The Growing Business of the Emerald Coast Art Scene

The Arts Mean Business

Photo Courtesy of Immaculate Baking Company

In August, Immaculate Baking Company commissioned local artist Andy Saczynski to hand paint a 40-foot long billboard in downtown Minneapolis.

Some say art is the food of the soul. But if you are in Target in Destin, you can say that some food is art, or at least packaged that way. If you are hungry for cookies you can grab up a bag of Immaculate Chocolate Chip Cookie mix and All Purpose Flour and feast your eyes on the striking folk art of Santa Rosa Beach artist Andy Saczynski prominently displayed on the package. 

Perhaps this opportunity tastes even sweeter because Saczynski didn’t even realize his panther and butterfly paintings were purchased by marketing executives at the 2013 Slotkin Folk Festival in Atlanta. He just knew they loved his art and didn’t haggle over the asking price. Fast forward just nine months, and the Niceville native is a household name. Well, at least in household cupboards.

Courtesy of Immaculate Baking Company


The Immaculate Baking Company brand features the work of folk artists, like Andy Saczynski, on its packaging. They say: “We not only love the images, but deeply respect the integrity of the self-taught artists who create them. Why? Because like our approach to baking, folk art is the very definition of handmade: simple, pure, and from the heart.”

Saczynski, 37, is new to merchandising his art and has only been a professional artist full time since March 2013. But like his vivid, dimensional artwork, he quickly turned heads by being Voted Best Artist on the Emerald Coast (2012 and 2013) and named Best Artist of the Year (2013) by the South Walton Tourist Development Council.

The point being, that art for art’s sake is nourishing for the spirit, but … one look at Panama City artist Paul Brent’s vast merchandise collections empire and you quickly surmise that art is also nourishing bottom lines … by the billions, no less. 

So why aren’t art organizations’ bankrolls as flush as those of established artist entrepreneurs like Brent? If art organizations generate $8 for every dollar that local, state and federal governments invest in them, why do so many seem to still be flailing? And if they have such great right-brained board members, why are they in constant fundraising mode?

Well, as most things in any business, it comes down to resources — financial and human. And simply put, most art organizations don’t have enough of either. It didn’t help that in 2013–14 Florida experienced a 73 percent reduction for its matching arts and cultural grants program administered by the Florida Department of State’s Division of Cultural Affairs.

There is funding, but many local artists and art organizations do not seem to be aware of where or how to access it. Lori Saczynski, who is married to Andy and handles the business side of Andy Saczynski Gallery, said despite being “tech savvy” and online quite often, she is not aware of any agencies or funding sources. “We wouldn’t know where to begin to find them,” she says. 

This is surely frustrating for journalist Brenda Shoffner, a longtime arts advocate and features editor for the Northwest Florida Daily News, who has a unique perspective from her perch as an appointed member of the Florida Council on the Arts — a seat she’s held for nearly two years. 

Despite penning numerous columns about state-level resources over the years, the low participation level from the Northwest Florida area remains a disappointment to her, because she knows how vibrant the art scene is. “I never cease to be amazed at the talent here in fine, performing and visual arts,” she says.  

Lori Saczynski


After years of working nights and weekends, Andy Saczynski now has his own studio gallery in Grayton Beach, where he creates colorful and playful folk art out of repurposed materials. 

After 20 years of covering the arts scene, Shoffner also knows that local artists are not “singing for their supper.” In fact they are buying groceries and more. “Artists are making their home here, they are setting up businesses and raising families here,” she says. (And all across the country, too, to the tune of a $135.2 billion industry.)

But the arts were not always alive and thriving on the Emerald Coast. Shoffner grew up in the area in the 1970s, and she remembers having to drive to Pensacola or Panama City to see a Broadway tour production. Today, being tasked with publishing the Showcase calendar each Thursday, she is keenly aware of just how many art events take place year-round. 

