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St. Pete’s Mainsail Arts Festival marks 40th year

— In the 1970s, St. Petersburg had quite a lot of artists, but it was far from being a city of the arts, as it is called today.

The first year of this city’s premiere arts festival brought together about 100 exhibitors for what then was called the St. Petersburg Sidewalk Arts and Colonial Crafts Festival.

Beneath the shade of south Straub Park’s oaks and giant banyan tree, the artists didn’t feel the need to bring canopies or umbrellas.

The vibe was relaxed, friends chatting about one another’s work and sipping cold beer in the early spring heat, but the bar for entry was high even back then, ensuring only quality handmade sculpture, paintings and photo prints would be set out for sale.

Those high standards have protected Mainsail Arts Festival’s reputation in its 40 years even as arts and crafts shows have multiplied in the Tampa Bay area, and across Florida, with some kind of arts event nearly every weekend in cooler months of the year.

Potter Jack Boyle and his wife, Deborah Gillars, were among the first artists accepted into the festival during its inaugural year in 1976.

“It was just real exciting. It was the beginning of the outdoor shows. It was really new,” said Gillars.

“It was a very low-key attitude. It was before St. Pete had too much going on, so it was the place to come.”

This year’s festival kicked off today and continues Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Vinoy Park, 701 Bayshore Drive NE.

Admission is free and there’s food, drinks and live music mixed in with hundreds of artists’ tents.

This will be the last Mainsail for Boyle and Gillars as the couple looks to retire from the art show circuit and spend more time at their studio in the small Pasco County town of San Antonio.

Art festivals can be a nearly full-time gig nowadays with a full calendar of events from October to May in Florida, the months when coastal towns fill up with snowbirds who presumably have disposable income to spend on paintings or giant metal yard sculptures for their vacation homes.

Many artists now agree that what started as an exciting shift toward the outdoors and away from a business based on renting gallery space with high commissions has gone overboard.

Venice-based painter and metal sculptor Debbie Marucci tried for a while to go to every festival she could attend, but began to see a vast difference in the kinds of work that passed for art at a growing number of craft shows.

“I was making these geckos; I’d have to make 50 a day. Who wants to do that? That’s not art,” she said.

“The pie is divided a lot more and sometimes I think there are too many art shows. I cut back and I don’t do as many now. I think you have to be real selective.”

What always has been distinctive about Mainsail is that a rotating group of judges selects who will or won’t be in the show each year.

A pool of 1,000 applicants in a given year will be whittled to 325 or maybe 350 exhibitors.

“We have quite a number of people who try to get into our show and we always ascribe to the philosophy that we want quality, not quantity. We may have enough space for more artists but if we don’t have the quality, we don’t get to pick them,” says Cathy Hakes, a Mainsail steering committee member who has been part of the festival since its inception.

The juried art show also includes generous prize money to the artist with the most impressive body of work each year.

The top artist will walk away with a check for $10,000 in addition to the weekend’s sales, and there’s a total of $40,000 to $50,000 given out each year in prizes, Hakes says.

Mainsail began as a city-run festival with hefty volunteer support, but its funding and organization quickly turned into a community affair.

Alongside other long-running signature events on the city’s waterfront such as last week’s Tampa Bay Blues Fest or Ribest in November, Mainsail has stood the test of time consistently drawing tens of thousands of people downtown each year.

St. Petersburg now hosts more than 100 events annually, most of them somewhere along the waterfront, bringing in scores of people almost year round who spend money at nearby shops and restaurants, says Lynn Gordon of the city’s Parks & Recreation department.

While billing event organizers for police patrols, EMS service and other costs, the city spends relatively little money to play host now that the waterfront has become such a popular venue.

“With Mainsail, we’ll have artists from all over the country who are coming to town and we’ll have folks who travel from all over the country to come,” Gordon said.

“We’ll see a huge benefit to our businesses downtown, to our hotels, to our restaurants.”

Cities and small towns across the Tampa Bay area have followed suit, meaning on any given weekend there is a festival taking place somewhere.

To a degree, that dynamic means watered down sales for artists like Boyle. But it also highlights what makes festivals such as Mainsail distinct.

What was true in the beginning has held up over time.

“Even early on in the ‘70s, St. Pete was already attracting the artist. People who came to the show, they knew art; they knew the quality of something handmade and handcrafted,” Gillars said.

“There are only a handful of shows in the state that have held on to that prestige,” Boyle said.

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