The art of nature is abundantly apparent in northwest Florida. From the soaring sand dunes of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park to the northwest’s rolling, green interior, Mother Earth makes the most of her palette here.
What many first-time visitors often overlook is that the art of man is also a big draw. Pensacola, South Walton, the Emerald Coast, Panama City Beach and other regions offer galleries to explore at your own treasure-hunt pace, organized arts events and a smattering of arts centers. Together, they form the northwest’s burgeoning arts scene.
Organized arts centers begin in and around Florida’s westernmost city, Pensacola. On Jefferson Street downtown, start at the Pensacola Museum of Art. Here, in a converted jail (it held prisoners until 1954), the museum’s collection includes works by the likes of Pablo PicassoFir, Alex Katz and Alexander Calder.
Also downtown (corner of Belmont and Reus streets) is the First City Art Center, which focuses on crafts. First City’s gallery takes a regional approach, and shows off the work of Southern and national artists. Not only do glass blowers have studios on site, there’s a decided emphasis on glass art in the gallery. Even better for the hands-on, just-visiting crowd: First City offers a series of art classes, many lasting for only a day or even a few hours. Learn how to blow glass, sculpt pottery, create glass beads or design your own jewelry.
In Pensacola, you may find that the bright seascapes and seaside portraits on view at the Nina Fritz Gallery will make a perfect and permanent memento of your beach getaway.
For antique art, consider stopping in at Garth’s Antiques and Auction Gallery. Here you can bid on (or simply buy) American and European paintings, Native American art and antique furniture. Another art-buying location is the artist-run Quayside Art Gallery, housed in an old firehouse facing Plaza Ferdinand. While Pensacola’s galleries are open throughout the year, if you can, time your visit during a Gallery Night (held seven times a year), an evening of art and entertainment in Downtown Pensacola. This free-of-charge event showcases the work and talents of 30-50 local artists in a number of downtown venues.
Traveling southeast, the shore towns of the Emerald Coast – including Fort Walton Beach and Destin – offer their own arts venues. A major stop is the Mattie Kelly Arts Center, housed on the campus of Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, just north of Choctawhatchee Bay and Fort Walton Beach. In addition to concerts and plays, the center also houses the McIlroy and Holzhauer galleries, which host traveling shows, and the center’s permanent art collection.
South Walton (a series of shore towns that line Route 30A) takes art seriously. The region houses dozens of galleries, and has instituted its own Artist of the Year program.
The variety of art available in northwest Florida literally widens as you drive to the Santa Rosa Beach area. Big Mama’s Hula Girl Gallery in Seagrove Beach has become a sort of traveler pilgrimage spot known not only for its colorful fine and folk art but also its “Big Mama” T-shirts. Whimsical art can be seen inside and out; everything from leather and pearl jewelry to 3-D glass mosaics, pet portraits and custom made furniture. The 900 square foot gallery bursts with color, housing over 30 regional artists.
In Santa Rosa Beach, Gulf Place is an upscale shopping area. Its draw is the Artists at Gulf Place. Roughly 10 artists’ cottages in the center of the district serve up art, pottery, glass, flattened Coca-Cola bottles and tie-dye art, watercolors, photography, jewelry and painted windows. (You can get a T-shirt with Route 30-A road signs.)
Also worth a look is Donna Burgess Gallery, located on Grand Boulevard at Sandestin. Burgess, named Walton County’s Artist of the Year for 2008, specializes in watercolor, acrylics and mixed medium.