Through the arts were not always thriving on the Emerald Coast, being tasked with publishing the Showcase calendar each Thursday, Shoffner is keenly aware of just how many art events take place year-round. “It’s always astonishing to me when people complain about the arts in our area,” she says. If anything the vast growth has led to a glut of art events from time to time, leaving Shoffner wishing there was more cooperation among art organizations to better organize and schedule all the offerings. 

Still, despite some losses (Emerald Coast Concert Association shut its doors after 53 years, and local visual artist Don Sawyer is closing his Destin studio gallery and moving out of state), Shoffner remains optimistic about the future and points to new organizations popping up. “The performing arts in particular are just blossoming,” she says.



Nathanael Fisher is one. He, and his wife, Anna, founded Emerald Coast Theatre Company in 2012. Being new to the business end of the arts, Fisher has been proactive in seeking information. In June his application was selected along with just 23 others by the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs to participate in a hands-on workshop presented by the leaders of the Creative Capital Foundation. Fisher said his goal was to “absorb valuable skills and training” in order to develop his “artistry as a theater director and playwright.” 

The 43-year-old also reached out to senior art organization leaders for guidance. Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation (MKAF) CEO Marcia Hull answered the call. 

MKAF is nearing its 20th anniversary, and after serving as CEO for 15 of those years Hull, 60, is a savvy executive and considered a sage in art industry circles. After numerous trips to the capital to defend grants, lobby political leaders and glad-hand any and all potential donors — including Mike Huckabee at a Rotary breakfast — Hull has become a passionate “voice” for the local arts community to anyone willing to listen.

Kansas Pitts
For nearly 20 summers, the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation has staged an outdoor summer concert series in Destin.

“It’s the industry I represent. I want to be an advocate and champion for the Emerald Coast,” she says. “And, who knows, maybe even on a state level one day.”

Hull’s modus opperandi is leading by example. And hers is one to follow. MKAF has more than 300 members, a diverse board full of engaged professionals and solid financials. Still, with just a two-person staff, Hull works tirelessly to continually solicit funds, recruit board members and, if necessary, “clean the restrooms.” 

What is Hull’s secret to success? Strategic planning. “We have an annual planning meeting, and out of that is a document that is essentially our business plan,” she says. “It’s our bible.”

And when operated successfully, the arts translate into a desirable place to live and work. And that lures even more businesses. So much so that in January 2009, the Florida Chamber identified quality of life as a key component to Florida’s
economic recovery. The Chamber specifically cited arts and culture as a way to attract business and improve quality of life for Floridians.

David O’Connor / RISD

The new chair of the National Endowment for the Arts is seasoned arts executive
Dr. Jane Chu of Kansas City; For nearly 20 summers, the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation has staged an outdoor summer concert series in Destin.

Dr. Jane Chu Named NEA Chair

On June 12 the U.S. Senate confirmed Dr. Jane Chu as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Chu was the president and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri.

Before joining the Kauffman Center in 2006, Chu served as fund executive at the Kauffman Fund for Kansas City, vice president of external relations for the Union Station Kansas City and vice president of community investment for the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. She holds degrees in visual arts, piano performance and piano pedagogy, an MBA and a Ph.D. in philanthropic studies. Nonprofit Connect in Kansas City recently named her Nonprofit Professional of the Year.

Since 1965, the NEA has awarded over $5 billion in grants across all 50 states via local, state and federal partnerships. Each grant dollar on average is matched by $9 of additional investments. The NEA is the largest annual national supporter of the nonprofit arts in the United States. All together, the nonprofit arts industry and its audience is a $135 billion industry employing 4.1 million Americans.

Hull recalls the arts push a few years ago. Perhaps the focus at the state level is what motivated local participation in a five-city tour of the Florida League of Cities called “Culture Builds Florida Communities” that included a stop in Fort Walton Beach for a session held at the Northwest Florida Ballet in March 2011. Just six months later in September, the Okaloosa Economic Development Council was inspired to put the arts on the agenda for a high profile roundtable symposium called a “Salute to Arts & Tourism” for the first time; Hull was seated on the panel. 

