2016-06-23 / Arts & Entertainment News
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BY SCOTT SIMMONS
TAKING THE HELM AT THE ARMORY ART CENTER was like coming home again for Tom Pearson.
“It already feels like home. I like the vibe. There’s a good, positive vibe with staff and faculty and it’s a very positive, uplifting place to be,” he said.
Dr. Pearson, who joined the 29-year-old institution as executive director in March, had worked in the Palm Beach County School District for more than 20 years before leaving in 2013 to head the Mississippi Arts Commission.
“It’s a happy place in that we get to do the arts every day all day long, and for me to be able to support that work, it makes me feel good,” he said.
The Armory is approaching its 30th anniversary, and it offers classes in a variety of disciplines, from painting to metal sculpture to ceramics and fiber arts.
“I think that sets us apart from other art centers,” Dr. Pearson said.
He is very much focused on the visual arts, but Dr. Pearson’s ear was tuned to music in the early part of his career — he studied voice and percussion for his undergraduate degree and earned a master’s degree in conducting.
Before he left Palm Beach County for Mississippi, he and his wife, Kathy Acerra, played in pit orchestras for the Lake Worth and Delray Beach playhouses.
He still plays bass, gigging when he can in garage bands in Florida and in Mississippi, and he loves to fish.
“My transition into visual arts happened about 18 years ago, when I started working in the school district as the arts administrator,” he said. “That’s when the art teachers of Palm Beach County asked, ‘Who is this guy?’”
PEARSON PEARSON Fortunately, he had a broad understanding of the visual arts and had dabbled in photography.
Dr. Pearson plunged headlong into the arts when he moved to Mississippi.
“I was in charge of all the arts for a whole state, and that encompasses everything from folk and traditional arts all the way to the music and the visual arts,” he said.
Mississippi has a population of just under 3 million; Palm Beach County’s population is around 1.37 million.
“When you look at the greater region here, it’s about the same number as that state,” he said.
There are other points for comparison.
“When you look at the Mississippi Delta and how needy it is, it compares very closely to the Glades,” he said.
The communities of South Bay, Belle Glade and Pahokee, which hug the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee, are 40 miles and another world away from the Armory.
The bulk of its support lies solidly in the central east part of the county, with most of students coming from a 10-mile radius — as far west as Wellington, as far north as Palm Beach Gardens and as far south as Boynton Beach.
It has a loyal base of students, instructors and board members.
“We have a good nucleus of folks who have been at the Armory for years, who have continued to take classes or rent studio space,” Dr. Pearson said. “I met someone who said they had been here 17 years, so there’s a good heritage here.”
The 1939 Art Deco building had served its community as a mustering place for the National Guard until 1982.
The Armory was used for a variety of purposes throughout the ’80s, but by 1986, it was slated for demolition.
At the same time, what is now the Norton Museum of Art closed its school, and area artists were without a venue for learning and inspiring each other.
A group of artists, art teachers and community activists formed the Armory Art Center in 1986 to ensure the continuation of practical art instruction in Palm Beach County.
There was no Kravis Center, no City- Place at the time. The area south of downtown West Palm Beach was crumbling.
“I moved here in ’88, and that’s right when the bulldozers cleared the corridor and there was nothing here but the Methodist Church and the old central high school,” Dr. Pearson remembered.
Drugs were rampant, and the neighborhoods that surrounded the Armory, including Grandview Heights and Flamingo Park, were threatened.
But all that changed as the Armory opened in 1987, the Kravis Center opened in 1992 and CityPlace came to fruition in 2000.
Now the Armory is looking ahead.
“The Armory has had its ups and downs over the years and I’m just lucky to be coming in when financially we’re in a better place,” Dr. Pearson said of the art school and gallery, which has a faculty of 60 or so instructors, 900 students and an annual budget of about $1.6 million.
Next up: Stabilizing the institution for the long term.
“It’s the board’s goals and one of my goals to broaden our reach throughout Palm Beach County and the region itself,” he said.
That’s where Dr. Pearson says lessons learned in his previous job will help.
“My experience in Mississippi gave me a good perspective to come in and run a much smaller nonprofit because my job there was to fund nonprofits,” he said, citing the grants that are the lifeblood for many organizations. “As nonprofits apply for funding you examine their financials and what their board is doing. You delve into the inner workings of the nonprofit.”
He’s hoping to focus strategically.
“We’re restructuring a little bit as far as staff. We’re making sure that we’re serving and the people who are taking classes are getting the services they need. We’re looking at diversifying and bringing more folks into the art school,” he said.
That diversity includes bringing a range of people from a variety of backgrounds and income brackets.
Two programs were in place when he arrived.
One is The Art of Phoenix, produced in partnership with the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches. Armory instructors work with a certified art therapist to conduct therapeutic art classes to aid in the recovery of teens who are victims of human trafficking.
The other, Urban Youth Impact, works with inner-city kids.
“We’re looking at making sure our programming is current, not only honoring the traditional art forms, but expanding our reach,” Dr. Pearson said.
Two years ago, the Armory opened its Annex at the former shuffleboard courts in downtown Lake Worth, where it offers classes, exhibitions and studio space. Dr. Pearson looks forward to seeing an artists’ colony develop as the Armory space, nearby Benzaiten Center for the Arts and co-op galleries take hold.
Other programs to bring more people into the Armory include the first West Palm Beach Art Festival, slated for December.
“There will be tents, music, and not only will we bring the neighborhoods together, but we’re advertising for artists from across the region.”
He wants to get the word out.
“There’s such good-quality work here, but there are a lot of people in Palm Beach County who do not know about the Armory,” he said.
You hear it all the time — people frequently miss out on the cultural offerings in their own backyards. But the Armory’s reputation is beginning to spread internationally.
“It’s amazing. We bring in five artists in residence every year. We had applicants from London. We had about 50 applicants this year for five spots,” he said.
Perhaps the art school and gallery’s persistence is paying off.
“The reputation of the Armory is getting out there. We want to make sure it gets out there further,” Dr. Pearson said. ¦
— For more information on the Armory Art Center and its programs, visit armoryart.org or call 832-1776.