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Major Renovation for BIG ARTS

An excerpt from a recent Island Sun article written by Jeff Lysiak:

Forty years ago this summer, six islanders – Pete Smith, Ikki and Polly Matsumoto, Mike Klein and Emil and Bradley Fray – gathered in Smith’s home. There, these dreamers envisioned an organization that would help promote the performing arts, fine arts and creative writers on Sanibel. That organization became known as the Barrier Island Group for the Arts, which was later shortened to BIG ARTS. 

Today, their dreams are still very much alive, as is BIG ARTS. For the past four decades, BIG ARTS has established itself as a place that provides an arts and culture hub on the islands that offers lifelong learning, enrichment and a place to explore the artist in all of us – no matter your age.

Since Schein Hall opened its doors in 1997, BIG ARTS has attracted world-renowned performers such as Broadway stars Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, singers Judy Collins, Janis Ian and The Kingston Trio, violin virtuoso Itzhak Pearlman and lecturers including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and network TV news anchor Ted Koppel.

The hall – in what used to be known as the “west wing” – has long outlived its useful life. It was originally built more as a multi-use auditorium and large events meeting room than a performance hall.

BIG ARTS is literally bursting at the seams – with people, ideas, excitement and a passionate commitment to continue the dream for the next 40 years. In 2014, the BIG ARTS board of directors, staff, volunteers and a team of professionals embarked upon a review of the organization’s long term sustainability. Together with community input, they created a vision for its renewal: A new building on the same sacred footprint that will offer more creative opportunities, comfortable seating, dynamic sound, better safety and – most of all – a beautiful gathering place that will carrying the dream forward and continue to celebrate the artist in all of us.

“Staff is thrilled to now be able to be together in one building – we are split across two locations now,” said Lee Ellen Harder, executive director. “We will be able to offer our workshop attendees decent, light-filled class space, and improvements to the performance hall will allow us to bring even better and more varied performances and programming to the islands.”

In late February, members of the Sanibel Planning Commission unanimously approved a conditional use permit application to allow for the complete redevelopment and re-establishment of existing uses for the BIG ARTS building complex on Dunlop Road.

According to the staff report, BIG ARTS plans to demolish all existing buildings and replace them with a new building approximately 30,865 square feet. Plans call for a 410-seat performance hall, galleries, classrooms, meeting space and administrative offices. Proposed site improvements include new landscaping, patios, decks, walkways and a reconfigured parking area. Harder expects an extremely positive reaction from BIG ARTS’ passionate group of supporters.

“They will be thrilled – clean, natural light, comfortable, accessible, and still very much ‘island-style’ and BIG ARTS’ historical charm,” she added. “The way the new space will be integrated into the natural beauty of the island and flexible space to enhance all of our programming.”

The massive BIG ARTS reconstruction project is tentatively scheduled to begin by April 1, with an expected completion timeframe of 10 months. Programming is anticipated to return to the new complex in January 2020, with staff moving in to their new facilities the following month.

Last month, BIG ARTS produced a 12-page brochure, entitled Continue The Dream, which chronicles the organization’s illustrious 40-year history, describing in detail some of the key elements of the new facility’s featured elements.

For examples, in a description of the west entrance off the main parking lot, the brochure reads: “A broad driveway and well lighted walkways allow easy access and plenty of space to pull your car right up to the west doors off the parking lot facing the Historical Village; and plenty of handicapped parking. The lobby is a short walk down a sun-filled corridor visually connecting the west parking lot to the interior garden plaza. Stop to browse the exciting new artists’ gift shop, enjoy a beverage before the show, and stroll directly into the performance hall ground floor, or take the elevator to your mezzanine seat.”

For the performance hall: “The stunning BIG ARTS performance hall is an experience of exquisite sight, sound and physical comfort. Still a 410-seat ‘ jewel box,’ the performance hall boasts a larger stage, a hydraulic lift seat section offering additional orchestra room and expanded stage space, state-of-the-art sound system, clear sight lines from everywhere, comfortable ‘cushy’ seats and an ‘invisible’ heating and cooling system delivering perfect, balanced temperatures at all times.”

For the exterior garden plaza: “A symphony of glass and light trumpets the beauty of Sanibel Island. Beautiful vistas can be seen from nearly every part of the building. A big bank of glass doors folds open to create a seamless flow from garden to the lobby, performance hall, elevator, bar, social area, classrooms offices and gallery. A wonderful under the stars space for outdoor performances and gatherings.”

More more information, visit, call 239-395-0900 or email

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