My immediate reaction to the festival was how enormous it was. I felt like I was weaving in and out and around and about through tons of different artists’ tents. This year they had 206 artist vendors, all representing 28 states and 1 international country—Cyprus! Sara introduced us to Bryan McCall and Kathy Dunagan, who kindly gave us an overview of what this festival is, how it came to be, and its importance. They spoke with a clear voice of passion for not only the festival, but for the artists that participated. They explained to us that the event is a juried art show, and this year they had $100,000 in grant money to give out to the four winners selected by the jury.
Amongst those artists, Bryan and Kathy introduced us to Lara Benjamin, the sole international artist from Cyprus. Lara works primarily with oil on canvas, and her tent held a variety of canvases with beautiful, abstract paintings of interior spaces with doorways and windows. She spoke about how she got into painting—she was always drawn to it ever since she was a little girl—and how she wound up at the Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival—one of the members of the international committee lived in Cyprus and recommended her to participate.
Overall, this art festival showed me how much the city values building and maintaining a community of people from far and wide, as well as recognizing that they’re creating legacies simultaneously. Bryan and Kathy spoke on the fact that these artists are not only bringing in their own following to this festival every year, but they’re also an inspiration to their children, and even grandchildren, to not only continue this legacy of participating in this art show but to continue this tradition of creating and designing art. This festival is not just important to Pensacola, but it cultivates generation after generation of art and culture—something that ultimately leaves an impact on something much larger than just a city in Florida.
Later in the evening, we had an early dinner at Restaurant Iron, which immediately gave a very warm and intimate vibe with the interior of the restaurant and the attentive hostesses and waiters. The food was obviously delicious, and exceeded all expectations! I had the mamishi 7oz steak topped with garlic butter and truffle oil as well as a side of grits and a salmon bisque on the side. They asked us if we would like to try their seasonal mocktails, and we ordered both the sweet and sour ones—both were to die for.
As we reached the end of our lovely meal, Hilary Town warmly approached our table and introduced herself as a representative of the restaurant. She gave a brief overview of who Chef Alex is, how he wound up back in Pensacola—the town he grew up in—and how he opened up his own restaurant here. The night at Restaurant Iron ended perfectly as Hilary graciously gave us a Foo Foo-inspired cocktail, which consisted of the following:
- Pineapple shrub
- And butterfly pea blossoms within the ice to represent the festival’s colors!
It was a super creamy and exotic-tasting drink—it felt like with every sip and second it stayed on my tongue I got a different flavor profile.
Before entering the Pensacola Museum of Art, we were greeted with the iconic Block Party—a lively setting of artists creating chalk street art (stencil art), food truck ambiance, live music, and a bar right in the middle of the street. All we hear is music and the rush of conversations flowing as the road becomes full of people coming and going from the museum.
As we entered, we were greeted by Nick Croghan, the Director of the Pensacola Museum of Art, who gave us a fantastic walkthrough of how the museum used to be a city jail in 1906 but was transformed into an art center designed by women, evolving to be the museum standing in Pensacola today. He also explained the context of tonight’s highlight exhibit, Vandals to Vanguards. The exhibit was introduced by Lewis Bear Jr., who was interested in showcasing all the art pieces that made him smile in the last 30 years, including work from icons such as Andy Warhol, Banksy, Mr. Brainwash, and Keith Herring. The gallery itself was divided in chronological order, starting from the beginning of pop art that began in 1970-the 80s and how this redefined what fine art could be to more contemporary art we know today, like Banksy.
When asked how the exhibit came to be, Nick explained that Lewis Bear Jr. was a huge art vendor in the past few decades, and he approached the museum with a very generous offer to host this exhibit. The collection was provided by Maria Goldberg and the Goldberg family.
Unrequited was the most intimate and immersive theater experience I’ve ever experienced. After entering the theater, we were happily greeted by Sid Williams-Heath, The Executive Director of the Pensacola Little Theatre. He gave us a description of what we were about to experience. The lobby of the theater had an open bar, and Martha was happy to make us some sweet mocktails to sip on while we enjoyed the performances.