Those high-profile events are not the first time leaders convened to discuss the arts. Shoffner recalls a daylong symposium on the arts held in Navarre in 1996. But, little came of that either. 

Over the past 15 years, despite her efforts to attend workshops, forums and panels in order to speak up and out about the arts, little has resulted from it. “Nothing happens,” she says. “It would be great if we could work better together.”

For this arts advocate the stakes for the arts couldn’t be higher. “Quality of life is a strategy. It’s not a luxury,” Hull says emphatically. 

But no matter what the political climate, or how many grants she’s denied, Hull’s personal mission remains clear. “We just have to promote the arts. It’s our responsibility to our community to give it a sense of place. I just can’t imagine living anywhere without arts and culture. And who would want to?” 

There’s an old adage that says the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Nearly 75 percent of all visitors to Florida attend some kind of cultural art event across the state each year. And when they visit, cultural-minded tourists spend more money than non-cultural visitors and twice as much as local attendees. 

Pensacola does not need to be convinced of the marketing might of the arts. They are “packaging” all of the arts and culture offerings in the area during a two-week time period in November to drive up off-season visitation.

Janice LeCocq

Pyramid is in the Business of Building Independence, Confidence

Celebrating 20 years this year, Pyramid Inc. ( is a 501C(3) corporation committed to serving individuals with severe disabilities. Pyramid operates six centers in five cities across Florida — Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach, Panama City, Tallahassee (two locations) and Tampa.

It is perhaps best known for its unique arts program, which offers a full range of visual and performing arts, catering to each student’s level of ability and interest.

The Pyramid Players perform across Florida and in Georgia and Alabama. Pyramid’s artists exhibit from St. Petersburg, Tampa and Orlando to the Panhandle. Their work is on display from South Florida to Chicago and beyond.

The program currently serves nearly 700 adults. In addition to the arts, Pyramid offers therapeutic repositioning, physical/nutritional and behavioral assistance, peer counseling, sensory integration, social and life-management skills training and a variety of educational classes designed to increase their independence.

To book a performance by the Pyramid Players, call the Tallahassee office at (850) 671-1690. For information on the nearest Emerald Coast location in Fort Walton Beach, call (850) 862-7139.

Visit Pensacola President Steve Hayes said, “To me this should be one of our greatest message points. I don’t think it’s been done in the past, but yet it could really drive our business.”

And the South Walton Tourist Development Council sees the opportunity, too. In an online community survey of about 1,200 people, 52.8 percent said they’d like to see a multi-purpose cultural facility, which landed it No. 8 on a 12-point list of possible capital improvements. Lower on the list, at No. 11, is an art and history museum, favored by nearly 30 percent of those polled.

Beyond tourism, which certainly is big business for a destination like Florida, there is also the industry itself to consider. It is not the largest employer, but according to the Florida Office of Cultural Affairs there are nearly 65,000 arts-related businesses that employ more than 217,406 people across the state. That’s pretty squeaky.

Throughout 2014, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs is undertaking an initiative to develop a new strategic plan. The current plan is called Culture Builds Florida’s Future and is viewable at But they are soliciting input for a new plan that will guide the Division through 2020. One of the ways they are collecting feedback is through “listening sessions.” For more information on how to participate in one, or host one, contact Gaylen Phillips at

Several support art organizations dot Northwest Florida, and while they all claim missions that support the arts, no one organization appears to represent the entire region. Perhaps artists along the Emerald Coast would ultimately be best served if the string of art organizations found a way to band together to create a collective “voice” which together may be stronger, louder. 

Until then, we hope art entrepreneurs like Andy Saczynski will keep cooking up eye-catching entrepreneurial business ideas. And maybe they will whet the appetites of “fat” funders hungry for tasty, new ideas. After all, wasn’t it the “haves” who said, “Let them eat cake!”

Categories: Art