Founder Anne McKee
Kevin Peterson
Susann D'Antonio
Bounce Margil

KEY WEST, Florida Keys - When she first envisioned a fund to provide project-based financial assistance to individual Lower Keys artists, Anne McKee never imagined how successful it would become.

"I never dreamed it would wind up getting so much money, "said McKee, a passionate believer in community involvement who has lived in Key West since 1971.

In fact, since 1994, the Anne McKee Artists Fund has awarded more than $224,000 to artists and writers in the Lower Keys - mostly in the form of $1,000 grants to support a specific project outlined by each applicant. Between 10 and 20 artists annually are chosen to receive the grants.

McKee is such a vital part of the Key West arts community that some people are surprised to find she's not a Conch or a professional artist herself. Instead, she was born in Avondale, Newfoundland, Canada, and worked as an accountant in Montreal for more than a decade. 

"I was one of nine children," McKee said. "My father was an architect, but most of my ancestors were sea captains and builders."

As well as the traditions of the sea, a tradition of community involvement ran deep in her family. When she relocated to Key West in 1971 "looking for a warm place," she quickly began volunteering her time, enthusiasm and experience to island organizations. She also met transplanted New Yorker Ross McKee, who became her husband in 1976.

By that time, she was president of the Friends of the Monroe County Library and involved in many other organizations. In 1982 McKee began a two-year stint as chairperson of the Monroe County Fine Arts Council, and from 1987 to 1989 she was director of the Florida State Cultural Action and Education Alliances. In 1993, she was named Key West's Woman of the Year in the Arts.

In the early 1990s, aware of a pressing need, McKee began her efforts to assist individual Keys artists. "Organizations have various ways to obtain support," she said. "I emphasize individual artists because individual artists must not be forgotten."

"I think artists in this community give a much higher percentage of their income to charity than probably anybody else in town," said the fund's 2002-2009 board president Melissa Tausche, citing the creative spirits who donate their work to numerous fundraisers and benefits but ask nothing in return.

Each year, money is raised for the McKee fund through a January gala and live auction featuring the work of approximately 100 artists. Both Tausche and McKee stressed that artists are never asked to donate their pieces to be auctioned - instead, each one receives 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of his or her work, while the fund receives the remainder.

The annual grant cycle begins March 1 when applications become available. They must be submitted by March 31, and recipients are notified by May 31.

Tausche and the other board members - Libby Curtis, Joan Miller Carey, Al Sachs, Carol Tedesco, Rita Linder, Joanne Rivas, Carol Shaughnessy, Dale Alexander, Alison Heymann, David Koontz and Jon McIntosh - evaluate each application.

As well as the $1,000 grants, three honorariums may be presented each year - one in memory of the late Key West artist Jack Baron, one memorializing the late Key West mayor and Gingerbread Square Gallery co-founder Richard Heyman, and the third, initiated in 2009, in honor of the Fund's late beloved board member Miriam B. Good. Two other awards are earmarked for children and young adults with demonstrated talent in the arts. 

In past years, grant recipients have included textile artist Lynne Vantriglia, founder of Monroe County's highly acclaimed Art Behind Bars program; photographer Kimberly Narenkivicius, creator and publisher of "The Secret of Salt"; pianist and composer Bill Lorraine; poet Danne Hughes; abstract painter and mixed-media artist Janet M. Mueller; writer Valerie Ridenour; and gifted young performers Zoe Hawkins-Wells, Amber McDonald and Sonya Manning.

"When I started, I thought it would help people buy frames and materials," said McKee of the fund that offers such tangible and intangible benefits to the local creative community. "I never dreamed it would help people do so many big things."