Main and Mulberry Podcast – Sharon McAllister, ArtFest Fort Myers

ArtFest Fort Myers usually showcases 200+ artists and hosts 95,000 people in 2 ½ days. But as Southwest Florida’s largest weekend event, this first-class art festival is making changes due to COVID-19. We spoke with the festival’s Executive Director, Sharon McAllister, and she explained that the event still expects to feature about 150 artists along 7 city blocks of downtown Fort Myers’ gorgeous waterfront. This event supports local artists in the area who are independent business owners too!


00:12 Anna Bell: Hello and welcome to another episode of Main and Mulberry. I’m your host, Anna Bell, and today, I’m really excited to have with us the executive director for ArtFest in Fort Myers, Florida, Sharon McAllister. So Sharon, thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today.

00:30 Sharon McAllister: Good morning. It’s great to be with you.

00:32 AB: Yeah, absolutely. We’re really excited to learn all about ArtFest in Fort Myers. It’s a really big event. But I’d really love to kick things off, if you will, to give us some background. When and why did this event get started in Fort Myers, Florida?

00:50 SM: Our first event started in 2000, and we were 20-years-old last year in February, this past February. We actually took over an event, a struggling event that was offered by the city and helped them get out of the event business. They needed to do other things. And so we took that over, made it not-for-profit and rebuilt it into a first class, nationally rated art festival.

01:15 AB: Wow. Wow, no small undertaking, right?

01:18 SM: No, it seemed a lot simpler before we started. Yes, it has been quite the challenge, but very rewarding. 20 years of great build and we are now Southwest Florida’s largest weekend event, have been for some time.

01:32 AB: Wow. Wow, so, okay. So the largest event, you must get some real foot traffic then.

01:38 SM: In a normal year, not this coming year, but a normal year, about 95,000 in two-and-a-half days.

01:43 AB: Wow. Wow, that’s mind-blowing, 95,000.

01:47 SM: It is mind-blowing.


01:49 AB: Wow. And two, you’re on the Fort Myers waterfront downtown, right? So what a view, I bet.

01:57 SM: Yeah, it’s beautiful. There’s a river behind it all, there’s a big park, there’s a yacht basin. So it’s a beautiful setting, lots of palm trees, it’s really gorgeous. And when we add the art to it, it’s like building a little town though because you have to bring in everything, all the infrastructure, and…

02:15 AB: How neat. Was it really important to bring the arts to Fort Myers?

02:23 SM: Oh, it is. All communities, it’s really important with the arts drive, just in creativity, but how much business, economic impact they drive for our restaurants downtown who report to us.

02:35 AB: That’s true. It’s such a ripple effect, right?

02:38 SM: Okay. Right, they report to us that it’s by far their largest weekend of the year.

02:42 AB: Oh, that’s awesome.

02:42 SM: So they do a great business. So it impacts everybody, and artists… Art festivals, people don’t think about this, but the artists are independent business owners. So it’s actually, in our case, 200 small businesses on the street. They happen to sell art instead of hamburgers or something, but they’re all small business owners. And so we give livelihood to them.

03:06 AB: I love that, I love that. That’s wonderful. So some of our listeners might be thinking, Sharon, “What if I’m new to art?” Or we might have some experienced art lovers out there listening with us today, is this event something for both the newbies as well as the wise old owls of art [chuckle] that we can all enjoy?

03:28 SM: Absolutely. I think one of the greatest things art festivals do is, it gives everybody an opportunity to look at in a very relaxed, non-intimidating way, to look at art of all varieties. Whether it’s jewelry or whether it’s painting or photography or ceramic or whatever. It’s all there. And so if someone’s newer at it, they can visit there, it’s not anywhere near as… And some people are intimidated by galleries or museums, this way you’re out in the open and visiting and talking to the artists, learning about what inspires them, which I think is one reason people buy from artists at art festivals ’cause they get to talk to the artist.

04:09 AB: Yeah.

04:10 SM: It’s not like a gallery where you rarely get to talk to the artist.

04:13 AB: The person who actually made the art, you’re getting to speak with them one-on-one, right?

