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  1. Visual Arts

Dunedin Fine Art Center receives largest donation in its 43-year history

DUNEDIN — The Dunedin Fine Art Center recently unveiled a new name for its west wing in honor of Nancy and David Bilheimer, prompted by the couple's $2 million donation.

Amid heavily ornamented Christmas trees, community members, donors and local officials gathered to pull a white cloth off new silver lettering above the door to the west wing. Much of the Billheimers' gift — the biggest gift the organization has ever received — has been funneled toward enhancing this wing, which first went online in 2016, according to art center vice president Ken Hannon.

"Nancy and David Bilheimer, you are the shining jewels who have genuinely given your love, support and blessings for the brightest future we have always dreamed of for our Dunedin Fine Art Center," said center founder and donor Syd Entel at the unveiling ceremony.

The center is one of the largest arts centers in the southeast and a lively community hub complete with art galleries and teaching studios. Money from the recent Bilheimer donation was used to finish studio spaces (including the center's first food art studio) and install video technology to assist with visual arts classes, Hannon said.

Nancy Bilheimer likes that the center functions as both a museum and a teaching center. She said she and her husband try to donate to programs that will impact young people.

"We feel they are the new generation," Nancy Bilheimer said. "We're hitting a certain age right now — they're the ones that are important."

The couple's name can already be found on several plaques around the center. They have actively supported the organization since 2005, donating about $100,000 over those 13 years, Hannon said.

The Munch Bilheimer foundation was incorporated in 1991 when the Bilheimers felt they were growing older and wanted to give back to their communities. Nancy Bilheimer said they had accumulated money from both her and her husband's sides of the family, and her parents too had left a strong philanthropic legacy: in New York a Bronx YMCA building is named after them.

Through their foundation, Nancy and David Bilheimer, both 79, have given extensively to programs dedicated to science and education, as well as hospitals and church-related organizations.

David Bilheimer said they had a STEM-focus because both he and his wife came from that background. Originally from southern New Jersey, he was a mechanical engineer and she studied math. But they later expanded their philanthropic efforts to include the arts, especially after hearing about lack of funding for the arts in schools.

"If we say they're not teaching science and they say we're not teaching art, what are they teaching?" David Bilheimer said at the event.

Nancy and David Bilheimer had been helping with the development of a golf course in Oldsmar in the 1990s when they decided they wanted to live on the water. They ended up settling in Dunedin in 1998. Both retired, they now dedicate most of their time to running the foundation.

The arts center has been a staple in Dunedin for years. In the late 1960s, the Junior Service League of Dunedin felt the area was lagging in cultural opportunities, Entel said in a speech at the event. The organization championed the idea of a cultural hub, and in March 1970, signed an agreement with Dunedin to build a 2,000-square-foot art center and then turn it over to the city. The women rolled up their sleeves, applied for grants, held fundraisers, asked local banks for loans until they had the money they needed to break ground in 1974.

"It really was a group of women who had a passion for art and made it happen," said commissioner Maureen "Moe" Freaney. "It's part of what makes Dunedin amazing."

The center started out small, said Margaret Word Burnside, 73, publisher and editor of Tampa Bay Magazine who has long been involved with the center. She remembers taking pottery classes in what seemed like a "little shack."

But over the years, the organization's funds have ballooned, and so has its physical footprint, now at 50,000 square feet. The arts center has doubled in size every 10 years essentially, according to Hannon. The Bilheimers' gift is the third million-dollar-plus donation it has received in the last decade.

"It just keeps growing, until it's bursting at the seams, and then it grows again," Burnside said.