‘Success is here’: First Coast Cultural Center moves into new home


During the yearslong quest to find a suitable, permanent home for the First Coast Cultural Center, President and CEO Donna Guzzo shared her perpetual optimism with everyone she encountered, expressed in her signature motto: “Success is imminent.”

On Thursday, Dec. 14, having cut the ribbon on the fulfillment of that quest, the recently acquired facility at 6000B Sawgrass Village Circle, she voiced a new rallying cry: “Success is here.”

Despite the evening’s rain and chill, a large contingent of art lovers turned out for the much-anticipated ribbon-cutting ceremony and an opportunity to explore the building, which until Nov. 23 had housed the Ponte Vedra Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery Center.

The sale closed on Aug. 23, with a purchase price of $2.2 million. Those funds comprise the lion’s share of the $3.7 million capital campaign launched in 2018 just as Guzzo was taking over the reins of the organization. However, the desire to move into such a facility goes back nearly to the origins of the center.

“A dream has been fulfilled,” said longtime member and acclaimed artist Ellen Diamond as she explored the new, second-floor gallery space. “For me, it’s been a 25-year dream.”

The center was established in 1996. It’s original home, a former U.S. Post Office, was located at 50 Executive Way. As one of the early members said Thursday, it was apparent from the start that the building was not going to be large enough to accommodate all that the center wanted to do.

Nevertheless, The Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach, as it was called, provided numerous art programs, primarily classes and workshops for adults and children, as well as camps for the latter.

Even as the search continued for a larger building, something occurred that perhaps accelerated the process: the COVID-19 pandemic. The center had to close for four months.

According to Guzzo, the outbreak jeopardized all of the center’s classes and most of its revenue. Diamond began to offer her painting class online, which helped.

“The online classes really saved us,” Guzzo told those assembled Thursday.

Ironically, the online presence even brought Diamond students from beyond the boundaries of the First Coast.

At the same time, in 2020, the center sold its Executive Way building, which was in fact purchased and renovated by Dr. Tim Conway, president of The Morris Center and former Cultural Center board member.

“Selling that building helped us get through the pandemic,” Guzzo said.

The center took up residence at 3972 3rd St. South, Jacksonville Beach, where it operated until this week. This may have actually added to the organization’s regional exposure, as reflected in its new name, adopted in July 2021: First Coast Cultural Center.

Through it all, the center hasn’t missed a step. It has continued to offer its Sound Connections music therapy program for children with disabilities, its Kick StART afterschool visual arts enrichment program, its annual Beaches — A Celebration of the Arts, exhibitions, youth programs, classes and more.

Settling into its new two-story, 6,000-square-foot home is just the beginning. According to Guzzo, the center’s most immediate need is $500,000 to renovate the space, which includes removing several interior walls and adding stairs.

As it regards programming, the center will expand its offerings beyond visual arts to include music, pottery, culinary arts and other forms of creative expression.

As a way of generating funds, the center is offering naming rights for each of its spaces, two of which have already been claimed. The main gallery is being named for artist Zena Groover for a sum of $300,000. Former board chair Joseph Bryant purchased naming rights for the foyer for $50,000.

In speaking with the visitors Thursday, Guzzo demonstrated her characteristic optimism.

“I am so happy to say that the Cultural Center never has been in better shape,” she said, “and its future never has been brighter.”

For further information, go to firstcoastculturalcenter.org.