04:19 SM: Right. Because all good art festivals require… They require the artist to be there, they can’t send a representative. So you actually get to talk to the artist. And it’s great for kids. You bring your kids and they have a chance to see all kinds of different things and ask questions and look around and not feel…

04:36 AB: I was gonna ask that. I was gonna ask that. I think this is a really a family affair, right Sharon? The whole family can enjoy coming to ArtFest Fort Myers.

04:46 SM: Right it is. And we actually have a very large kids’ area, it’s called the Publix Art Yard, and that is all art activities for children. We don’t have any bounce houses or other types of kids’ things. It’s all art activities and music…

05:02 AB: I saw something really neat on the website. You had a bunch of kids with chalk making chalk drawings.

05:08 SM: Oh, Chalk Block. Yes, it is. That’s a separate activity, it’s high school teams. Historically, teams of three, and they do a 6-foot by 6-foot drawing on the asphalt. It’s an old tradition, European tradition started in Italy in the 1600s, but they’re amazingly talented. And can you imagine you spend all that time on your hands and knees doing the drawing and then it rains?

05:35 AB: I know. And there it goes.

05:38 SM: And it’s all gone.

05:38 AB: For a fleeting moment you get to experience beautiful art. And [chuckle] nature takes its toll. Wow. Well, can you be our virtual tour guide, I guess? If we’re here with you downtown in Fort Myers during this event, what are we gonna see and experience? Walk us through. Is everybody under tents or what is it like walking through the area?

06:03 SM: So all the artists install their own tents. So it’s like… And they’re all white and they’re all 10 x 10 or 10 x 20. They’re like little galleries. And so for seven city blocks, there are all these artists’ galleries down the street.

06:19 AB: Seven city blocks, wow.


06:22 SM: It goes on for a while. Part of it’s in the square, so it doesn’t feel quite that long, but it is that long. So that’s kind of the core, but then we have great foods, you come across food courts, historically are four, and beverage stations, and then the Publix Art Yard where kids can do all kinds of activities, there’s a youth stage there, where our youth performers in our community and have an opportunity to perform because they need that kind of practice and performing in front of a crowd.

06:57 AB: You’re tapping into that part of performing arts too, right?

07:01 SM: Absolutely, absolutely. So we had the performing arts there, and then we have… We host some of our other arts organizations, and provide tent space for them, so they have booths that talk about their theatre or our Alliance for the Arts, our Symphony. So people get exposed to other types of art, so those are our partners in town, and they come as our guest, and then we have a very large high school show at one under the event, it’s… For Bay County High School students, it’s called Art Under 20, and there’s about 400 students a year, that exhibit in that tent in all different genres of art, and they compete for $10,000 in award money, cash award money.

07:46 AB: Wow. How nice. So do you have a sponsor?

07:47 SM: We do it, we do it. It’s Suncoast Credit Union.

07:53 AB: Wow, how neat.

07:53 SM: Big player down here.

07:53 AB: It sounds like I could easily spend two days at ArtFest and enjoy ourselves.

07:58 SM: You can, and you can bring your kids, you can eat there, or you can go downtown and eat and come back, ’cause it’s just a block walk to our downtown Dinestry.

08:09 AB: That is so great. So some of us might consider though, Sharon, when buying a piece of art, you’re thinking in the back of your mind, well purchasing this, you break the bank. Can you still enjoy the event even if you are on a budget?

08:24 SM: Sure, you can, and it’s very interesting, artists know that people evolve either by income level or by age, and if you were 20 your budget is different than if you were 40 or… So most artists have reproductions, not just the original, so you can do that if you wanna buy something smaller, either physically smaller, or our reproduction is less expensive than an original, or you can buy more decorative in the sense of three-dimensional, like glass piece or ceramic piece for your coffee table or dining table, and those range in price pretty well too. So most of the artists have a very nice price range, and if you don’t wanna do that, that’s okay, just go and enjoy the art work and have a nice day and…

09:18 AB: And tell us to about the event, do you have to buy a ticket?

09:21 AB: Historically, you have not had to buy a ticket, it has always been a free event, and that has always been very important to us. However, given the situation this year, there will be a ticket price that will be between five and 10 depending on when you buy your ticket, but children under 10 free, and that is strictly to pay for all of the safety protocol brought about by COVID.