Before I knew it, the people whom I thought were spectators of the show broke into performance and Act 1 began. Unrequited is a versioned performance of the iconic William Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet. In other words, the plot is the same, but the setting and the outfits of each cast member were designed to resemble a 1920s golden flapper era.
While watching the play, I was in awe of the fantastic performances that were a few feet away from me—and I truly felt like I was “on stage” as a bystander within the world of Unrequited. Throughout the show, we were escorted throughout the theater as each act unfolded and through each scene change, and it was truly immersive as we were given drinks, light hand snacks, and even a vial of wine during the closing scene!
Schumann Symphony dress rehearsal, Palafox Stroll, America’s First Settlement Trail
Chatting with Maria Goldberg:
Before we entered the Saenger Theatre, Sara introduced us to Maria Goldberg, one of the board members of ACE (Art, Culture and Entertainment, Inc. a non-profit organization that receives Federal, State of Florida, Escambia County, City of Pensacola, corporate, foundation and personal funds to disperse through granting processes to arts, culture and entertainment organizations throughout Escambia County, Florida—as found on acepensacola.org). She is also the Chairperson for this year's Foo Foo Festival. I asked her what exactly Foo is and how it came to be, since I was amazed at how the 12-day event gathered such a large amount of people in November! She explained that Pensacola is so much more than just another beach city for tourists to come to during the spring and summer seasons. They wanted a way to highlight that during the “off-season,” and so Foo is ultimately a product of ACE—they get funding from the city, county, and tourism development tax to get a call for grants so art schools can apply. This year they had 50 applicants. Also within this year, they had $400,000 to fund 12 events!
She also explained the Friends of Foo—if you’re a business or ANYBODY at all that relates to arts, culture, or entertainment (such as the ping pong event), you can apply to be part of the 2-week time period of Foo’s festivities. This year they had 45 total Friends of Foo events.
“You do things for your community—and you don’t do it to get people to come, but you do it so your people will be so happy that they’ll tell everyone else to come and experience what they experienced,” Maria said.
The Saenger Theatre was built in 1925, and is currently in its 97th season of the orchestra. Huge names like Ashley Brown started out in this theatre. Though many entertainment industries struggled, there was unparalleled support for the orchestra after the pandemic, and it is currently thriving.
It was a surreal experience to see the orchestra practicing and playing together since I can’t imagine all the years of hard work for each individual to get where they are standing today. All around me were people of all ages and genders, truly admiring what they were spectating, and all sitting in the best seats—the balcony!
Palafox Street is a place you want to be. There is so much positive energy with children happily running around, and a lot of families! Bubble Alley, one of the Foo Foo Fest grant recipients presented by Friends of Downtown, had a lot of tables of authors and their novels, with kids skipping about and drawing with chalk in the alleyway. The people surrounding us were truly admiring the art, culture, and history showcased around them. A lot of people from all backgrounds were amazed at the balloons and taking lots of pictures of the Instagram-worthy scene! Some people were also on the Settlement Tour, but we stopped early because of the heavy downpour.
Béla Fleck performance
The rain didn’t stop one of Foo’s most anticipated events from closing the night of day three! This performance was made possible by the fact that the Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival was named one of this year's Foo Foo Fest grant recipients—for the first time ever! The live performance was very quickly moved to Pensacola’s Museum of Commerce, located at 201 Zaragoza St with chairs in front of a replicated plaza porch where Béla Fleck would perform. It was a much more intimate performance, and it was such a heartwarming moment to experience a truly acoustic performance since the crew wasn’t able to set up speakers!
As Béla fleck played with his crew, I couldn’t help but look around into the crowd and feel a sense of secondhand happiness. Everyone around me had their heads nodding and feet tapping—and some people standing in the back were even silently dancing around and around! It was the best way to wrap up everything I’ve seen and experienced at Foo—another gratifying event where a community of people gathers and appreciates the art and culture that Pensacola (and the South) has to offer.