Director's job is new, but her love of arts isn't

By Ernest Hooper, Lunch with Ernest
Published March 7, 2008

Guiding one of Brandon's primary arts beacons would be a challenge for anyone, but it proved even more daunting for Center Place's Darci D'Onofrio because she stepped into the role after Claudia Yake had been executive director for 23 years.

After a year on the job, D'Onofrio is happy to be shepherding the fine arts and civic association that provides more than 700 arts classes and drew more than 28,000 people to its theatrical performances last year.

Over sandwiches at Della's Delectables, we talked about her role and the center's upcoming annual gala, which will be March 29 at TPepin's Hospitality Centre in Tampa. Pull up a chair and join us.

ERNEST: After 12 years in property management, you got this job. So overseeing an arts center is brand new to you?

DARCI: It's brand new for me, but I've always loved art. I grew up in a household with music and arts and theater. My dad was a disc jockey for 30 years, so I was always around music. My mom played the piano. I played the violin. I was in theater. I was in dance. I always say I have a life experience with the arts.

What were your expectations and, looking back a year later, did you meet them?

It's a lot different than I thought a year ago. I expected it to be a lot harder and it's become a lot easier because people are great. When you're dealing with the arts, you're talking about dealing with very passionate people. They believe in what they're doing. They believe in their artwork. They believe in what they're acting out. I've enjoyed learning and this has been a learning experience.

It must be nice to share their passion.

I've always been a creative person and a passionate person, but to hear other people's experiences and their passions renews my passions.

Were you worried about stepping into such an important position?

I stressed out because how do you fill a person's shoes who's been there for 23 years. I'm thinking, "How could I ever do what she's done? How can I fulfill that role and take it to a better place?" But it's a learning experience and I feel like finally, after about a year, I've been able to understand how I can possibly take it to a better place. I have children of my own, so I'm into the children's aspects of the center.

What are some of the improvements you would like to make?

The community events are very popular with the kids and I would like to introduce some new community events. We started a chalk walk last year, which was great. We had kids and parents come out and draw on the sidewalk and it was a family event. I'm trying to organize two more family events that would be summertime events, if the weather permits. We would like to have a '50s kind of day with the old cars and maybe the artists draw pictures or cartoons related to the '50s. I mainly want to get the community out to see Center Place and see what we do.

What impact do you think the new Brandon Advantage Center will have on Center Place?

I'm hoping we can be a partner with them and have a great working relationship, join together and become brother and sister. I don't think it's going to hurt us. I'm every excited about it and I know it will be an opportunity for the Brandon community to have a larger venue for civic events. We actually have to go outside this area for our fundraising event.

Tell me about the gala.

We're doing our 24th annual Center Place arts gala. The theme is Light Up the Arts and it's going to be a Hollywood theme. We have a very exciting event planned: a silent auction, a live auction, a band and all kinds of exciting entertainment.

So have you signed up for any of the art classes?

I started with my kids -they're doing the children's workshops. I want to do watercolors, so I might sign up. But I'm scared because these people are really good. They're just going to laugh at me. Another class I want to do is mosaic. It's been really interesting to see what they've done.

DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest

One of the more successful initiatives D'Onofrio has launched is art classes for homeschooled students. She said the first two classes quickly filled, and she's hoping to add more soon. Like a lot of weeks, this is a busy one for the Center Place. There are two performances of The Ugly Duckling 11:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. today and a Lunch With the Easter Bunny event Saturday at 11 a.m.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section. He can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or 226-3406.