St. Petersburg rightfully refers to itself as a City of the Arts. Amidst a rising sentiment, however, that the city might just be growing too big, too fast, Gulfport is turning into the little town that could.
Situated at the southern end of Pinellas County, bordering Boca Ciega Bay, Gulfport has an art scene that’s not only thriving, it’s inclusive and ever-changing. And each month’s First Friday Art Walk – look for it this Friday, Aug. 6 – brings together between 30 and 50 artists, in all media, for a juried show ‘n’ sell that ranges over four downtown blocks.
Still, it’s quaint in a way that St. Pete’s massive Second Saturday Art Walk simply isn’t.
“It isn’t spread out,” says ceramics artist Brenda McMahon, coordinator of the monthly event. “You’ll never have to walk that far.”
With its small-town look and bohemian chic vibe, Gulfport has become something of a hidden treasure for those who like a good old outdoor art show. “Everybody here knows it,” points out McMahon. “But my sense in my gallery is, people are coming from all over, regionally. And they’ll say ‘We’re from Tampa, and we’ve never been here.’ Or Clearwater. Or St. Pete. And they say ‘We heard good things about Gulfport.’”
It wasn’t always this way. Last October, McMahon and the Gulfport Merchants Chamber split the traditional Art Walk in two, leaving First Fridays free of crafts, candles, shell dolls and other homemade ephemera (that’s now the Third Saturday Indie Faire).
First Fridays are reserved for artists only, whose work is juried beforehand to keep the “fine” in fine art.
“It is not all the artists you’re used to seeing,” McMahon says. “I just looked on the artist list this morning, and this weekend there’s artists from Lakeland, from Clearwater, from St. Pete … they’re regionally local artists.
“And the work that they’re doing! The work is young, it’s fresh, it’s sophisticated, it’s learning … kind of the whole gamut, really. It’s hardly stale.”
The fall brings Gulfport’s “Art Jones” event, a self-guided tour of the city’s artist studios and galleries.
Every few months there’s a “themed” edition of the First Friday Art Walk. April featured a “plein air” (painting outdoors) competition. July’s edition, “Body Beautiful,” brought record crowds to Gulfport over the July 4 weekend.
“It was,” says McMahon, “a rousing success. It was very much Key West Meets Gulfport. It was sassy and sexy and fun. Everybody loves to get dressed up in Gulfport, but they were dressed up in ‘body beautiful.’ Their bodies were painted. It was really great. It really galvanized people from within the town and all over.”
There will be live music and other surprises up and down the streets at the Aug. 6 event (5-9 p.m.), and a lot of restauranteurs and business owners will benefit from all the renewed attention.
“At first, there were definitely people who were bristling about it: ‘You’re changing Gulfport.’ And as we come up on our one-year anniversary, people are absolutely over the moon thrilled with what has come on here,’” McMahon reports.
“Because we’ve really clearly defined the Art Walk, and there’s such great, young, emerging, fresh artists on the street who nobody’s ever seen before.”