09:46 AB: Sure, sure, and that’s important to talk about. So this year has been so challenging for so many… Were you able to have this year’s ArtFest?

09:56 SM: We were, because we’re the first weekend in February, and so February of 2020, some people certainly, had been starting to know this was coming.

10:06 AB: But not common place at that point.

10:08 SM: But not common place, and for the last week before the art festival, we’re kind of oblivious to news anyway, somebody would have had to shake us because we are so busy setting up… But yeah, it wasn’t common place, and so it was 2-3 weeks after the art festival that we really started to know that, and…

10:30 AB: Tell us a little about 2020, the ArtFest this year. How was the turn out there… Do you have a good amount of vendors?

10:38 SM: For 2020 or for 2021?

10:40 AB: For this year, for 2020.

10:42 SM: For 2020, we had 210 artists, which is our normal number, and the 95,000 people and about 20 food vendors… In our stage, so yeah, it’s very active. We have a volunteer steering committee of about 60 people, who supplement our three-person staff.

11:03 AB: I can only imagine the volume of people it really takes to put this on. As the executive director for ArtFest Fort Myers, I can only imagine just what really goes in and for preparation of the event. So maybe you can touch on that for a little bit for us kinda go behind the scenes, are you the one contacting the artist?

11:25 SM: No, we have two of our staff members, my job is really the sponsorship, paying the bills, doing the marketing planning and the visionary work for the event, but we have a Community Engagement Manager who is responsible for all the artists relations, for our volunteer relations, for our press relations, community types of things, and then we have another woman who is our production manager, and she’s responsible for all of the logistics and the operational work, which is a huge job.

12:00 AB: I’m sure it takes a lot of boots on the ground, right? [chuckle]

12:02 SM: It does. And like I said, then we have a committee of 60 who handle the different parts of the event during the weekend and part of the planning, and about 400 weekend volunteers that deal with selling beverages and giving out programs and just all that weekend…

12:19 AB: Oh, yeah. There’s so much, you probably don’t even think about too, even the clean up afterwards.


12:25 SM: And during it, and yeah, people who are not in the event industry just don’t have a clue what goes into producing it. And those of us who are in the industry, we know that if attendees start to have a clue, then we haven’t done everything we should have, as an attendee, you should not notice that our restroom trailers aren’t clean, you shouldn’t notice that the beverages ran out, you can’t find the brand of beer you want, all those things, or parking’s backed up, you should never notice that. If you do notice it, then something in the background is not right.

13:04 AB: Wow! But you’re having visitors, I guess all over the country, coming to visit?

13:09 SM: Yeah, we have about 11% of our attendees are winter visitors, in the terminology here, that means they’re short-term. We have about 29%… Florida has a lot of snowbirds, so about 29% are those people who live here part-time and all the rest are residents, full-time residents, so we have a lot of…

13:28 AB: And you can’t beat the Florida weather, right?

13:30 SM: No. We have a lot of visitors…

13:30 AB: I mean [chuckle] even in February.

13:32 SM: And a lot of visitors to buy artwork. That’s a very good audience, visitors and seasonal.

13:39 AB: Oh, that’s wonderful, that’s wonderful, Sharon. Sharon, what is your biggest hope for visitors like ourselves to experience when we come to visit you, make the plan to make the trip to come and visit you for ArtFest at Fort Myers?

13:55 SM: That you loved being here, that you saw a great artist that you haven’t seen other places. There are art festivals all over the country, but do you have a really great experience and enjoy the artists, and therefore enjoy our community, and visit again. We have a tremendous relationship with our Visitor & Convention Bureau, and working and driving visitor traffic.

14:19 AB: Talk to me about 2021. What are the hopes and plans for it? I do know that you had said about the tickets, so talk to us about 2021. That’s a big undertaking too, now having to consider all the safety protocols and everything.

