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WEST VOLUSIA CULTURE

25 YEARS OF ART: Museum of Art-DeLand celebrates milestone

By Austin Fuller
austin.fuller@news-jrnl.com

DELAND – Betty Drees Johnson and Margaret Lee remember when the Museum of Art–DeLand was located in a downtown house and the city’s theater group performed in barracks at an airport.

“It was rustic at best,” the 73-year-old Lee said of the space the theater used. “They made the most of what space they had and really and truly, they had some fantastic shows, but they just needed a different venue.”

The museum, meanwhile, was outgrowing its space at the intersection of New York and Garfield Avenues, prompting the arts community in DeLand to come together to create the Cultural Arts Center. The 600 N. Woodland Boulevard building marked the 25 year anniversary of its grand opening on April 13.

“Both organizations, the theater out at the old airport, and the museum downtown needed more space,” said Johnson, a 78-year-old who was the center’s trustee secretary at the time. “They knew that if each one of them tried to do a building project and fundraising at that time for a building, there was not enough money in DeLand to do that.”

More than $2 million was raised for the facility, including $600,000 from the Florida Department of State’s Division of Cultural Affairs, $250,000 from Volusia County, and $125,000 from DeLand, according to the museum’s director of marketing Lisa Habermehl.

“It really was a grassroots initiative, because we wanted everybody to be involved and we felt like it really was a citywide project,” Lee said.

The groundbreaking for the facility was on October 14, 1989 on land that Stetson University agreed to lease to the center, said Lee, who not only was integrally involved with the center but whose late husband, Dr. H. Douglas Lee, was the president of Stetson from 1987 until 2009.

“They realized that they wanted something compatible with Stetson University and having a museum and theater would be a compatible use of this space, but it was leased for $1 a year,” she said.

The grand opening ceremony was held April 13, 1991.

“It’s been a great cultural asset for DeLand ever since,” said Mayor Bob Apgar.

Much has changed in the 25 years since the center’s grand opening. Originally, it was home to the museum, a theater group that would eventually become Sands Theater Company, and the DeLand Little Symphony. Now, the symphony is no more and Sands Theater Company has relocated to downtown’s Athens Theatre.

The center acquired the land from Stetson in 2008 for $415,000, according to Habermehl. The organization for the center merged with the museum in 2010, with the museum as the remaining entity.

Stetson’s Theatre Arts program also now uses the theater space in the building — something particularly meaningful to Lee.

“To be able to see and be passionate about this space and then to see Stetson being able to use this is very gratifying, extremely gratifying,” she said.

While the building that is now its home marks 25 years, the museum itself dates back to 1951, with its name changing over the years.

“One thing that we have never forgotten is that we were founded as a children’s museum,” Johnson said. “So education remains a very important part of what we’re doing.”

One young artist who learned at the museum is Erica Group, a 27-year-old artist now known for her “DeLand Wings” painting in a downtown alley. She said the favorite part of her summers growing up was attending art and theater camps at the center.

“I remember doing a wide variety of art there and loving all of it,” she said.

She is now a member of Krewe Nouveau, a group that raises money for the museum.

Twenty-five years after its grand opening, both Lee and Johnson acknowledge the institution makes DeLand a better place.

“We’re constantly bringing children in, we’re constantly bringing people, families,” Lee said. “I do think it’s a destination. I think it’s enriching and I think that’s what DeLand is all about right now: it just enriches the quality of life”

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