In 1972, five men and women who wanted art to not only survive but thrive in Lake Wales joined forces to incorporate the Lake Wales Arts Council.
It was the mission of the late Michael Crews, an attorney; Mary Combs and Marilyn Newell, community volunteers and arts patrons; Marie Kirch and Milford Myhre, carillonneur at Bok Tower Gardens, to provide a central organization for the sponsorship and encouragement of cultural and educational activities in the area. In its early years, the Council used the Lake Wales High School auditorium and sponsored one concert annually. Groups included the Florida Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Mummers and the Texas Boy Choir.
Also in 1972, Music at Pinewood, an annual chamber music series, was co-sponsored with Bok Tower Gardens. In-school programs were offered for the first time, using local artists and visiting performers.
In 1975, the Arts Council assumed the responsibility for the annual Lake Wales Sidewalk Art Show, which has grown into the Citizens Bank & Trust Lake Wales Arts Festival. Twenty artists exhibited to a crowd of 3,000.
In 1979, the Arts Council merged with the local Community Concert Association to provide a major artist series of two to three concerts per year, using the high school auditorium and various churches for concert venues. Artists included the Dallas Brass, National Opera Company, Atlanta Chamber Players, Austin on Tap, Eugene Istomin, the Imperial Symphony Orchestra, Dance Alive, American Balalaika Company, Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Chamber Brass and The Alexander String Quartet among many others. Community volunteers ran all activities.
In 1989, the Arts Council joined with local preservationists to save the former Holy Spirit Catholic Church, which had outgrown its congregation. When the church became available for sale, Mrs. Frances Dollelan Updike, a parishioner, and Ann W. Norton, local artist and educator, spearheaded a group who vowed to raise the money to purchase and transform the mission-style church, which was built in 1927. They purchased the building with funds from the community and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. Renovations began to convert the church to an arts center with a performance hall in the old sanctuary and an art gallery and arts library in the lower level. A storage space was converted into an office for the first part-time executive director for the Arts Council.
In January 1991, the renovated Lake Wales Arts Center opened to the public with a black-tie gala, followed by a weeklong arts festival. A few months earlier the Arts Center had been named to the National Register of Historic Places. The executive director position became full time. In addition to performances in Updike Hall and Exhibitions in the Michael Crews Gallery, other programs were added, including ArtsCamp!, a music and art summer camp for children ages 6 – 12.
In 1992, the Lake Wales Art Show moved to the shores of Lake Wailes and continues to grow. The student division of the Lake Wales Art Show has grown to include more than 600 pieces of art with every school in the area participating.
In 1996, the First Annual Children’s Interactive Exhibit: Let’s Go to Egypt took place, and it drew more than 1,000 children participants.
In 1998, a capital campaign focused on the repair and restoration of the historic structure; the building of a new gallery and education wing and on increasing the endowment fund.
In 1999, a $194,000 Cultural Facilities Grant and a $33,000 Historic Preservation Grant were awarded. A total of $1.4-million was raised for the restoration and new wing. In the spring of 2000, restoration of the historic structure began and was completed by the fall. In March 2001, construction began on the new Michael Crews Education Wing and Gallery. The new gallery opened on November 2, 2001.
The Lake Wales Arts Council continues to meet its mission to promote, encourage and celebrate the arts for the enhancement of community life.