Festival History

A festival not only rich in culture, but in history.

Humble beginnings between the cactus and the cows.

Each February in Tampa, there was a juried art exhibit at the Florida State Fair, held in conjunction with the city’s Gasparilla pirate invasion. Highly accredited artists and art administrators from New York were invited to jury the show and eminent architect Mark Hampton designed the exhibition space – situated near the horticulture exhibit and livestock barns.

Countless families soon stumbled upon some very avant-garde art and controversy often ensued. In 1969, several complaints about paintings of nudes caused officials to scramble and relocate the works to a private room. Some members of the fair board wanted to have the exhibit dismantled altogether. When the fair moved out of downtown, the art exhibit changed into a display of high school student art work.

A new home on the downtown sidewalks.

Art activists realized that the informality of the State Fair exhibit had brought diverse, high-quality artwork to many people who normally never ventured into museums – and they wanted that to continue. In 1970, a group of downtown business people conceived the notion of a sidewalk art festival.

Amid a sleepy downtown Tampa – then a sterile environment of parking lots and anonymous business buildings – Robert John Dean and Richard Redman had just completed the renovation of several old brick buildings on Whiting Street between Ashley Drive and Franklin Street.

Across the street was WDAE radio station, managed by Donald Clark, a businessman with a sense of community and familiarity with the concept of outdoor art shows. Don took the outdoor show idea to Jim Turner of Tampa Electric Company. Turner connected Clark with Dean and Redman, who were joined by Lester Olson, Frank Franklin and Fred Matthews.

Along with a number of community leaders and art enthusiasts, including Lois Nixon, Ann Ross and Jeanne Winter, these visionaries dreamed of a rejuvenated city, bustling with people and culture.

Early success sets the stage

The festival succeeded beyond expectations and became known as “The Little Art Show That Could.” In 1973, it was the recipient of the First Annual Governor’s Award for the Arts, singled out for its melding of business and arts interests. The groundwork was laid for what was to become one of the most prestigious outdoor art festivals in the country.

If the relaxed atmosphere of the Gasparilla Sidewalk Art Festival made this venture a popular success, the factors that made it a critical success were distinguished jurors and substantial cash purses.

To jury the first show in 1971, GSAF organizers invited Pierre Apraxine, then assistant curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Apraxine’s reputation was a crucial element in the growth of the festival’s caliber. One year’s eminent juror would often suggest another credentialed colleague to judge the following year’s competition.

A growing reputation

Word about GSAF’s high quality spread through art circles. Jurors have included Robert Hughes, author/director of Shock of the New book and TV program, Janet Kardon of the American Craft Museum in New York, art historian Barbara Rose and William J. Cowart, curator of 20th Century Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. For the 1999 Festival, the Board of Directors decided to invite two jurors of national prominence instead of one. This idea proved successful and the tradition of excellence continues.

The opportunity to have one’s work evaluated by an eminent juror was in itself an attraction to many artists. Much of the initial supportiveness came from artists in the university faculties. Bruce Marsh, professor of art at the University of South Florida, was Best of Show winner for the first two years. He said the wins were important to him, not only because the prize money represented a not-inconsiderable percentage of his annual salary at the time, but also because the awards brought him recognition.

A 1987 winner, Brad Cooper, had recently received his master’s degree in fine arts when he won Best of Show, and he used the prize money as a down payment on an art gallery in Ybor City – creating another fine venue for art. But the real value to Cooper lay in the fact that juror Vivien Raynor, an art critic for The New York Times, reviewed his work and found it worthy. It was a huge psychological boost.

Tales of artists and jurors

Some artists found the experience of standing next to their work and listening to the candid reaction from the crowds unnerving: “It was like standing there without your clothes on,” said Daisy Koenig, a well-known artist who was active in both the State Fair shows and several Gasparilla Festivals. Other exhibitors loved to schmooze with the crowds.

The jurors were treated royally by the show’s organizers, who went to great lengths to provide perks. One couple donated their Gulf of Mexico condominium for jurors to vacation in while judging the show, while other couples prepared gourmet dinners.

Most jurors proved to be natural, responsive, unimposing folk, although there are some moments the founders recall with amusement. One woman juror suddenly announced that her genuine pearl necklace had disappeared. Everyone went on a frantic search for the missing item. The juror eventually found it herself – in her cleavage, where it had slipped without her noticing.

Another juror announced that she had to be alone with all the works she had selected for final judging. The committee retreated to another floor. After more than an hour, one of the organizers had to retrieve something from the judging room and tiptoed in so as not to disturb her mediation. He found the juror fast asleep.

An ever-evolving event

Many changes have occurred over the years of the festival. The prize money has grown from its original $3,900 total to $74,500. Categories of submission have expanded to include fine crafts. The time of year was changed from the sometimes blustery February to the first weekend of March.

In 1995, the logo and the name were changed to reflect new goals and expand the focus to include other cultural entities in the community such as the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library. The addition of an Emerging Artist program also expanded the interest in the Festival. Applications have likewise risen from the initial 140 (all who showed up were accepted) to more than 1,000.

Another change has been in the acceptance of entrants from outside the state and now the show attracts international artists. The festival has moved a few times from its beginnings on Whiting Street to Doyle Carlton Drive, behind the Tampa Museum of Art and the Curtis Hixon Convention Center. In 1994, Curtis Hixon was razed and the show moved to Ashley Street. In 1995, it expanded into the newly constructed Curtis Hixon Park on the Hillsborough River. In 2003, the festival moved to Franklin Street and Lykes Gaslight Square Park in anticipation of construction of the new Tampa Museum of Art. Joyfully, in March 2010 the festival moved back to the river. The newly built and breathtaking Tampa Museum of Art opened its doors, and at its front door is the Raymond James Gaparilla Festival of the Arts in a newly named and designed Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

A legacy of timeless support

Some of the things that haven’t changed are the strong and continued support of The Tampa Museum of Art and the City of Tampa. Since its inception, Tampa Museum volunteers (now known as Friends of the Arts) have been given the right to organize the refreshment concessions. The festival has always been run by a completely volunteer board of directors and festival committee who spend many years, months and hours working to make the festival better every year. Lively entertainment has always been an integral part of the festival and for the last few years Tampa Bay-area school systems have provided young performers in addition to professionals.

The history is rich. The traditions are timeless. And the festival is now a vital cultural asset with a well-established presence and an eye on the future.