It’s been almost 18 months since Frank Verpoorten took the helm of Naples Art, and under his leadership, the 25-year-old downtown arts center has lured new visitors and donors with blockbuster shows, prompting a 1,600% increase in attendance.
Verpoorten, the executive director and chief curator, took over in January 2021 after working as an art consultant following seven years at Artis—Naples’ The Baker Museum, where he’d built a reputation for world-class exhibitions. He said that appealed to the board of Naples Art, which had just gone through a trifecta of issues: the executive director’s departure, water damage due to the ceiling air handler and closings due to the pandemic and renovations.
“It was a time for the organization to take a hard look at where it was and where they wanted to go,” says Verpoorten, who has a dual master’s degree and Ph.D. in art history and more than 20 years of leadership in U.S. and European museums. “I have to remake the organization in many ways, and the future is bright. We’re polishing up the brand, and I’m proud to have brought a few of my existing donors into its orbit.”
At more than 60 years old, Naples Art is Collier County’s oldest arts organization, operating the two-story, 16,000-square-foot von Liebig Art Center at 585 Park St. and offering exhibitions, art classes for adults and children, festivals, education events and a summer ARTScool for kids. Through outreach programs, it helps underserved and special-needs children by partnering with nonprofits and Title I schools.
Verpoorten plans to expand children’s and adult programs. “We just want to broaden the offerings by inviting new art instructors to teach a compelling selection of subjects or techniques,” he says, adding that Naples Art will provide more online classes through Canvas.
Also on his radar is a small expansion and renovation. “It would really be driven by the need for more program space, but I also want to contribute to the urban landscape with an arresting design,” Verpoorten says. “We’re an organization at the heart of this cultural community. We have an incredible location and if we are to attract people, Naples has a lot of financial and intellectual sophistication, and some people really want to come and see great programs.”
That’s what drives the Brussels native. At The Baker Museum, he and his team were known for organizing 15 to 20 exhibitions every season. When he took over at Naples Art, he organized a small exhibition with works from its permanent collection, followed by what he calls a blockbuster show, “Keith Haring: Radiant Vision,” which ran from November to Feb. 6.
“That really has done miracles for us,” he says, noting it prompted the 1,600% increase in attendance. “People came from as far as Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Fort Myers and Sarasota because that’s what people want to drive two hours for. The word’s getting out that these are exciting programs.”
He also noted that blockbuster shows are a must. “Local or not is irrelevant. I’m focused on the quality. You need to have compelling programs to increase attendance, create a buzz in the community and attract financial support,” he says.
The Keith Haring exhibition was followed by “Toulouse-Lautrec: Master of the Belle Epoque,” which opened March 19 and runs through June 12.
“It’s an elegant balance between these kinds of shows,” Verpoorten says, adding that exhibitions could include stellar local artists and works from Naples Art classes. “But what I don’t want to have is a sequence of exhibitions that are not moving the needle with anyone.”
Naples, unlike some other areas, does face one difficulty in bringing in major shows: “We live in a hurricane-prone area and for insurance purposes, things get complicated when you have art insured at a high value in your custody,” he explains.
Naples Art is home to the Naples Art Association, which was founded in 1954 to encourage, improve and develop artistic talent and art appreciation in adults and children through exhibitions, education and lectures. Its articles of incorporation also say the association will promote development of high standards of creative arts by presenting fine-arts exhibitions.
“A great thing that I learned in Naples is that for every exotic, hard-to-get special opportunity to bring exhibitions to Naples, there’s always someone in the community who will support it,” Verpoorten says. “That’s because Naples is a pride-of-ownership community. People give to the community they live in—and there’s no better way of ensuring that community continues to thrive artistically.”