The coastal city continues to be a premier destination for all things art and culture
Pensacola has long been appreciated by both visitors and locals alike for its sugar sand beaches, turquoise waters, and nearly 500-year-old history. But what’s also heavily embedded into the fabric of the seaside city’s downtown is its affinity for the arts. The City of Five Flags is one of the premier arts and culture coastal communities in the country, and it’s thanks in part to the many people and organizations that work every day to keep it at the very heart of Pensacola.
Friends of Downtown
An extension of Pensacola’s Downtown Improvement Board, Friends of Downtown strives to find ways to bring significant events and art projects and installations to the Historic Downtown area whenever possible. “We are truly the only beach community with a proper downtown,” notes Walker Wilson, chairman of Friends of Downtown and executive director of the Downtown Improvement Board. “It has everything from the Opera and Symphony to fine dining, bars and restaurants. You can come downtown on a beach vacation and get a city experience while in Pensacola’s downtown. We see that as our greatest asset other than the beach, this beautiful downtown just minutes away from our beaches.”
It's a downtown that Walker has frequented for decades. A Pensacola native, he recalls the annual Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival being a must-visit downtown each year. “It was always a big deal for me and my friends to attend,” he shares. “We’d go downtown and walk around the festival, and we looked forward to it each year.”
Since Walker’s high school years, Friends of Downtown has worked hard to add to the attractions showcasing the city’s downtown. One major attraction each year is the Pensacola Foo Fest Festival, a 12-day celebration each fall that includes a plethora of arts and culture events and happenings. For multiple years, Friends of Downtown have created art installations that decorate the downtown area, adding another layer of creativity and appeal to visiting the area. “We apply for a Foo Foo Fest grant to do so each year, and we think the installation is a good excuse to get people out of their houses and downtown,” Walker explains. “They can check out the art installation and then make a day or half day of it, going shopping or grabbing a bite to eat or checking out another event scheduled to be downtown.”
Other significant annual Friends of Downtown projects include the ever-popular Christmas lights that grace the downtown area each holiday season, which span almost all of Palafox and the downtown core. Additionally, the organization partners with UWF Historic Trust to host Repast, a program and dinner centered exclusively around a specific time in Pensacola’s past. Local chefs are then invited to create courses for each meal, and attendees enjoy a dinner and mini history lesson of what the city was like during that time period. “The last one focused on the late 1700s, when the British ruled Pensacola,” Walker shares. “We had the dinner outside where the actual British Fort would have been downtown. The year prior, we did the 1920s, and it was hosted next to where the San Carlos Hotel, a historic hotel that got torn down decades ago, used to be.”
Friends of Downtown continues to look for more ways to focus on the arts in Pensacola and remind locals and visitors alike that there’s so much to be enjoyed downtown. “This year an exciting add is that a portion of the Christmas lights will stay up year-round,” Walker adds. “We take great pride in what we have downtown, and we’re always looking for ways to share it.”
Gallery Night Pensacola
Gallery Night Pensacola got its start in 1991 as an organization focused on showcasing local artwork. On the third Friday of each month, the organization puts on a gallery night in downtown Pensacola, showcasing upwards of 70 or more artists each time. “We shut the streets down and it goes for several blocks,” explains Whitney MacLeod, executive director of Gallery Night Pensacola. “We have artists featuring everything from painting, pottery, and woodwork to textiles and photography. We even have artists who do their artwork there at the event. You name it, it’s there.”
Gallery Night draws between 10,000 to 15,000 attendees each month, as well as artists from all over—though most artists are local. “With Gallery Night, we’ve created an event that people can rely on and come out to see different artists each month, as well as the artists that they know and love that they may see several times a year,” Whitney adds. “The night also provides a great opportunity for people to get dressed up and come downtown, including to the restaurants for dinner or a glass of wine before or after looking around looking at art.”
Each month focuses on a different theme, such as January’s ever-popular Lunar New Year, which means there’s always something fun and new to be explored. It also means everyone has a place at Gallery Night, something which Whitney, an artist herself, appreciates. “Gallery Night’s mission and mentality is inclusiveness, and I feel that’s what I feel has made it so successful and helps it continue to grow,” she says. “We feel strongly about supporting your local art scene, and Pensacola has done a really great job of that.”
For 10-plus years, ACE Pensacola has sought to keep the arts alive throughout Pensacola by doing its best to ensure that area arts organizations continue to receive the funds needed to do so.
ACE (Arts, Culture and Entertainment, Inc.) Pensacola is a nonprofit organization that receives and distributes funding to various local nonprofit arts and culture organizations throughout Pensacola. “As ACE, our mission is to enhance the quality of life for all residents by promoting the local arts,” explains Therese Felth McKenzie, vice president of the board for ACE Pensacola and chair of Pensacola Foo Foo Festival. “We want to highlight and show the vibrant art community we have here in Pensacola and the county.”
To do so, ACE Pensacola funds a major annual campaign, Vacation Artfully, which showcases the city as a top vacation destination any time of year thanks to all of the cultural events that take place year-round. ACE Pensacola also organizes the annual Foo Foo Festival, providing the funding needed by the many organizations that perform or host events during the 12-day series of events. In addition, the organization ensures that the city’s many nonprofit arts and culture organizations have the funds needed for events throughout the year as well. “There is a true sense of community here, which makes the art scene so successful,” Therese says. “People care about their neighbors and their city, and they want to see it flourish. That goes for the arts and culture scene as well.”
That rings true in not only the community’s support of the local arts and culture organizations, but ACE Pensacola’s as well as everyone on the Board is a volunteer. “It’s truly a passion project for us all,” Therese says. “It’s because we all love Pensacola and the arts and we want to make this the best place possible to live. We believe that by building the art community is the way to do it. There’s no better way to bring people together.”