Myra Janco Daniels, Naples arts visionary and advertising pioneer, dies at 96

Writer: Derrick Shaw
Published: Updated:
Myra Janco Daniels. (Credit: Press handout)

Myra Janco Daniels, 96, the arts visionary and advertising pioneer who helped transform Southwest Florida into a nationally recognized cultural destination, died early Wednesday morning at home, three days before her 97th birthday.

Daniels was the founder and longtime CEO of the Philharmonic Center for the Arts (now Artis-Naples), which since 1989 has brought world-class music, theater, dance, opera, and art to Naples. In 2000, she founded the Naples Museum of Art (now the Baker Museum) on that same campus.

The following is according to a news release: After a storied career as an advertising executive in Chicago, Daniels came out of retirement in the early 1980s to spearhead a fund-raising drive for a small classical music ensemble on Marco Island, which would later become the Naples Philharmonic orchestra. She discovered “a great hunger for the arts,” she later wrote, and soon expanded her fundraising goal to building a permanent home for the orchestra and an arts center for Southwest Florida.

Daniels’ vision for the Philharmonic Center was ambitious and unusual – combining world-class performing and visual arts in a single venue. The community strongly supported the concept, and the Phil, as it became known, gave Naples a national arts profile. Then-First Lady Barbara Bush was in attendance on opening night in November 1989. The Wall Street Journal covered the opening.

“Myra Daniels is a dreamer. But unlike most dreamers, Myra is a doer,” the late Muriel Seibert, the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, once said of Daniels.

Myra Janco Daniels. (Credit: Press handout)

While the arts were a lifelong passion for Daniels, her first career was as a groundbreaking advertising executive in Chicago, where she won national Advertising Woman of the Year honors and was among the first women to head a national ad firm. Daniels said that she used some of the same principles learned in her advertising career to sell Southwest Florida on the arts. “You have to believe in what you’re doing and then you have to get people involved to the point that they feel it’s theirs. That’s what we did.”

Born Myra Janco in Gary, Indiana, Daniels was raised during the Great Depression by parents who encouraged her interest in the arts. But her greatest influence growing up was her grandmother Sophie, who, like Daniels, stood only five feet tall but dreamed big. “Sophie showed me what was possible,” Daniels wrote. “Create something that people want and need and you’ll be successful, she said. I always remembered that.” Her grandmother, who ran her own real estate business, experienced some failures “but she always dusted herself off and went back out there swinging. She wanted me to be that way too.”

Daniels earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Indiana State and later became an associate professor of marketing at Indiana University, the first woman to hold that position.

In her mid-20s, she started Wabash Advertising in Terre Haute, Indiana, which later became affiliated with larger agencies in Chicago and Cleveland. In 1963, she was named executive vice president of Roche, Rickard, Henri, Hurst, Inc. in Chicago. The National Advertising Federation honored Daniels as its Advertising Woman of the Year in 1965, the youngest woman to receive the award. That same year, she became president of a new national agency that she formed with ad man Draper Daniels.

The merger was not just a professional one. Draper Daniels, who was responsible for many famous ad campaigns at the time, including the Marlboro Man and was later an inspiration for the Don Draper character on TV’s Mad Men, became her husband in 1967. Myra wrote about their unusual courtship and life together for Chicago magazine, in an article entitled “I Married a Mad Man,” which was included in her book Secrets of a Rutbuster.

They ran the Draper Daniels, Incorporated agency, as it was called, until 1977. When Draper wanted to retire to Southwest Florida, Myra Daniels reluctantly left Chicago and advertising, and they settled on Marco Island. But after Draper died of cancer in 1983, Myra turned her energies to the fundraising campaign that led to the Philharmonic Center Cultural Complex.

Daniels served as CEO of the Philharmonic Center from its inception in the 1980s to her retirement in 2011, building the Phil into a $100 million corporation. During that time, the Naples Philharmonic became a nationally recognized orchestra, with a Grammy nomination, CD and appearances on PBS; and the Naples Museum of Art developed an international reputation. The center also helped change people’s perception of Naples, which had been known mostly for its beaches and golfing. In 2005, Naples was named the Best Small Art Town in America in a book that singled out the Phil.

More than just an arts venue, the Philharmonic Center also wove the arts into the culture of the community, providing public school programs, adult and children’s education classes and workshops, and free concerts throughout Southwest Florida.

Edward Villella, legendary dancer with the New York City Ballet and founder of Miami City Ballet, called Daniels “… a trailblazer. Her energy, enthusiasm and vast experience have made Naples, Florida, a cultural destination.”

Daniels, who was known to work from early morning until late evening, was in her mid-80s when she stepped down as CEO in 2011. Shortly after her retirement, the street west of Artis-Naples was renamed Myra Janco Daniels Boulevard.

But Daniels never stopped working or being a visionary. She was the driving force behind the creation of the Salvation Army Fran Cohen Youth Center on Airport Road and founded the Latchkey League fund-raising group. She consulted on arts projects at Ave Maria University and FGCU, where the building housing the WGCU TV and radio studios is known as the Myra Janco Daniels Public Media Center. She supported and promoted various other arts ventures in the region.

Daniels often described herself as a “cheerleader.” But she said in her book that she was motivated by a simple question: “What can I do to make my world a better place?” As she told Newsweek magazine in an article published shortly after the Phil’s opening, “Every private citizen has a public responsibility.”

Friend of Myra, Ursula Pfhal said, “In everything she did, She looked for excellence. There were two expressions that probably never occurred to Myra or ever crossed her lips.”

Pfhal said those two expressions were “Good enough,” or “This will do”. That kick-started their friendship years after she moved to Marco Island in 1979.

Pfhal said, “All of us need heroes. she wasy my hero.

Kathleen Van Bergen carries her legacy as the President and CEO of Artis-Naples. Leading SWFL in arts whether it be visual or performing. Leading women as an inspiration that anything is possible.

Bergen said, “Myra was a legend, an icon, a force of nature. And today is both a day of tremendous respect, but also sadness.”

A memorial celebration of Myra Janco Daniels’ life will be held on a later date to be announced.

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