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Inside the effort to diversify north central Florida's largest arts festival

Chelsea Carnes sits outside the Department of Cultural Affairs office in the Thomas Center. The Thomas Center lawn used to hold some of Gainesville's very first art festivals in the 1970s, which evolved into the Downtown Festival and Art Show that Carnes is now on a mission to diversify. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)
Chelsea Carnes sits outside the Department of Cultural Affairs office in the Thomas Center. The Thomas Center lawn used to hold some of Gainesville's very first art festivals in the 1970s, which evolved into the Downtown Festival and Art Show that Carnes is now on a mission to diversify. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

Above: Listen to a version of this story that aired on WUFT-FM. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

When Leira Cruz Cáliz moved from Puerto Rico to Florida, she stopped creating art.

She was overwhelmed by new obstacles: the language barrier, cultural differences and the loss of her job in Orlando just weeks after arriving in 2014.

After she moved to Gainesville and took a full-time job cleaning at The Oaks Mall, drawings started spilling out of her hands again onto whatever was nearby – food court napkins and scraps of paper. She described it as an unshakable itch to make art or risk losing something of herself.

Then, a twist of fate. Her husband spotted a blank canvas for sale at Goodwill and brought it to her. She filled it and never stopped painting.

She credits art for carrying her through the hardships that lay ahead – Hurricane Maria and the subsequent earthquakes that shook her family in the island’s south, postpartum depression and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now in Newberry, her story covers her canvases. The eyes of the fierce women she paints reflect resilience. The aquas and ocean blues hint at the island waters she misses.

For the first time, her art will be on display at the upcoming Downtown Festival and Art Show, thanks to the new Emerging Artist Program.

The program was developed by Chelsea Carnes in response to a challenge she saw as an opportunity: What would it take to diversify north central Florida’s largest arts festival?

It’s the 41st year of the festival, and Carnes’ first year directing it. She stepped in at a unique point in festival history.

The arts festival movement sprung up across the country in the 1970s and ‘80s, largely without an intentional framework for racial diversity and inclusion. The festivals were predominantly white and have continued to be, according to Carnes, who says the Downtown Festival and Art Show is no different.

Initially formed by artists as an accessible way to grow a customer base, festivals grew more exclusive over time. 

Eleanor Blair, who is serving as a mentor for the Emerging Artist cohort and has participated in Gainesville’s art festivals since 1972, witnessed this transformation first-hand.

As festivals became juried and increasingly competitive, the costs of entry rose.

The booths that used to be rigged together with chicken wire and two-by-fours – whatever artists could find – were replaced with regulated structures that sometimes cost thousands of dollars. The display walls inside the booth can cost hundreds more.

Applications that used to accept point-and-click photos of art began to require professional, digitized slides.

Artists could no longer just drag their art out onto a lawn or sidewalk. Fees - sometimes of as much as $100 - were added just to apply for a spot that you might not get. Internet and computer access became necessary as the applications moved online.

For artists who’ve never participated in festivals – who aren’t sure whether their art will sell and they will turn a profit – these barriers can be prohibitive.

Now, the generation that started them is aging out of the festivals. While some question whether this means arts fairs are on their last legs, Carnes sees it as a chance to build them back up to be more diverse and inclusive than ever before.

The Emerging Artist Program received 23 applications and selected three artists for its first year.

No application fee was required. Instead, each artist was paid $200 to participate and is eligible for a $500 cash prize if selected as the emerging artist of the year.

The artists will share a top-of-the-line booth and display provided by the Office of Cultural Affairs, and received coaching from Blair.

Carnes’ office also held a competition for who would be the “voice of the fair” in their radio and TV advertisements, and selected local artist Kenya Robinson.

Community members are hearing a Black woman’s voice encouraging them to come downtown and check out the festival, which Carnes is hoping might encourage new visitors who might not have previously felt like the event was for them.

“It’s a small thing,” Carnes said, “but I think it is the small things like that that add up to make a difference.”

Carnes said her strategy was informed by an intensive, year-and-a-half-long racial equity training her office has been taking, facilitated by Gainesville’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. She said their office is acting as a pilot for the program before it’s extended to the rest of the city’s offices.

Diversifying the show doesn’t just impact the artists. It also benefits community members who get to see art shaped by a wider array of experiences.

Drew Michael Marotte, a Melrose-based painter and one of the three chosen, describes his art as a utopia of simplicity and joy that he builds to contrast the painful experiences he’s survived – including losing his job and housing after coming out as queer in a small town.

The shapes in his textured, bright art are meant to both invigorate and calm the viewer. He hopes it will be a unique asset to festival attendees.

He said the Emerging Artist Program is “really, really needed” for people who normally wouldn’t “get a leg up” to be in a festival of this size.

The cohort also gained automatic reentry to the next year's festival.

Marotte will share the Emerging Artist Booth with Cruz Cáliz and Diamond Moore – a Gainesville-based African American painter and jeweler.

Cruz Cáliz hopes their presence will signal to others like them in Alachua County – including the Latino and Black Americans who make up almost one-third of the population – that they are welcome at the arts fair.

“I think it’s up to us,” she said, “the ones who have already been chosen, to keep on spreading the word about it.”

The Downtown Festival and Art Show will be held on the streets around Bo Diddley Plaza on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

All are welcome.

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.