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René Miville has reinvented himself numerous times during a career that’s taken him from a sought-after fashion photographer and nationally renowned mixed-media artist to property investor and entrepreneur.  

For 11 years, Miville (pronounced mah-ville) has shepherded artist entrepreneurs at The Franklin Shops, where more than 90 people sell their work. His investment in the historic building led the revival of Fort Myers’ River District.

“I’m helping people realize their dreams,” Miville says of artists selling ceramics, sculptures, clothing, jewelry, art and other products in the 10,000-square-foot arts incubator, which also features a bubble tearoom. “We provide the management so people can start their own business here.” 

At least three entrepreneurs have left to open their own businesses—a café, organic diaper service and art gallery. There’s now a waiting list of artists who are selected by the manager. “We like to keep the people who do really well,” Miville explains, noting that one artist draws about $20,000 monthly. “Their stores must tell a story. What makes this extra special is the followers.” His employees, who are hired for their enthusiasm, rave about the eclectic retail-cooperative, where artists pay commissions and a monthly management fee. 

It’s enabled artists to leave corporate jobs to pursue their passions—such as Jessica Stachursky, whose Jewel Up by Jessica started as two small rows of cubes upstairs. When her customer base grew, she moved to a 5-by-6-foot spot downstairs and in July, expanded to a larger space with a window on Broadway that displays her jewelry, clothing and purses. “That was the turning point,” says Stachursky, who markets herself on Etsy, Facebook and Instagram. “It’s growing like gangbusters.”

She’s so busy that she added other vendors’ products, including her mother’s sarongs and beach coverups. “That allows me to have trendy pieces and the time to make unique pieces that no one else is going to have,” she says. 

To boost customer satisfaction, Miville plays curated music from high-fidelity streaming service Tidal, whose high-quality tunes boost shoppers’ endorphins. The shops are in such demand that they’ve encroached on the second-floor René Miville Gallery, which features two of his works and those of emerging artists, including photojournalist Kinfay Moroti and César Aguilera, who co-owns Artsemble Underground Gallery + Art Lounge at Bell Tower Shops.

Miville is also actively involved in protecting Captiva’s wildlife and environment. In November, Swiss artist Simone Eisenbeiss completed a mural of endangered Florida wildlife on the side of the building. “Save us,” it pleads.

Leaving a Legacy

What took Miville away from his art was a bad investment of $60,000, which lost $6,000 the next day. But within six weeks, he recouped that loss, and six months later, he recouped that loss tenfold by investing in IPOs. In six years, he made 1,000 times his original loss—setting him on his entrepreneurial path. “People still know me as René the artist,” he says, adding that he turned down a prestigious publisher who wanted to write a book about his art because he hadn’t painted in years.

Miville began his career as a fashion photographer for Vogue Italia, Vogue Deutsch, Spin and others. In the 1980s and 1990s, he turned to abstract-expressionism, splashing developer and stop bath chemicals on large paper with his photographs at his Captiva home. “I’d paint with the chemistry and preserve the photograph. I’d put pasta in the fixer,” Miville says, pointing to white lines illuminating a bag lady, transforming her. “It was the dawn of the digital age, and I was going in a different direction.”

His works are in seven museums, including Boca Raton, Denver, Los Angeles and Cologne, and are sought after by collectors, including Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills & Nash, who purchased 18 when they first met and continued over the years. Millions of fans of death-metal group Death covet his three album covers, one of which recently sold for $10,100 on eBay. And a PBS documentary that aired through the early 2000s, “Master Manipulator: Avant Garde Photographer René Miville,” is still viewed on YouTube.

“The good news is there’s always enough artwork produced that I have a legacy,” he says. “I have more pieces than Van Gogh and all of them have their relevance. If I want to start it again full throttle, I could—and maybe I will.” For now, he wants to enjoy the beaches and his family, and to embark on a new project: building attainable homes for Lee County teachers. 

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