Back to School with Mattie Kelly

Education by DesignThrough the “All Kinds of Art” program, the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation brings the educational experience of art back to school

By Tony Bridges

{mosimage}The Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation has a mission: to spread a passion for all kinds of art – visual, performing and literary – to the people of Destin.

The foundation reaches its goal by putting on public shows and concerts, giving scholarships and staging art festivals every year. But the best way, the most fundamental way, to build a love for arts in a community is to start with the kids.

Thus, “All Kinds of Art,” or AKA, the foundation’s school art program, has been teaching elementary and middle-school students in Walton and Okaloosa counties about arts other than the television kind for the last six years.
This school year, those kids will get to see plays, hear musical storytellers and learn how to explore their own artistic talents through the AKA program. And most of the experiences will come at little or no cost to the students’ parents, thanks to donations from the community and the efforts of the foundation’s staff.

“Every student that comes through one of the Destin schools has been touched by the Mattie Kelly foundation,” said Craig Barker, the mayor of Destin and a former foundation board member.

Art History

The Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation exists because of its namesake, who was long considered the first lady of Destin.

Mattie Kelly and her husband, Coleman, arrived in Destin in the 1930s with plans for a 900-acre turpentine farm. It was a tough business, and not a successful one for the Kellys.

However, the failure of the farm left them with something that eventually would become much more valuable as Northwest Florida became a destination for tourists: land. Lots of it, well placed on the Gulf of Mexico.

The Kelly family was one of the first to build tourists cottages in Destin and soon entered the sport-fishing industry as well. They also became philanthropists, donating land – including grounds for an elementary school and an airport – and money to benefit the residents of their adopted hometown.

Mattie Kelly also was a patron of Destin’s fledgling arts community. She played the piano, attended poetry readings, and encouraged others in Destin to do the same.

“She had a real passion for the arts,” said Marcia Hull, executive director of the foundation.

“She immersed herself in them.”

Kelly wanted the arts to continue to grow in Destin, even after her death. When she passed away in 1992, Kelly left 52 acres of land for a twofold purpose: to build an arts facility, and to further local arts education.

The early years were a struggle, with nothing much being done to accomplish what she’d sought, but after some legal wrangling, the foundation was established to make sure it happened.

So far, there have been several significant accomplishments. The foundation sponsors several popular arts events every year in Destin. The two biggest are the summertime Concerts in the Park series and the fall Destin Festival of the Arts, both huge draws.

Private and corporate sponsors and state grants pay for most of it. Last year, the foundation took in nearly $350,000.

Barker said he still attends the foundation’s events, particularly the concerts, which are his favorites. All of the events are free and no reservations are needed – just a blanket, a picnic basket and great music. It’s the perfect setting for family get-togethers.

“It is really unique and reminds me very much of the outdoor amphitheater in Atlanta,” he said.

Culture in the Classroom

But that’s mostly the stuff for adults. Where the foundation really reaches children with its arts message is in the schools.

The “All Kinds of Art” program – which took effect in 2000 after a state grant helped the foundation hired its first education director – offers art classes and performances to local schools.

“Arts is the first thing they cut in the school system,” Hull said. “We try to supplement that shortfall.”

One of the ways the foundation does that is by helping schools hire permanent teachers to provide classes at least one day a week at both Destin and Elliot Point elementary schools. The idea is to pass every kid in the school through the series of classes.

In addition, the foundation brings in live performers every year – at  a cost of about $50,000 – for schools in Walton and Okaloosa counties. So far, touring theater companies, award-winning authors and musicians have visited more than 20 schools, according to Hull.

Thousands of students have seen the performances at schools that include Butler, Destin, Edwins and Elliot Point elementary schools, as well as Destin and Pryor middle schools. The performers cover a wide range of styles and subjects in a series of appearances that the foundation calls the “Season of the Arts.”

Alexis Tibbetts, now the principal of Fort Walton Beach High School and a candidate for school district superintendent, was at Destin Middle School when AKA arrived there.

“We had everything from cello players and orchestras to storytellers and performances in dance,” she said. “That allowed every child to be exposed to the arts.”

The live performances were a hit with students, too.

“They loved it,” Tibbetts said. “They were riveted.”

This year, there will be at least a half-dozen shows. They will include American Indian hoop dancers; a staging of “Robin Hood” by the 6-year-old Seaside Repertory Theatre, sponsor of the annual Gulf Coast Comedy Festival; a visit from Clearwater’s Eckerd Theater Company, which tours the state putting on shows for young people and families; and Ken Waldman, Alaska’s “Fiddling Poet,” who travels the country giving poetry readings and live musical performances.

AKA also extends into after-school and summer programs. Kids who enroll can learn everything from drawing to art history to chorus and dance. Over the summer, kids from the community even got a chance to work with the professional actors of the Seaside theater company to create and put on a skit show.

While there’s no charge for the in-school programs, the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation does charge a small fee for the extracurricular and camp classes to help cover those costs.

The importance of these programs, according to Tibbetts, is that studies have shown that students who participate in arts programs tend to excel academically. Taking part in the arts also helps students get into college, particularly if they show a depth of involvement the same area over all four years of high school, she said.

Through AKA, the foundation plays a pivotal role in helping steep Destin kids in the arts, Tibbetts said.

Creating a Successful Future

Last year, the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation received recognition from the Florida Department of Education for its work in the schools. Hull said it’s all made possible by local donations and partnerships with the Florida Arts Council and the National Endowment of the Arts. The foundation also lines up corporate sponsors – dubbed “Partners in the Arts” – for the program.

Next up for the foundation is the fulfillment of the other half of Mattie Kelly’s wishes – the building of a fine-arts center in Destin.

The 52-acre parcel that she left lies on the northeast side of Destin, along Choctawhatchee Bay. The foundation has plans to build a cultural arts village there, with an amphitheater and an open-air event space planned in the first phase.

Once completed, the annual concert series and arts festival will be held there. Its foremost purpose would be for local residents, but Hull said she thinks it also has the potential to become a draw for cultural tourism. And Mayor Barker agrees.

“I’m very much looking forward to seeing them complete the construction of their campus,” he said. “That particular venue will attract worldwide interest from artists and other cultural entities.”

Hull recently said that she was still waiting for final figures on what the project would cost. She said that once those numbers are in, consulting company NCDS Inc. will launch a feasibility study to determine whether the foundation actually can raise the needed funds from the community.

That shouldn’t be a problem, as Hull sees it. “I am very optimistic of this community,” she said.