Arts Council Of Martin County Dishes On What To Expect As ArtsFest Turns 30
It vexes virtually every individual, institution, enterprise and endeavor. The upstarts seek to attain it. The established strain to retain it. Even the experienced struggle to maintain it.
If this resembles a riddle, that’s only fitting. After all, it’s among the most bewildering mysteries in the marketplace of ideas—relevance. If you’ve got it? Great. Lose it? Look out.
The 30th annual ArtsFest will be held Feb. 11 and 12 at Memorial Park in Stuart. As the signature event approaches, it’s evident by all accounts that the Arts Council of Martin County—established in 1980—settled the matter of its relevance decades ago.
And yet, the danger of settling threatens its undoing, notes Nancy Turrell, executive director of Arts Council of Martin County for the last 18 years.
“There’s been some years where we’ve looked at the landscape of the community and said, ‘Hobe Sound has an arts fest. Jensen Beach has an arts fest. Is there still a place for ArtsFest?’ And I think there is, but that’s really challenged us to enhance how we’re different,” Turrell says.
Out of that recognition of an increasingly competitive landscape grew a deliberate effort on the Arts Council’s behalf to take no potential patron for granted. In fact, they first sought to improve how they built relationships with patrons. Next, they expanded encouragement of efforts to cultivate budding artists. Finally, they aimed to ensure that their main event, ArtsFest, left attendees excited about the creativity and diversity of the area’s artistic community.
“ArtsFest is a legacy in our community,” says Debi Owens, president of the Arts Council board of directors and a volunteer for more than two decades. “Everything has been bumped up a bit. Every year we’re getting more people attending. We constantly want to add more exciting things so each year it’s bigger and better.”
For years, the demographic of arts patrons along the Treasure Coast fit a familiar mold, Turrell says.
“The classic arts patron is typically 50-plus, primarily retired, plenty of disposable income,” she says. “That’s been the lifeblood of attending theater, classical music and traditional art forms.”
While the description holds, the growing exceptions to the rule prove the changing market bears many fresh faces.
“It’s almost impossible to generalize who the arts patron is right now,” she says. “You got a sort of influx of younger professionals in the community who seem to be wanting and seeking out experiences, but they don’t necessarily want what we’ve always offered. We need to be doing more than the traditional art form.”
An appeal to the changing base of patrons, Turrell says, was balanced with adherence to the primary mission—to inspire passion and participation.
“We’re solidly advocating for and presenting arts education opportunities for students,” she says. “We believe in arts education as a way to spur creative thinking skills—and that sort of works its way into the general population.”
Turrell cites her formative years for fostering her passion in the arts.
“I was in choir,” she says. “I was in band. I don’t play the flute any longer. I don’t sing, but I gained a respect for what the arts bring to the community and why they’re important. The education builds the appreciation, which builds the audience to keep it going. That’s the straight economics.”
While the foundation of ArtsFest included acclaimed visual arts— essential to the display featured in the juried show that attracts 15,000 to 20,000 attendees—organizers broadened the boundaries with attractions that quickly proved as audience favorites and new traditions.
In good taste
For local foodies, the annual chefs challenge has added appeal. “The culinary arts—that’s the coolest thing we’ve done with ArtsFest,” Turrell says. “We’ve always had good performance arts on the stage. But now with the Chopped competition and the culinary arts having a strong presence, ArtsFest now represents all four building blocks of the arts—visual arts, literally arts, performance arts and culinary.”
In its third year, the Chopped feature at ArtsFest is inspired by the Food Network show and pits six local chefs against one another in timed competitions to incorporate odd ingredients with traditional dishes in quests to win the favor of a panel of judges.
“It’s mostly bragging rights,” Turrell says of the prizes.
Still, talk about relevance. The timing of the culinary addition coincides with an explosion of sophistication in the public’s collective palate as witnessed not only in the world of celebrity chefs and cooking networks, but the vast selection of local menu options for food and drink.
“You layer in great wines and craft beers, and the craft distilleries, and it’s just taking over how we think about eating and drinking,” she says.
Written, spoken words
Last year, ArtsFest debuted the Literary Village. Palm City author W.W. Whitten, who has self-published two historical mysteries and is writing his third, is organizing this year’s showcase for authors, playwrights, poets and songwriters.
In addition to spreading the word among English teachers at area high schools, the library is helping inform local writers that their entry to participate must be submitted by Dec. 31.
Even in an era where social media and mobile devices revolutionize how literature is absorbed, Whitten remains grateful for ArtsFest’s inclusion of literary art and encourages authors to adapt rather than bemoan the changing medium.
“I believe what needs to happen—what I’d like to see happen—is a new phase to the literary arts, understanding that the audiences are changing but still trying to convey,” he says. “There just has to be an evolution with writing. If you can’t catch them immediately, you’ve lost the audience.”
Whitten is sincere about his sermon. In addition to providing platforms and podiums for local independent and self-published artists to sign books and perform readings, the Literary Village will dabble in playwriting by reimagining a sequel to the hit TV show “Friends.”
In theming the village after an inviting coffee shop, inspiration struck: Whitten penned a play about the children of the “Friends” cast. StarStruck will provide the talent and direction.
“We’re going to recreate Central Perk under the tent,” Whitten says. “Stuart Coffee is providing coffee. We wanted to continue the coffee house feel, and that just kind of came to mind.
“What we’re trying to show [is] that the literary arts are still alive,” he continues, “and they’re just as important as the visual arts.”
Eye of the beholder
The visual arts remain the signature draw of ArtsFest. A panel of judges chooses up to 120 artists, whose work includes photography, ceramics, glass, woods and jewelry. This year’s featured artist is Stuart resident Chris Kling, who has painted three downtown vignettes of cherished locations— the Lady Abundance fountain, the Sailfish statue downtown, and a streetscape featuring the Stuart water tower in the background.
Excelling in portraitures and landscapes when she lived in Jacksonville, Kling moved to Stuart in 2005.
“I found out when I moved down here that portraiture wasn’t as traditional down here as it was in the Southeast, so I thought it was a great opportunity to expand my landscape,” she says.
That’s what Kling did—quite literally. Indulging in plein air, or open-air painting, she worked outside to capture scenes of Stuart life, using primarily oil paints to create works of contemporary impressionism.
“Downtown scenes, people, cafes,” she says. “I have no problems doing figures and figurative.”
She found a niche in festivals.
“When you do working galleries, you don’t get the one-on-one feedback, so you don’t have that personal touch,” Kling says. “When you’re in the festivals, you can talk to people—you get a much better feel for the market.”
After receiving an award at last year’s ArtsFest, she was especially excited to be named featured artist.
“I was just thrilled and flattered,” she says.
For the ears
The Arts Council has arranged for Nestor Torres, Grammy Award-winning Latin jazz artist, to put on a three-day master musician class with local high school band students, who will join him on stage at ArtFest for a Feb. 12 performance. ArtsFest VIPs can enjoy a meet-and-greet afterward with Torres.
“It’s a good story on our partnerships and giving our kids arts education opportunities that few have,” Turrell says.
Finding that fit—by way of attractions as well as community contributions—makes ArtsFest, and several other enduring events in Martin County, relevant no matter the passage of time.
“Pineapple Fest in Jensen Beach, Dancing in the Streets, ArtsFest—all came at the same time,” Turrell says. “… It’s pretty impressive that all three of those, what I’ll call ‘signature events,’ all started at the same time and are still going strong.”