Celebrating Olympians’ spirit, artistry
FORT MYERS, Fla. - The world may be focusing on the XXI Olympic Winter Games set to begin Friday in Vancouver, British Columbia, but this city is flying its own Olympic banner on the grounds of a new museum dedicated to art, athletics, and the quest for excellence.
Art of the Olympians, the brainchild of the late Al Oerter, a four-time Olympic gold medalist in the discus, opened late last month in a sun-washed, Mediterranean-style downtown building overlooking the Caloosahatchee River. It displays only art created by Olympic athletes, and in several media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, and graphic design. It is the only such institution approved by the US Olympic Committee and permitted to fly the Olympic flag.
The museum’s mission, said Cathy Oerter, who took over the project when her husband died two years ago, is to show the common ground between sport and art. “We’re all creative individuals,’’ she said. “In sports you have to really think about how to be innovative and get better. It’s a similar process for an artist.’’ The museum, tagged the Al Oerter Center of Excellence, is “all about human relations and bettering humanity, the Olympic spirit.’’
Art of the Olympians is a key milestone in a decades-long project to upgrade and revitalize the downtown “river district.’’ In the last four years, Fort Myers has spent $50 million on a streetscape program that includes underground utilities, red brick street pavers, sidewalks, benches and bike racks, lighting, and landscaping. Some 15 businesses, including a boutique hotel, art galleries, shops, and restaurants have moved into the district in just the last year, said Don Paight, executive director of the Downtown Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency. Art Walks, held on the first Friday of each month, draw up to 2,000 people.
Oerter, who won his medals in consecutive Olympic Summer Games, from 1956-68, retired to Fort Myers in 1997. In 2005 he was asked to present a show of his paintings - bright, splashy canvases reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. To create a greater impact, he reached out to a group of fellow Olympians who had mounted a successful world art tour in the 1990s. The idea for a museum that would hold a permanent collection of art by Olympians was born.
Among that early group was Liston Bochette, a decathlete and bobsledder from Puerto Rico, who serves on the museum’s board of directors. Bochette’s evocative drawings celebrate the human figure. Other Olympians whose work forms the permanent collection include, from the United States, Rink Babka, discus/painting; Bob Beamon, long jump/graphic design; Peggy Fleming, ice skating/painting; and Larry Young, race walk/sculpture. International artists include Roald Bradstock of the United Kingdom, javelin/painting; Shane Gould of Australia, swimming/photography; Emanuela Pierantozzi of Italy, judo/sculpture; and Tony Moore of Fiji, track and field/poetry.
Including literary and performing arts is critical, Cathy Oerter said, because the earliest Olympics featured competitions in drama and poetry; they celebrated the “citizen-athlete,’’ or well-rounded person. “The body-mind-spirit connection is something Al was adamant about bringing back,’’ she said.
The first floor of the 10,000-square-foot building holds classrooms, computers featuring interactive games in which players can compete with Olympians, and a gift shop. A cafe by renowned chocolatier Norman Love will open in April. The second level, flooded with light through floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river, houses permanent and rotating exhibits. A distinctive feature is a glassed-in, secure exhibit space for artifacts relating to the current featured artist and his or her country. Artifacts will include treasures on loan from that country’s top museums, as well as personal items donated by the artists, said curator Terry Tincher.
Bochette believes the museum will be “a tremendous magnet for the city, a big economic engine.’’ He notes that there is an enormous network of Olympic committees worldwide that are budgeted to meet every year. The museum will put Fort Myers at or near the top of possible meeting sites. In addition the museum’s scope will appeal to international visitors, who want to see something multicultural, he said.
Financing for the museum has come from individuals and city and county government. Fort Myers leased the former City Pier building for $1 a year for five years, and Lee County has contributed almost $1 million, Cathy Oerter said. The long-term plan is to build a new facility on land the city has donated, just a hundred yards away. Paight confirmed that the city intends to cut an inlet from the river two blocks into the downtown area; the new museum would sit on this canal, overlooking the river and Centennial Park. While the canal will appear to be purely aesthetic, it will function as a retention pond that will collect and filter storm water runoff before it returns to the river, Paight said.
To date the dilemma of what to do with proffered art that may not be of museum quality has not come up, said Cathy Oerter, emphasizing that the art is just a piece of the whole. “Not everyone is a winner,’’ she said. “Not everyone is an accomplished artist. We’re celebrating the effort.’’
Ellen Albanese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version of this story identified Liston Bochette as being from Jamaica. He is from Puerto Rico.