After nearly eight years at the helm of the region's largest cultural-advocacy organization, Flora Maria Garcia will retire on Jan. 31.

"I feel good, and it seems like a good time for me to exit," said Garcia, who has been president and CEO of United Arts of Central Florida since the spring of 2012.

Although less than a decade ago, Central Florida had a very different cultural landscape then. Arts groups were still digging their way out of economic recession. The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts had not yet opened a single theater. Orlando Ballet was soon to find itself homeless after a mold infestation in its rented space. The future of opera was uncertain as a group of volunteers presented events after the collapse of Orlando Opera.

"We've seen a huge evolution in the arts" since, said Garcia. This month, for example, she attended the grand opening of the ballet's new state-of-the-art building. And United Arts is now a funder of the growing Opera Orlando, the professional successor to those hard-working volunteers. "Groups have been able to strengthen their artistic product and their management," she said.

Not that there weren't challenges — usually involving money.

"I think she's been a leader at a very difficult time," said Betsy Gwinn of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, one of just a few executive directors who led a cultural group through all of Garcia's tenure. "Arts funding is always the last to come back" from a recession, Gwinn added. "It just created a really challenging time."

Last fall, Garcia helped orchestrate a deal to bring $2 million in new funding to arts groups, through an arrangement with Orange County. The agreement is a recurring one, central to her desire to give groups more stable funding streams. "I've been working on that since I got here," she said. "It's ongoing, that's what's important."

"She's certainly leaving on a high note," said Barbara Hartley, executive director of Orlando's Downtown Arts District. Gwinn called the deal "a tremendous shot in the arm ... it gave us the feeling we were not forgotten."

Hartley said the agreement reflected Garcia's skills.

"She has always been very creative at looking for solutions," Hartley said. "One of her strengths is not being complacent. She's always looking at a different approach."

Sometimes, new approaches ruffled feathers — such as when United Arts began charging a 7 percent administrative fee for running the region's largest cultural fundraising campaign.

"I expected that," Garcia said. "Change is hard."

Some were dismayed when Garcia ended two high-profile events: a fall gala known as the Red Chair Affair and a festival of free performances across the region called ArtsFest. Garcia said the expense couldn't be justified.

"First and foremost, United Arts is a funding agency," she said. "We're not a programming agency."

And the changes benefited other initiatives, she pointed out. Duke Energy used money it had donated toward ArtsFest to support new grants pushing for more culturally diverse events.

"Our emphasis on diversity and inclusion has opened up arts groups to new programming and new audiences," Garcia said. "I think it has made programming richer, deeper and more interesting."

She's also proud of starting an educational program that has served more than 600 students. Through partnerships with Evans High School in Orlando and Tohopekaliga High in Kissimmee, along with Valencia College, the University of Central Florida and sponsor JP Morgan Chase, students are put on a career path to learn behind-the-scenes technical aspects of the entertainment business. Those trained in such fields, such as lighting and sound, are in constant demand at the theme parks and other venues.

"Now they can find the talent right here," Garcia said.

She knows her successor, still to be chosen, will have more work to do.

Hartley sees a need for more affordable studios and performance spaces. Gwinn thinks the time is right to engage the business community even more and revitalize the annual fundraising campaign, which has held steady in donations the past few years.

"Definitely, it's a complicated job," Hartley said. "There are a lot of stakeholders to answer to."

United Arts board chairman Brendan Lynch said he was "very hopeful" the next president would be selected by the end of March.

"We simply haven't found the right fit with the right person at the right time yet," said Lynch, adding the ideal candidate will "bring new ideas to the table on how to make things bigger and better."

Lynch, a shareholder with the Lowndes law firm, praised Garcia for strengthening United Arts and broadening its outreach beyond the area's best-known organizations.

"She really brought in small and midsize groups to join the major players, which takes a lot of cajoling and convincing and growing pains," he said. "I think there is a comfort with that now, and that contributed to this pinnacle moment of Orange County saying, 'You have our commitment, you have our trust.'"

Garcia said her work with the government sector would be a key part of her legacy.

"I think I cultivated a sense of ownership and value about the arts in our elected officials," she said. "I think they are seeing the arts as equal partners with other businesses in making this region great."

Garcia, 65, and her husband of five years are moving to "a little cottage" near the beach in St. Petersburg, trading evening gowns for flip-flops. "I'm leaving all the fancy stuff behind," she joked.

She'll miss the friends she made — "the people who day in, day out, under adversity do such great work" — but not waking up at 6 a.m.

"I don't have any regrets," she said. "I've given it my best shot."

Orlando Sentinel

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