The art of the deal
Devotees of the Maitland Art Center fear a recent merger threatens its future
Published: October 14, 2010
Editor's Note: This story has been edited to correct some inaccuracies. Margot Knight was not personally hired as a consultant to negotiate the merger between the Maitland Art Center and the Maitland Historical Society; rather, United Arts was hired to help facilitate a series of meetings and discussions about possible alliances between the organizations. Also, the lawyers who worked on sorting out the documents and legal paperwork regarding the center donated their time. They were not paid.
For nearly 75 years, a curious village of bungalows that looks like it’s been forgotten by time has stood on the shores of Lake Sybelia in Maitland. The low-slung complex of little buildings, spread across a six-acre wedge of old Florida, is almost hidden from view, secreted behind a cement wall. But through the canopy of moss-strung oak trees whose branches drape over the property, one can see the ornamental relief sculptures of pre-Colombian-style deities that give the buildings the air of Mayan ruins. The bungalow colony, part of the storied Maitland Art Center, is an unassuming oddity among the prominent estate homes and condos in the well-to-do Maitland neighborhood that rings the lake.
The serenity of the quaint parcel belies the fact that the property recently has been at the center of a controversy that has pitted supporters of the Maitland Art Center against the city of Maitland and the board of directors of a new organization called the Maitland Art and History Association.
For the past 40 years, the center has operated as a public-charitable trust governed by its own board of directors. It has managed galleries and arts-education programs, hosted artists in residence and offered professional art instruction. In May, however, in a move that some say violates the organization’s bylaws, the board voted to merge the center with another local nonprofit, the Maitland Historical Society. Both now operate under a newly formed nonprofit called the Maitland Art and History Association, which is in the process of combining the operations of the two facilities to make them more efficient.
Some longtime devotees of the Maitland Art Center, including two men who were instrumental to its founding as a charitable trust in the 1960s – are furious about the transition, which they fear could jeopardize its future.
Though many are familiar with the center’s art gallery and its programs, few are acquainted with the late architect of the Maitland Art Center campus, artist and World War I veteran Jules André Smith, who owned, designed and oversaw the construction of this Maitland masterpiece in the 1930s. Smith christened the private compound the Research Studio, and he operated it as a winter haven for artists where they could create, unencumbered by distractions from the outside world. The legacy of Smith’s experiment lingers, although at one time its future was uncertain. After its founder’s death in 1959, the Research Studio languished, and its executive board gifted the compound to the Central Florida Museum (which later became the Orlando Science Center). According to a 2005 master’s thesis on the history of the Maitland Art Center by Ginny Seibert, the museum was not able to sustain Smith’s Research Studio, and the property was the target of vandalism and theft. Because it sat on valuable lakefront land, Seibert wrote, “rumors developed indicating the property was about to be sold to developers.”
> Email Lindy T. Shepherd