14:33 SM: Yes, 2021 is challenging. If it’s by February, we’re not out of this yet, so we have been actually attending lots and lots of safety workshops and best practices in the industry and that sort of thing since May, and developed that plan, and now we have trained a lot of… Consulted with more than trained… A lot of other festivals around the country, art festivals, but the big change is that we have to reduce our crowd size. Our crowds today, this year, when you’re there, particularly on Saturday, you can barely see the asphalt when you’re walking. So we can’t have those crowds, so we are fencing our perimeter with low fence, not high fence, low fence, and adding gates and adding the ticket price so that we can reduce the crowd size. We’re gonna accommodate probably 25 to 26,000 over the two and a half days.

15:34 AB: Are you gonna try to keep the same number of vendors?

15:38 SM: No, we reduced the artists from 210 to 150, so that we can spread them out. Currently there are three feet apart, that’s kind of standard in the festival industry, but we need to make everybody a minimum of six feet, so it’s just a math equation, and we reduced the artists.

15:56 AB: Oh, Tetris really, probably, [chuckle] Tetris.

16:00 SM: Yeah, right, we reduced that. There’s some really great online planning tools where you can accurately figure out how many people you can have in a particular space. Those planning tools, it’s funny, those planning tools were originally developed for concert…

16:14 AB: Venues?

16:16 SM: Events where you’re trying to figure out how many people you can put in a mosh pit.

16:20 AB: Wow! [chuckle]

16:21 SM: That’s why they created those, so you didn’t oversell those or other tightly used spaces, and now that same technology is being used to make sure you spread them out far enough, so it’s just kind of funny.

16:35 AB: That is funny, that is funny. We’re using the mosh pits style to…

[overlapping conversation]

16:42 SM: To go this way, right? So we’ve done all of that. We have… So, ticketing, that’s just a really big piece, spreading out the artists, 30 hand-sanitizers station…

16:51 AB: But, Sharon, I do wanna ask… Oh, I’m sorry, go ahead.

16:55 SM: Thirty hand-sanitizer stations, new crews that… We’ve always, for example, kept our restroom trailers clean. We don’t have toilets, we have restroom trailers, but they’re much nicer, and then we’ve always kept them clean, but now they will be cleaned between every use instead of like hourly…

17:15 AB: Periodically.

17:16 SM: Right. And the same thing for all the tables in our dining areas. We have a crew that’s professionally hired. We’re not using volunteers for any of that, just to keep all the surfaces… It’s like going to a restaurant, they clean the tables between every person…

17:31 AB: Every use, yeah.

17:35 SM: That’s just the way it is.

17:36 AB: That’s right, that’s right. But, Sharon, you have been getting kinda creative right now though, I haven’t you with some kinda current events?

17:45 SM: Right.

17:45 AB: Can you touch on that for a minute for us?

17:48 SM: Things like virtual events and that?

17:50 AB: Yeah.

17:51 SM: Right. For several reasons, one of our events is called ArtFest Pop-Up. You can imagine that, or maybe you can’t imagine. On the 11th of March when the NBA canceled, every art festival in the country cancelled within a week all the way through the fall. And so all those artists went from income to zero overnight, and they didn’t have the option of take-out or any other creative thing, it’s different than other businesses. So…

18:21 AB: No real curbside option there. [chuckle]

18:23 SM: No, right? So we were like, “Alright, so now what?” So we do pop-up events. There’s only three artists, there’s only 50 attendees. We do a virtual broadcast with it using not Zoom, but StreamYard so that we can have discussion and all that, and give them selling opportunities. We have another one coming up in November. And then…

18:48 AB: So you’re still showing support to these artists even during this time. This is a really wonderful way, it sounds like, to help them continue that livelihood, right?

18:57 SM: Right, and we did a lot of… In the summer, we did a lot of work. When the CARES Act came out, we did a lot of work online with artists and workshops and webinars about how to take advantage of all of the funding they could get from unemployment or the CARES Act. How they could improve their online selling, what do they need to do to their Facebook pages, their websites? Just to… How do you sell this online, how do you get yourself better engaged? So we’ve done a tremendous amount of training, for which we have hundreds of thank-you emails, which is really satisfying.

19:33 AB: Yeah, I’m really curious, you’re really tapped into kind of the arts community. Have you seen that kind of support this year for one another?

