Road in 1987. Today, with its bright exterior color livened by the whimsical smattering of optic geckos, palm trees and native birds, it’s become a bit of an island landmark.
Artists' greenhouse“The beauty of it is, if we have anything, we have cheap labor,” jokes member Steve Bufter, who returned to visual art after retiring from the building industry in 2001.
Bufter grew up in Fort Myers and had majored in music and minored in visual art. “I picked up on the arts again and really never thought about showing it,” he says, until family members urged him to check it out. “And I thank them. Artists kind of live in voids; being in a co-op lets you mingle with other artists and the buyers.”
Bufter, 59, is an acrylic artist and woodworker who’s been a member for three years. He says variety is a key to its success. “It’s an eclectic collection of art. Everyone does something different. There’s a big turnover, and regulars come in and buy another piece for a collection, whoever that particular artist is.”
Another key is the price range: from $5 to $5,000, with lots of it in the $50 to $200 arena, says Bedient.
Bedient, 58, appreciates that it keeps artists in the fold. “It’s an open door as an artist to be invited to be in other shows,” she says. “I call it a greenhouse for artists; we grow artists. Some are new. After they’ve been here for a while, they are in full bloom.”
The gallery could also been viewed as a successful business model. “Look at the galleries that have come and gone in the last 30 years,” Bedient happily notes. “It works. We’re still here.”