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Art for better lives

Art For Life resurfaces Saturday night for a different cause and minus the drag queens.

By SHERRI DAY
Published October 22, 2004

TAMPA - In its heyday, Art For Life was an event to see and for bein g seen. For one night a year, business executives and bankers mixed with drag queens and domestic divas. And whimsical theater sets, including a restaurant patterned after a Western saloon, crowded the Tampa Convention Center.

At the center of it all was art, hundreds of sculptures, paintings and jewelry piece s sold to the highest bidder with proceeds earmarked for HIV and AIDS research.

Now, after a three-year hiatus, Art For Life is back with a new focus - mental health - and, organizers hope, a healthy dose of the buzz that made the fundraiser a household name.

"We're just excited to have it back," said Donald L. Bentz, who is coordinating the event Saturday at Higgins Hall. "We're hopeful about what it can become but realistic. It's going to take some time."

Victor Figueredo, then a local salon owner, founded Art For Life in 1991 in an attempt to promote tolerance and educate the community . At the time, Figueredo said, too many people linked AIDS with homosexuals and failed to realize that heterosexuals were also vulnerable.

In nine years, Art for Life grew from a gathering of 200 people in an unfinished building to a gala for 5,500 at the Tampa Convention Center. In 2000, the event's last year, organizers raised $250,000.

Improbably, the art auction's success was partly responsible for its demise.

By 2000, the public's perception of AIDS and HIV began to change as people with the disease began living longer, more normal lives, Bentz said. At the same time, changes in federal and state funding guidelines prompted several nonprofits to consolidate services and others to close completely. The Tampa Aids Network, which sponsored Art For Life, was one such casualty. The organization merged with another nonprofit in 2002 and did not continue Art For Life.

But the auction has won new life through Project Return, a nonprofit dedicated to improving quality of life for the mentally ill. The organization bought the Art For Life trademark last year.

In a sense, advocates for the mentally ill face the same hurdle that advocates for AIDS patients once faced: public perception.

"People don't see mental illness as a warm and fuzzy. It's not a child. It's not a housewife,' ' said Natalie Mitchels, Project Return's executive director.

"When people think of mental illness they conjure up a lot of negative stereotypes. I want to do things to break down those stereotypes and put something different and positive in its place."

Mitchels said Art For Life seemed a natural fit for her organization because Project Return encourages the people it serves to make and sell art to promote self-sufficiency.

But before Project Return bought the auction's trademark, consultants met with former Art For Life volunteers to secure their approval to shift the event's focus from AIDS to mental illness. Two former volunteers dissented, questionin g whether the community would support another charity event. Figueredo gave his blessing and agreed to host the live art auction.

"I'm so happy that it's been resurrected," said Figueredo, 39, now an interior designer living in Lake Worth. "Honestly, it could have benefited any organization and I would have been proud. This is my baby, and it's coming back."

Local artists are perhaps the biggest fans of the fundraiser's return. The auction provided both experienced and emerging artists a platform for their work.

Davis Islands painter Eileen Goldenberg credits her first donation to Art For Life in the 1990s with helping to resurrect her career. This year, she donated Purple City, a 10-foot wooden sculpture she expects to open with a minimum bid of $600.

"It could be a piece of yard sculpture, maybe out by the pool," Goldenberg said.

Each year, one artist designs the event's signature work, which is replicated on posters and used as a marketing tool to promote the auction. In 1998, Goldenberg's poster art, jugglervane, sold for $15,000.

Theo Wujcik, an Ybor City-based painter whose work is on display in the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Library of Congress, designed Return, the 2004 poster art. Wujcik said designing the event's signature work is a honor.

"Over the years, a lot of my peers were asked; I was envious," said Wujcik, a retired University of South Florida art professor. "I always felt I could do something striking."

In all, artists donated more than 100 pieces of artwork, including sculptures, watercolors and jewelry. Opening bids will range from $5 to $1,000.

The Times is among the event's sponsors.

Project Return hopes to raise between $10,000 and $20,000, a portion of which will go to AIDS research. But because they are rebuilding the fundraiser, the organization would also be satisfied if it broke even, Bentz said.

In its new incarnation, Art For Life will likely have a more stately feel . Because Higgins Hall, a smaller venue, is associated with the Catholic Church, attendees' attire may be more conservative than in years past.

"There will be no drag queens dressed like Marilyn Monroe and Donna Summer," Bentz said. "Art for Life is probably going to have to find its identity again. To get that new blend of people is key to its roots and key to finding new blood to get involved as well."

- Sherri Day can be reached at 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com

If you go

Art For Life 2004 is Saturday at Higgins Hall, 5225 N Himes Ave., Tampa. Silent auction begins at 6 p.m. Voice auction starts at 8 p.m. Tickets, $30 in advance, $35 at the door. Call 813 990-8981, ext. 1, or visit www.artforlifetampa.com

[Last modified October 21, 2004, 13:22:09]

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