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As warehouses around the city are demolished, the fate of McRae Art Studios hangs in the balance



For almost 18 years, McRae Art Studios has operated out of an unassuming railside compound like Winter Park's cultural equivalent of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory: closed to the public eye, except for semi-annual open houses, when the visual wonders within are revealed. It will be business as usual when McRae hosts its Spring for Art fine art sale Saturday, April 2, but this could be the last such event this location sees.

The 10,620-square-foot warehouse that has served as the artist collective's home since 1998 is up for sale, with the current owner listing the property for $1.295 million (a healthy premium over the Orange County appraiser's 2015 valuation of $372,662).

No sale has yet been contracted, and the artists won't be given notice to vacate until after a deal closes, but whatever the building's fate is, McRae will live on, according to Stephen Bach. A past president of the group and member since 1998, Bach has been closely involved in the building negotiations since they learned about the sale earlier this year.

Donne Bitner’s studio at McRae
  • Donne Bitner’s studio at McRae

"We're not sure of the future ... right now we're still in flux, seeing what our options are," Bach says. "We have people that have talked about purchasing this building and keeping us in place here, but we don't really know if anything is coming of that." Even if it is purchased by a third party, Bach is hopeful McRae might remain, "if it's someone who wants to invest in the building and keep a stable tenant."

In the meantime, Bach says, "We've been looking to see if we can find something that is comparable to this space or better. We'd like a space that has a little more flexibility for us to be able to teach or do workshops or outreach for the community."

There's one other item on his wish list: "Air conditioning. Part of the problem with the space we're in is it's hot in the summer months, and it's hard for some of us to work."

Whether McRae stays or goes, it will be – like many other artists – at the mercy of Orlando's rapidly recovering real estate market, which is making warehouse spaces sparse and raising the rents of those that remain.

“Cowboys,” by Donne Bitner
  • “Cowboys,” by Donne Bitner

"Property has gotten more expensive, leases are going up, and it puts the squeeze on us," Bach says. Similar spaces in the city's heart are being swallowed up by projects like the Yard at Ivanhoe Village, leaving McRae looking further afield for an affordable home.

"We battle for the concept of staying close to the center of the community, which is what we need to bring people to our open houses and do outreach," Bach says. "If we have to move too far, we're going to hurt our ability to stay in touch with the community."

If April 2 is the last hurrah for McRae's long-time home, it should be a memorable one, according to McRae artist and publicist Robert Ross. While he says the single-day spring show "is not as big as the holiday one," artist Donne Bitner (who designed the event's postcard) has "a huge reputation nationally," and South Africa's Ursula Schwartz is exhibiting "big, abstract paintings like you'd see in New York."

And as always, the Whipple family will be well-represented. Marty Whipple, who co-founded the group in 1987 with her late husband George, says she has been "cranking out" new mixed-media sculptures after nearly a year's hiatus. And other members of the creative clan will also be on hand, including her son Jim Whipple, who will display his steampunk-style jewelry.

No matter what the future holds, Bach insists, "We are still functioning as a group and individual artists here; we aren't closing McRae."

After all, he says, they had to move three times prior to finding their current home, so they know it can be done. "Even if we do have to find another place to be, we'll still be together as McRae Art Studios."

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