Kyle Willis is not a Jacksonville native, but he has a local's passion for developing and improving the art scene.
"I realized a lot of artists are only famous until after they die because they aren't usually business-savvy," Willis said. "So, I've been forced to teach myself to look at my art as a product to be sold. I've had to become a businessman."
By connecting artists to a tight-knit community, Willis said they could all help each other get noticed and find buyers. Willis came up with LACT — Local Artists Coming Together — and created a Facebook page in January 2012. He also advertised the group on Craigslist to attract artists. People slowly began trickling in, and after one year, the group has 235 members and about 30 active artists.
"Artists don't have a lot of money as it is — hence the adage ‘starving artists' — and a lot of the galleries and contests in Jacksonville ask you to put up loads of money to be in them," he said. "The art scene in Jax can be very clique and exclusive, and I didn't want that. There will never be any dues or fees to be a part of it [LACT]. It doesn't matter what your medium is, just participate in some way."
Willis described the group this way: "LACT is a loose collective of artists whose purpose is to assist one another in their endeavors to attain their goals of becoming self-sustaining artists."
For his first project, he wanted to appeal to the inner child in each artist, so he produced a series of trading cards. In August 2012, "Local Art Series One" featured 10 artists from LACT, selected by the managers of liketotally80s.com. The theme for the cards was, appropriately,
"I love the '80s."
To fund the printing of 10,000 cards, Willis went door-to-door asking local businesses to be sponsors.
"The first place I went was Intuition [Ale Works], and I talked to the manager, Cari Sanchez-Potter. She immediately loved the idea and was, like, ‘Where do I sign?' " he said.
Willis found 10 sponsors that were featured on the back of the cards, while the artists' works and bios were featured on the front. The sponsors offered cards to their customers, and the artists handed out cards, too.
In October 2012, LACT produced a second series of cards with a "Heroes" theme, featuring artists selected by the staff at Tapa That. For the third series, themed "Self-Portrait," scheduled to come out the first week of July, the artists were chosen by members of the Jacksonville mayor's office. The number of artists has grown with each series: The second set had 25 artists, the third has 50.
Willis encouraged LACT members to show their work at First Wednesday Art Walk in Downtown Jacksonville, where he had been showing since February 2012. The collective had been appearing at The Carling, but members are currently searching for a new location.
In February, LACT created pop-up galleries. There have been five so far, all of which have been hosted by Tapa That. Five artists are featured at each event and are on hand to discuss their work. The shows are open to the public to view and purchase art, listen to live music, sample hors d'oeuvres, win one of many door prizes, and buy wine or beer from local breweries.
"It is a symbiotic relationship we have with the businesses who host LACT and the pop-up galleries," Willis said. "Everyone is going to walk away from the night having benefited. The artists and the businesses gain attention because of one another."
Michael Coutu, the owner of Tapa That, first met Willis when he sponsored the trading cards.
"My sister and I loved the idea [trading cards], and have been sponsors throughout the series," Coutu said. "Later, Kyle approached us about a gallery event, and the first Artful Evening quickly took shape."
Coutu and his sister, Arielle Coutu, the chef at Tapa That, were also art students and said that Jacksonville is a gold mine of talent waiting to be discovered.
"Jacksonville has the potential to be a cultural mecca," artist and LACT member Rob Hardin said. "We could be like North Florida's New York City. That is the goal of our group, to tap into that."