The way Mary Jane Russell sees it, there is strength in numbers when it comes to supporting the arts. After all, she says, it's people power that makes things such as music concerts, art galleries and theatrical events happen.
Russell, who took on the job of executive director for the Hernando County Fine Arts Council four years ago, believes that the best days of the art advocacy group lie ahead. And she wants to bring on board as many people as possible.
"I can say that the mission of the fine arts council has never been clearer than it is now," Russell said this week. "There are tremendous opportunities for us in the coming months and years, and we need to be able to take advantage of all of them."
For now, Russell is happy to stick with more modest goals, including boosting the organization's numbers. This week, the council launched a new Friends of the Arts initiative that it hopes will eventually add several hundred new members.
Russell says that building a strong membership will not only enable the group to better compete for public and private grant money; it will show residents the value their neighbors place on culture and the arts.
"Awareness of the arts tends to spread throughout the community," Russell said. "Look at other areas where the arts have gained a foothold and you'll see how much it lifts the community up and brings pride to the residents. This is what we need here."
The Fine Arts Council was created by the County Commission in 1987 for the specific purpose of having a single body to encourage, support and promote the local arts community. Since then, the nonprofit organization has weathered its share of ups and downs.
The good times saw the group as steadfast supporters by supplying grants and scholarships to such community groups as the Hernando Youth Orchestra, the Hernando Jazz Society and the Spring Hill Art League, as well as its sponsorship of an annual art show that drew dozens of local and regional artists.
But seven years ago things went awry when plans to build a $10-million performance center collapsed under the weight of over-idealistic dreams by some of the council's board members. Since then, the council has sought to maintain a path closer to its original vision.
"It's definitely back to basics," said council chairman Tony Covell. "I think everyone knows that you have to start little and see what grows from there. We're doing more now in the community than we ever have."
Covell points to the free Bandshell Bash concert series in downtown Brooksville as an example of the council's efforts to build strong partnerships with government agencies. The series, which receives some in-kind support from the city of Brooksville as well as the county Parks and Recreation Department, showcases local talent on the open-air stage at Hernando Park before several hundred listeners each month.
Russell said ongoing support by the county's business community has been endearing. More than a dozen companies signed up for a program that offers discounts to anyone who shows a valid Fine Arts Council membership card.
"I've never had a business turn me away," she said. "Even with the economy as terrible as it is, they still offer to help."
The council hopes to become even more visible in the coming months by teaming up with local businesses to sponsor concerts, art showings and other live events. On Dec. 6, the council will have its first Fine Arts Winter Gala at Rogers' Christmas House Village in Brooksville. The event, which will serve as a fundraiser for the group's grants program, will feature an evening of classical music and hors d'oeuvres, plus a silent auction.
"A lot of what we do is the reflection of the pride that people have in the community," Russell said. "It's already a wonderful place to live. Our goal has been to support the kind of things that will make it even better."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.