In the roughly 1.5 years since Molly Deckart took the helm of Alliance for the Arts, she has expanded outdoor performance space, transformed a boardroom into a digital lab and plans a youth board so students can have a voice in the arts and community.
Deckart joined the Fort Myers nonprofit in February 2021 after spending 15 years in the nonprofit sector, the last eight heading the Idaho Horror Film Festival and the Boise Film Foundation, both of which she founded. For her arts work, she was named one of Idaho Business Review’s Women of the Year in 2020.
“What brought me to the Alliance was the concept of 10 acres of awesomeness,” Deckart says of the downtown campus at the intersection of Colonial and McGregor boulevards. “It was really a financially set organization. Now it’s strong, but what do the next 10 years look like?”
An Americans for the Arts study in 2017 found that the nonprofit arts and culture industry generated more than $140 million in economic activity in Lee County — and Deckart hopes to grow that through the 47-year-old Alliance, which has more than 50 arts and cultural organization members and 1,200 artists and other members. Deckart replaces Lydia Black, who retired after 13 years as executive director.
Deckart, who earned a fine arts degree from Boise State University, has long been attracted to coalition building and creating communities by activating new avenues for the arts. She spent summers in Naples as a child and was familiar with Southwest Florida. During the interview process, she saw great possibilities.
“I saw all these wonderful vignettes for outdoor and indoor events and gallery classes, and how a traditional arts center could be transformed into more of a creative space, making better pathways for the community to drive the program and access the space,” she says of the cultural hub, which features art exhibits, an outdoor ArtsPark, plays, concerts, classes and festivals. “I think it’s going to become more valuable to the community in terms of green space and connection.”
Deckart’s background as an artist, administrator and fundraiser enables her to understand challenges and rewards that come with fostering a vibrant arts scene. She took over as COVID-19 shutdowns were being lifted, and began by razing a hill on the amphitheater lawn to expand performing space.
“If you sat behind it, you couldn’t see the stage, so we were really relegated to 300 people out there. By leveling it, we opened it up for more multipurpose uses — and more people can enjoy what’s happening on the stage,” she explains.
Due to COVID-19, she wanted a more intimate space than the 4,000-person amphitheater, so the organization built a small stage for an audience of roughly 200. “It’s underneath moss-silk trees. It’s just lovely,” she says.
Deckart sought economic data from Collaboratory (formerly the Southwest Florida Community Foundation), speaks to visitors about what they want to see and reviews surveys filled out after classes. “Most of the conversations have been directly with the community and the Lee County School District about where there are holes,” she says.
This year, she converted the weekly summer produce market into a monthly market featuring art, music, food and produce. “I think it’s hard in the heat of the summer to have vendors who want a year-round market, so we’re reevaluating,” she explains.
She transformed an old boardroom into a state-of-the-art digital lab, with 12 instructional computers and one master computer for teaching. Students can do podcasting, filmmaking, photo editing or creative writing, or book space to develop a resume and use the internet for job seeking.
“You’ll have a lot of technology at your fingertips. We even have a mobile filmmaking setup,” Deckart notes, adding that a broad range of classes will target novices to professional artists.
This fall, she’ll start an 18-person youth board with Lee County Schools, selecting one student from each high school and three alternative programs to represent myriad interests. “It’s to help drive programming and give teams a voice so they know what’s going on, and to allow them to express themselves through this organization,” she says.
Jason Teeters, nurturing lead at Collaboratory, said they recognize the role art and creativity plays in connecting new, diverse audiences to solve social issues.
“Molly has reimagined the day-to-day impact Alliance for the Arts can make with a collaborative approach of working together to engage and empower the community,” Teeters says. “I believe Molly and her team will help reshape, revitalize and rejuvenate our region to transform lives and improve Southwest Florida through the arts.”