In space center's shade: retreat for master artists

In a cedar and glass studio tucked away in a hushed pine and palmetto glade, composer John Corigliano worked on the score of the opera commissioned to celebrate the Metropolitan Opera's centennial next year.

In a nearby studio, poet Audre Lorde was working on her latest book.

Each was enjoying the seclusion offered master artists in residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts here, just up the Florida coast from the launching pads of Cape Canaveral.

The center offers a dozen three-week fellowships each year to distinguished artists from a variety of disciplines. On weekday mornings, the artists conduct workshops for small groups of aspiring writers, painters, and musicians. The rest of their time is for works-in-progress, which they can address in privacy, free from daily distractions.

Now in its second year, the Atlantic Center has attracted such notables as poet James Dickey, playwright Edward Albee, painter Lowell Nesbitt, and dance photographer Jack Mitchell.

''It was a different atmosphere from my home in New York,'' said Corigliano, the youthful composer whose film score for ''Altered States'' was nominated for an Academy Award. ''It was good to get away from the competitiveness of the big city. The people in New Smyrna were kind and the workshops were stimulating. I was able to work well.''

Each artist receives an honorarium, travel allowance, car rental, and a private studio home while in residence. Each teaches from five to 10 students of demonstrated talent chosen from applicants nationwide. Students pay only $125 tuition; the center subsidizes the rest.

The Atlantic Center is riding the crest of a cultural wave to reward American artists, encourage talented students, and enrich communities in remote places, far from the galleries and theaters of big cities.

New Smyrna Beach, for example, is discovering there is as much fame and income from the convergence of sculptors, novelists, and musicians as from sunbathers, surfers, and golfers.

The multimillion-dollar Atlantic Center grew from a homespun sidewalk arts fair in the mid-'70s in this town with no museums but with many residents and seasonal visitors interested in the arts.

The town was so happy with the throngs of people looking at paintings leaning against downtown stores and listening to music in the park that it appointed a city advisory group to develop something more tangible.

Committee member Doris Leeper, a painter-sculptor in the National Seashore Park, interested the Rockefeller Foundation in the project and fund raising began for a campus on a secluded inland lake north of New Smyrna Beach.

The first five buildings of modern design were completed in April of 1982. Included were classrooms, studios, and an administration building. The second phase, now under way, includes additional studios, a performing-arts complex, laboratory theater, and dance facilities.

Dr. Richard Cormier, former conductor and music director of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra, heads the center. Among those serving on an advisory council to select master artists are Prof. Samuel Adler of Eastman School of Music; director Paul Smith of the American Craft Museum in New York; jazz flutist Hubert Laws; the editor in chief of Dance magazine, William Como; and Albee.

The nonprofit center currently operates on a $340,000 annual budget with funds from the Rockefeller Foundation, the City of New Smyrna Beach, the Florida Arts Council, smaller foundations, and individual donors nationwide.

Other community arts groups often take part in center activities. Members of the Florida Symphony Orchestra played the compositions of the Corigliano fellows at a center recital.

The Florida School of the Arts at St. John's River Community College in Palatka staged a benefit performance of ''Scenes From a Non-Marriage,'' written by the Albee fellows, with a prologue and epilogue by the playwright himself.

Several Atlantic Center students have since distinguished themselves. Louise Shivers, a Reynolds Price fellow, has had her novel, ''Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail,'' published by Random House. Several have won poetry and writing contests.

''The master artists who come here are national treasures,'' says Holly Bivens, an assistant director, who has been with the project since its inception. ''We do short films on each of them for our next big project, an arts-media research center. It's exhilarating to have them among us and to see how their students respond and progress from this exposure.''

As for the artists, many stretch their experiences and considerably enlivened the environment. Audre Lorde, for one, gave an impressive poetry reading at the Daytona Public Library and took a tour of the nearby Kennedy Space Center for her first look at space technology. One evening, she and a group of her students hired a private plane at a New Smyrna airfield to ''chase the full moon.''

The pilot, she reported, got into the spirit of the chase, and it resulted in a spate of fresh poems.

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