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Miami Art Critic on Assignment in Naples

A few days ago I went to my mailbox and found the January 2011 issue of ARTnews. Was delighted to see, on pages 48-49, my News Spotlight profile of Myra Janco Daniels. She's the founding CEO of the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts and an absolutely dynamic woman to interview! Perhaps the most amazing interview of my career in journalism.

I have to say, looking back on our interview during Labor Day weekend in 2010, it was cool to be on assignment again. Of course, going to Naples, Florida is not quite like traveling on assignment to Venice, Italy or Basel, Switzerland or even Havana, Cuba--but this gig was a lot less work, and I did have the distinct pleasure of traveling with my super-duper husband.

Nevertheless, I do want to state very clearly that I am EXTREMELY grateful for those very fab opportunities to travel for the Knight Ridder-owned Miami Herald, thanks to the TERRIFIC publisher the newspaper had at the time. I am for sure confirming this regardless of what anyone may think or say. As we all know, nothing lasts forever, and I really don't have the energy to work to work as hard now as I did then.

I do have astonishing memories from those trips--including taste-testing my fave lemmony desserts in Venice, and having a totally charming dinner with Mark C one evening at an apartment on the Lido, not to mention all the art and architecture I got to see. Venice is my absolutely favorite city in the world!

Then there was the unforgettable time we visited my husband's relatives who still live in Havana, even though most of his Cuban relatives moved to Miami years ago. We brought them medicine. Their modest kitchen looked like the one in the old "Honeymooners" TV sitcom. We wanted to know: Why are you still in Cuba when so much of the family is in Miami? "Some of us have to stay in Cuba," was the reply, which haunts me still.

So back to Naples, Florida...

At an extraordinarily lively event at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, security officer Frank Warren grinned and remarked to his indefatigable boss, "Mrs. Daniels, you don't seem to understand. If it wasn't for you, none of this would be here." Warren, a retired NASCAR driver, chuckles as he tells me this story. You could for sure call it a tribute from one hard-driving competitor to another.

Daniels is all smiles as she talks about her latest coup for the Patty & Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art. It's part of the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts (aka "the Phil"), a thriving cultural complex on Florida's west coast. In the fall of 2010, the museum unveiled its recent acquisition, "Dawn's Forest" (1986) by Louise Nevelson. It features geometric structures evoking a forest transformed by snow or moonlight. A painted plywood installation, it is considered Nevelson's largest and most intricate sculptural environment. In some places 30 feet long and 25 feet high, this artwork brings together 12 sculptures produced in the mid-1980s. Nevelson created "Dawn's Forest" for the Georgia-Pacific Center in Atlanta two years before her death.

"The Nevelson is a happening," asserts Daniels. Her excitement about this impressive acquisition is infectious. With a penchant for relating tales from a career distinguished by high-octane exploits, she recalls how, one Friday in early 2010, she learned that "Dawn's Forest" was going to be given to a museum outside Atlanta. The very next day she flew to Atlanta, arriving in a wheelchair because she had injured her foot. (I told you that the woman is indefatigable!) After meeting with agents for the sculpture's owners, Georgia-Pacific LLC and MetLife, she nailed down agreements for the gift, which were announced last May.

When she saw "Dawn's Forest" in its corporate location in Atlanta, she immediately envisioned how it would look in its new home in Naples. "I could imagine the forest," she says, in a slightly hushed tone of voice. "It could be where you see the clouds. I could picture it here." Today, "Dawn's Forest" utterly transforms the museum's glass-domed Figge Conservatory. "At night it is magnificent," Daniels adds.

"It's a coup--because Naples Museum of Art is not exactly a well-known museum--to bring art of this caliber to that part of Florida," says Carol Damian, director of Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum of Florida International University in Miami. "You just don't expect to see a work by Nevelson there," adds Damian. "My mother used to live in Naples. She would tell amazing stories about this woman who said she was going to bring culture to Naples, and Daniels did it."

Daniels tells her own stories about re-inventing sleepy Naples. In the early 1980s, she and her husband Draper Daniels were living in nearby Marco Island. After his death in 1983, she found a new passion as arts activist in Florida. First she plotted to build an orchestra, the "hub" of her vision, and then soon moved to Naples.

"I love my home, but I have to have my career. When you fly with an eagle, you can't go around with a titmouse," she says with characteristic and spirited bluntness. Draper Daniels was a legend in the advertising world, the model for the character Don Draper in the hit TV series "Mad Men." Together the couple shared extraordinary careers as ad executives in Chicago. "My Draper Daniels was a man of high principle, completely different from Don Draper. But they looked exactly alike," she says. "It still spooks me."

In the early 1980s, she was told that there was no audience for classical music in Naples. "People came here to fish, play tennis, and golf. They went to sleep by nine," she laughs. Though she had the means to travel easily to another city to attend concerts and museums, she wanted Naples to share her love of culture.

With $25,000 of her own money, she purchased TV commercials on a station targeted to stock investors. Using her advertising skills, she wrote a script for the ads, in which she invited the city's well-heeled community to be part of a new movement for the arts. "Together we can do it," she wrote. That line brought in $600,000, she recalls. It was just the beginning. In 1986, "the Phil" broke ground on prime real estate, and it opened debt-free a few years later.

Daniels says she has raised $400 million for the center, from both large and small donations. And, she adds, the center has found an audience of more than 10 million people for its programming, which includes not only the orchestra and fine art, but also ballet, comedy, and jazz.

The Naples Philharmonic Orchestra has accompanied such artists as Placido Domingo, Renee Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, and Denyce Graves. Meanwhile, the Naples Museum of Art, which opened in 2000, has a permanent collection of abstract works by American modernists, given by Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records. These works do indeed complement "Dawn's Forest," which also somehow seems at home with the museum's Mexican art. Visitors can see both the much-admired "Figura Blanca Desnuda" (White Nude, 1950), by Rufino Tamayo, and "Novia de Tehuantepec" (Bride of Tehuantepec, 1950), by Rosa Rolanda.

"We bought Rosa's work because she was never given credit," says Daniels, partial to women, like Louise Nevelson, not admired until late in life or after death.

Daniels applauds Nevelson's pioneering ambition. "I don't have her talent, but she had a passion. I have that passion," says Daniels, a self-confessed workaholic barely five feet tall in chic black business attire. Declining to give her age, she says she is "past retirement."

For her family, the arts were as vital as food on the table. Growing up shortly after the Depression in Gary, Indiana, she recalls taking the train to Chicago on Saturdays to visit the Art Institute with her mother and a friend. "We were about nine. We would take drawing classes. We thought it was risque because we had to draw nudes," she admits, giggling now at this recollection. Then they attended the children's program of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Her business acumen and civic spirit she credits to the example set by her grandmother Sophie Jancowitz, a Romanian immigrant who found success in real estate and who, on Sundays, tutored Gary's immigrant steel workers in English.

Indignantly, Daniels says one area collector dismissed the Naples Museum of Art as a "crackerbox." Ticking off future plans for "the Phil," she declares, with her trademark indefatigable spirit, "no one tells me something's impossible. All things are possible if you believe."

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