This weekend, Charlie Cinnamon’s grand scheme celebrates half a century. Saturday brings the start of the 50th edition of the Coconut Grove Arts Festival, and more than 500,000 are expected to line South Bayshore Drive and McFarlane Road over the course of the three-day event.
In terms of publicity stunts, Cinnamon’s was inspired. Tasked with promoting a production of the French musical Irma La Douce at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in October 1963, the savvy press agent turned the streets surrounding the landmark into a Left Bank/Parisian setting by creating the Left Bank Arts Festival. One of the attractions, beyond the artists he knew and called upon to set up “a clothesline art show,” was a French poodle show just outside the theater’s front door in what would later become a parking lot.
Cinnamon’s idea was that the Left Bank motif would put people in the right frame of mind to enjoy Irma La Douce and, more importantly, direct a host of eyes toward the theater’s marquee in hopes of plumping up ticket sales.
“In those days, you’re talking 50 years ago, it was tough to get people to cross the causeway or from wherever to come to the Grove Playhouse. As a press agent looking for some sort of gimmick, since the show was set in Paris, let’s do a Left Bank Art Show. We booked the whole weekend around it when it really was an arts colony here. People started to come. We never figured out if they bought any tickets,” Cinnamon said, chuckling.
But that initial show proved so successful it would return to the area the following year — and for 49 more and counting — under the Coconut Grove Arts Festival name. Cinnamon, who unwittingly created one of the nation’s premiere juried art shows, has a framed letter, dated Nov. 14, 1963, from the president of the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce hanging in the Lincoln Road office of his public relations firm:
This exhibit which was so quickly planned, organized and operated was proof of Miami’s interest in our quaint little village.
As an annual event, an outdoor art show such as we had can be one of the Grove’s premiere attractions.
The festival has drawn millions of local visitors and tourists over the years, expanding into outreach programs at area schools and adding culinary programs. Perennially top-ranked by Sunshine Artist Magazine, it also has helped to launch the careers of several name artists.
Photographer Clyde Butcher, whose black-and-white shots of the Everglades led to preservation laws, and Miami Beach pop artist Romero Britto, who created the festival poster again this year, are among the Grove’s success stories.
“As an artist who travels all over the country, most of the shows I do are Top 10. The Grove is one of the largest. I can’t think of another that pulls in the number of people that it does,” said C.G. Woody Jones, a Decatur, Ga., artist who works in wood figures. Jones, 67, will appear for his 31st consecutive year this weekend. “It’s one of my best shows. I sell to customers from not just Miami but from all over the world — my best New York show, I joke, because a lot of customers are from there.”
Similarly, sculpture artist Theodore Gall has displayed here for more than 36 years. “I used to live in Chicago, so it was a natural time to leave the cold and run down to the warmth of Miami,” Gall, 71, said from his home in Ojai, Calif. “If you find an avenue that works for you, you stick to it. Miami loves art, and you’ve got an awful lot of guys like me.”
But along with the crowds and familiar faces, there have been the inevitable growing pains. The mid-1990s was a period of instability, marked by a rotating cast of directors. By the turn of the millennium, patrons and national artist groups began complaining publicly that the show had grown too large, with too many ancillary draws — like food and music — competing with the art. Applications from artists for about 300 spaces fell from about 2,000 to 1,400 in 2001 and, during the recession, declined further to about 1,200 in 2010.
But prudent fixes, such as fencing the area to better control crowds, moving the food and music attractions farther from the artists’ booths and implementing a strict two-day juried process restored the festival’s reputation.
About 1,400 applications arrived this year, said festival president Monty Trainer, and organizers have added space to allow for 380 artists. About 75 of these artists will have already participated last week in the festival’s Visiting Artists Program, making appearances at local schools to foster students’ appreciation for art and promote careers in it.
That outreach program began in 1986 with artists Jones and Marc Sijan, who visited two elementary schools in Coconut Grove after veteran educator Von Beebe, then principal at Coconut Grove’s Frances S. Tucker Elementary, realized a need.
“Some of the best artists in the country were coming each year to display their work here, yet there were no programs to enable local students to interact with the artists and to experience the nation’s best arts festival. As a local school principal, I felt that we were missing a wonderful educational moment for the community’s children,” said Beebe, who now works as an academic counselor at the Carrollton School in Coconut Grove.
The outreach program now accepts applications from 150 public and private schools in South Florida. Beebe recalled that Jones delighted children with his mechanical wood creations at that first Visiting Artists session.
“When I first started doing the show it was a high-quality show, but then it had stuff that in our business we refer to as craft stuff, not as sophisticated. And over time the quality seemed to climb,” Jones said. “The market there wants a higher quality type of work. You can sell things to people who are looking to spend money, and that enables us to spend time working on something. I’m working on a piece for next year that takes several hundred hours.”
Meantime, Cinnamon’s publicity stunt that grew into something far more reaching merrily rolls along.
“Fifty years is more than the Super Bowl. More than the number of presidents,” said Trainer, who confirms that plans to honor Cinnamon with an installation at Kenneth M. Myers Bayside Park in the Grove could become a reality in the spring.
“He keeps getting better, like the Energizer Bunny,” Trainer said.
Cinnamon, never one to promote himself — nor reveal his age — nonetheless is touched.
“That is such wonderful news,” he said of the honor, quickly turning attention back to the festival. “It has grown into a definitive art show and that is an incredible, wonderful feeling to have begun something and see it mature to what it is today.”
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