BIG ARTS of Sanibel Island (Barrier Island Group) is one of Lee County’s oldest and most prestigious organizations devoted to the expression and education of the arts and artistic expression. Founded in 1979, BIG ARTS will commemorate 40 years of service to Sanibel, Captiva and Southwest Florida next year.
As Executive Director, Lee Ellen Harder has presided over BIG ARTS since 2005. Her leadership and vision — in concert with a passionate board of directors, a strategic planning initiative and more than 300 highly-invested volunteers — has seen the organization grow tremendously in programming and production in those 13 years.
Today, BIG ARTS is demonstrating that one of America’s great beach destinations can also be one of America’s great arts and cultural communities. And everyone, be they residents or visitors, benefits by that.
- Next year, BIG ARTS celebrates 40 years of arts and cultural advocacy. That’s quite an accomplishment for an organization created by a group of artists who were just looking for a place to meet.
Yes, our founding artists would meet at homes, on the beach, wherever they could. As interest and the community grew, they explored options for a headquarters. A realtor donated an old cottage, and it was moved to city property and BIG ARTS came to life. It’s been a wonderful public-private partnership with the City of Sanibel. We are so proud of what the organization has done over 40 years, adding programs and concerts and shows.
- Where does BIG ARTS rank today among Southwest Florida arts organizations?
I would prefer not to rank anything, but let’s say that by our location on Sanibel and Captiva, with the support of resident and visitors, we’re kind of in a class of our own.
- How has BIG ARTS grown or evolved over the years?
Today we have about 1,400 members, which has grown significantly over the past few years — and our communications database is much larger. But what’s most important is how our programming has evolved. We’ve made a conscientious effort to reach a wider demographic, and it’s working. We’ve sold out almost every show we’ve put on this year, and the momentum is incredible. I think it’s because we’re recognizing and responding to what the community wants and needs out of its arts group.
- What makes BIG ARTS unique?
I don’t know that we’re unique per se, but although we’re professionally led and we do professional strategic planning annually, we have more than 300 active volunteers and they’ve been influential and invaluable in helping us shape what we bring the community, be it film or classical music or educational programs. We wouldn’t be what we are without them.
- You enjoy exceptional support from the community, too.
Yes we do. About 50% of our operating budget is derived of donations from our many community supporters. We’re a beach destination, true, yet a pretty tight knit community. We have a warm and welcoming feeling here when you visit BIG ARTS, whether you’re a long time member or first time guest. And that’s unique. Art classes, discussion groups, lecture series, the performers on our stages of a national level with equity actors — it’s all incredible. But it’s all because of the support of our community.
By John Sprecher