Beyond the drunken “sailors” telling their personalized versions of “The Old Man and the Sea,” beyond the spring breakers ordering endless rounds of shots and far beyond the half-naked, bead-grabbing, drunken hordes of Fantasy Fest, Key West is inhabited by a vibrant community of exceptionally talented artists of every medium.
Way before the Etsy era of celebrating the local artist, selling local art wasn’t trendy or cool or even necessarily profitable. Thank goodness Nance Frank, owner of the Gallery on Greene, values being fascinating and well-traveled over being cool or else Key West wouldn’t be home to a fraction of the diverse artists the island holds today.
Born and raised in Key West, Ms. Frank attended the University of Florida and “left to roam the planet,” as she tells it, returning to Key West 25 years ago.
“Wilhelmina Harvey made me come home and there’s nowhere better in the world,” she says. “I’ve sailed the seven seas and been almost everywhere. Believe me, there’s nothing like the way we embrace diversity and believe in ‘One Race, the Human Race.’” While she was away, Ms. Frank worked as a curator in museums in both Basel, Switzerland, and Chile, honing her love and passion for art in all its incarnations.
When she came back to Key West, Frank Lura, Mickey Gorman and Mark Barrack opened the Gallery on Greene and hired Ms. Frank as their second director in 1997.
“A year after they opened, they were less interested in the gallery than La Te Da (which they also owned) and sold the Gallery on Greene to me,” Ms. Frank recounts. “They did an amazing build-out and I thank them every day for their sense of style and understanding of the nature of business.”
Though she inherited a full-fledged island-oriented business, Ms. Frank’s vision extended far beyond the scope of her immediate surroundings. She immediately began to source art from Cuba and now organizes and leads monthly Cuban art tours, which afford participants the opportunity to collect art, converse with Cuban artists and experience all that Havana has to offer.
Lest the enormity of Ms. Frank’s achievements elude you — when you consider that the United States and Cuba were virtually inaccessible to one another for over 50 years — the idea that she was able to expose each country’s artists to one another is nothing short of tremendous. Perhaps the most lasting mark that Ms. Frank has imprinted on Key West’s art history is her passion for self-taught Cuban- American folk artist Mario Sanchez, a man who has been called the most important 20th century artist of his kind and who is from the very same Key West neighborhood Ms. Frank spent her childhood exploring. The bulk of Mr. Sanchez’s pieces are bas relief wood intaglios, typically depicting vibrantly colored scenes of everyday life in Key West and rendering immortal the Cuban cultural heritage of Key West in the early 20th century. Although Mr. Sanchez died in 2005, his incredible works are still featured prominently at the Gallery on Greene and Ms. Frank continues to champion his life and his art.
When the Gallery on Greene opened, its owners and directors were already committed to representing the distinctive Key West artistic style. After 20 years, the central mission of the gallery remains virtually unchanged.
“We still represent some of the artists that the initial owners chose, like Peter Vey, and I brought Mario Sanchez, Suzie DePoo, Jeff MacNelly, and Cuban artists with me,” Ms. Frank explains. “We now represent some of the most talented artists within 100 miles. Half of our artists have been in at least one museum exhibit and we have either curated or assisted with four major museum exhibits from New York City to Havana. Along with Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Art, The Studios of Key West, Old Island Restoration Foundation, Florida Keys Council of the Arts, Mel Fisher and the Hemingway House, we organized the first museum-to- museum exchange with Cuba in 56 years. The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, national and local television stations, and the Associated Press covered the event, bringing intense interest to art in Key West and Cuba.”
Ms. Frank’s involvement with the arts doesn’t end when she shuts off the Gallery lights for the evening.
“As the founding chair of the Florida Keys Council of the Arts and Art in Public Places for Monroe County, I have worked for more and better art for Monroe County,” she says. “I was one of the three founding board members of the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys. At the inception of The Studios of Key West, I was on the board and have supported them and worked with them since. My mother and I have been members of the Key West Woman’s Club, which fought for the first county library in Florida and still does amazing work for so many not-for-profits.”
Ms. Frank is also a staunch advocate for the retention of Key West’s historic aesthetic.
“I’m a member of Old Island Restoration Foundation and have lately been organizing against the building of four-story parking structures in the Historic Center of our island,” she asserts. “I wish I had time for Reef Relief, for whom I worked after coming home about 25 years ago. The reef is dying; it’s terribly, terribly heartbreaking. I love Last Stand of the Florida Keys and all the organizations that fight for the preservation of our island culture. I am passionate about Key West becoming a UNESCO world heritage site. Both the culture and the historic architecture make us a perfect candidate.”
But life is not all about paintings and parking lots, and even a force like Ms. Frank has to work some hobbies into her relentlessly busy life.
“I am so passionate about the sea and K-9 training,” she says. “In my spare time, I train a German Shepard named Quin with Raul Hernandez, boat, snorkel, dive, swim, float, sail, kayak, paddle board and rabble rouse against development with friends.”
And in case you want to pick her brain about art in the Keys or in Cuba, she’ll have a cold glass of crisp pinot gris. ¦
The Gallery on Greene 606 Greene St. www.galleryongreene.com