Arts Alfresco

Arts AlfrescoThe Cultural Arts Association Celebrates an Emerald Coast Mother’s Day Tradition with the 20th Annual ArtsQuest

By Christy Kearney

Drive through South Walton County during the first week of May, and you are sure to see white-and-green flags waving in the warm spring air. These high-flying banners herald the coming of ArtsQuest, the Cultural Arts Association’s week-long celebration of all things art.

A kickoff concert, shopping tour, fashion show, student exhibit and preview gala all lead up to the ArtsQuest Fine Arts Festival – the pièce de résistance of a week of ArtsQuest festivities leading up to the Mother’s Day weekend show.

This year, the ArtsQuest juried show commemorates its 20th anniversary in the Beaches of South Walton, taking place May 10 through 11 in The Village of Baytowne Wharf at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. The festival, which started as a community event in Grayton Beach, has grown tremendously over the past two decades, moving from its Grayton home to Eden State Gardens and now to the Village, where it boasts crowds of approximately 10,000.

“It is the only event of its kind in this area, and it’s such a great opportunity especially for those who live here to see artists they wouldn’t be exposed to without going to Atlanta, New Orleans or Chicago,” says Jennifer Steele Saunders, ArtsQuest producer. “It’s a great opportunity for the art to come to us.”

Along with wonderful exposure to art of all forms, ArtsQuest gives festival-goers the opportunity to meet new friends, greet old friends and take in the sights and sounds of the charming Village atmosphere – all under the bright Florida sunshine.

A Captivating Canvas
A work of art in its own right, The Village of Baytowne Wharf is in its best light when framed with the creative spirit of diverse artists. The bayside community begins to buzz as more than 100 artists from around the country converge on the open-air events plaza and along the community’s shell-paved streets.

“Baytowne Wharf is the perfect backdrop for the annual ArtsQuest Fine Arts Festival,” says Kim Duke-Layden, director of commercial property at Sandestin. “It is naturally picturesque, with pedestrian-friendly streets, ample green space and unique facilities, allowing guests to meander from one side of the Village to the other. There are also plenty of opportunities to stop off at sidewalk cafés for a quick bite or a leisurely lunch, not to mention a refreshing beverage.”

The magic happens when the little white tents pop up along the Village streets, and the colors of art and life run together as festival-goers explore the art, interact with the artists, listen to local bands and visit the shops and eateries.

“You just have to go to ArtsQuest to know how special it is,” Saunders says. “To hear the music, see the art and eat the food – all of it is just such a wonderful experience.”

Tom Rice, owner of the Marlin Grill and an ArtsQuest board member, says it is the small-town, open-air feel of The Village of Baytowne Wharf that makes it the perfect complement to ArtsQuest.

“We are a community, and when you put an event in (the Village) and it works, the whole package just comes together,” he says.

Best of Show
While there is a wealth of activity, indoors and out, throughout the venue, the art certainly takes center stage.

“We are really trying to embrace and champion the arts,” says ArtsQuest chairwoman Nan Ream. “We have to make sure we are including all artists. We want a diversified group of artists, whether it is jewelry or sculpture or wood or paintings.”

A qualified panel of jurors selects the featured artists for the show. Artists working in a variety of formats and from as far away as Chicago and Canton, Ohio, enter the event for a chance to showcase their work and compete for Best of Show.

“Of the shows in the area, ArtsQuest is the premier one,” says Connie Nabholz, an award-winning jewelry artist from Pensacola and a participant in the event. “The location is so nice, and the people who put on the show treat the artists so well.”

Local Cultural Arts Association members also get a chance to share their creative vision in the collaborative tent. Unlike the rest of the festival, the work in this tent is not juried and is open to any member of the association.

Most Cultural Arts Association members would affirm that arts education is at the heart of everything the organization does. In that spirit, the board selects four students from Okaloosa Walton College to exhibit and also hosts a children’s art area with age-appropriate projects.

Of the importance of the children’s tent, Ream says, “How else are you going to become a budding artist if you don’t start at places like this?”

Show and Sale
For local merchants and exhibiting artists, ArtsQuest means business. Cultural and economic benefits collide as the restaurants, shops and the artists welcome festival attendees to peruse their art, merchandise and menus in a relaxed, enjoyable environment.

“When events like ArtsQuest are done well, planned well and promoted well, it does a tremendous amount of good for Baytowne Wharf and the businesses in it,” Rice says.

The artists appreciate the laid-back, festive business environment, too. Denise Choppin, a mixed media/collage artist from Tallahassee, enjoys the opportunity to expose her work to wide variety of people.

“It is a benefit to a lot of people who would never set foot into a gallery,” she says. “A gallery can be an intimidating environment where the whole purpose is to sell. While it’s nice to sell, you realize ArtsQuest is both a show and a sale. It lets people stroll in a relaxed atmosphere, and they don’t feel pressured.”

Panama City artist Dominique Williams agrees, describing ArtsQuest as a great way to gauge how people respond to her art. Her work is in galleries, but she doesn’t always know who’s buying.

“ArtsQuest allows me to get a firsthand reaction,” Williams says. And a positive reaction she has gotten, reporting that ArtsQuest, which Williams has participated in since its days in Grayton Beach, typically is a successful show for her.

Set against the lively Village of Baytowne Wharf and staged by individuals who sincerely have a heart for the arts, ArtsQuest in its 20th year promises to be as successful and inspiring as ever.


ArtsQuest Date Book

Sunday, May 4
20th Anniversary Celebration Kickoff Concert

Tuesday, May 6
Fine Art of Looking Good Fashion Show

Wednesday, May 7
Student Exhibit

Thursday, May 8
Champagne Shopping Tour

Friday, May 9
Preview Gala

Saturday, May 10
ArtsQuest Fine Arts Festival

Sunday, May 11
ArtsQuest Fine Arts Festival

Visit for a detailed schedule.