19:43 SM: Between the artists to artists, a great amount of support from what they learn, and from many of the festivals, the festivals that are staffed by paid staff, that actually have… As opposed to being volunteer operated.

19:55 AB: Yeah.

19:56 SM: Many of those have done a tremendous job with their staffs doing workshops and being on the phone and trying to help the artists through this too, as well as helping ourselves through this. We host phone call, ArtFest hosts, co-host… Call every three weeks with festival, art festival directors from all over the country. There’s about 70 of us on the call, just talking about whatever is current now, that keeps changing, whatever is current now to talk about, so we do that. There’s lots of industry best practices, workshops too from the trade associations. So we’ve been doing that and then we’re launching this really cool, full-fledged virtual art festival.

20:41 AB: That’s so exciting. That is so exciting. So Sharon, a lot of us that are listening are anxiously looking forward to something, planning ahead to some better days ahead, right? And so where can our listeners go to help map out and set the dates for 2021 with the ArtFest at Fort Myers?

21:05 SM: You can do ours, we’re always the first weekend of February, it’s, from that same site, you can get to ArtFest@Home, which is our virtual show, under production now, and there you can see all the artists and you can see all the activities that happen at the physical event. We did a lot of filming yesterday for that. We have a lot more to do, but trying to really bring the spirit of the art festival into your home and give you a shopping opportunity. The shopping opportunity is so cool because you can go to all the artists’ virtual booths. If you wanna buy something, you can click on it, it goes in one shopping cart and you pay one time when you check out.

21:46 AB: How fun. That’s so thoughtful.

21:47 SM: And then it shows up at your house, right? Just like all your other online shoppings.

21:51 AB: That’s right. [chuckle]

21:52 SM: And you can talk to the artists. They all have a video chat button that’s hooked to Zoom, so you click that if it’s during their store hours, you pop right into their call, just like here. Somebody would pop in to talk to us because they click that video chat button.

22:08 AB: How great. Now tell us again, Sharon. So the virtual art event, tell us the… Is there particular days that you’re having this?

22:17 SM: Yeah, it’s gonna gonna open about a week before the art festival, so probably January 29th, and it’ll be open about three weeks after it, so it’ll be up for about a month right around the art festival.

22:27 AB: The marker calendars, yeah, for the first of the year, we’ve got something to look forward to.

22:32 SM: So that’ll be on that same website, you just click the other button, right? They’ll both be up there.

22:37 AB: And I’m assuming we can purchase our tickets there too, if we wanna come in person?

22:41 SM: Yes, it’s on the website, yes. The virtual show’s free, but you can certainly purchase tickets for the Art Festival. We are gonna highly encourage people to purchase in advance because it’s much faster to walk in the gate and just scan your ticket, rather than having to stop and pay for it. So we would just assume that people just keep walking right through that gate and not cause any queues or lines or…

23:04 AB: And enjoy themselves, right?

23:05 SM: Go have a good time.

23:06 AB: Being outside, enjoy themselves and find some art. [chuckle]

23:09 SM: Right. That’s our plan, and so far that’s still working. We have a comprehensive plan filed with the city, we have health advisors, epidemiologist advisors to be sure that we have covered everything that we can ’cause obviously the goal is a safe event, right? For everybody, attendees, the artists, the volunteers, so…

23:32 AB: Oh yeah.

23:32 SM: That’s our goal.

23:33 AB: Lots of good things ahead, right?

23:35 SM: Yeah, and there’s many art festivals doing that, you know, and it’s tougher with music, it’s tougher with food, but they’ll get there too.

23:46 AB: It can be done.

23:47 SM: It can be done, Yeah, it can be done. In May, we were all like, “Oh my God, there’s no way this is gonna happen,” and this all these… It was just like overwhelming. And then by the time we got to the beginning of August or so, we’d learned enough to start to feel like, “You know, this is actually doable if one pays attention.”

24:04 AB: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well Sharon, we sincerely appreciate your time and your insight today sharing all the wonderful things with us about ArtFest Fort Myers in Fort Myers, Florida. So thank you so much for your time today.

24:18 SM: You’re welcome. Thanks for talking to us.

24:20 AB: Absolutely. Alright, guys. We hope you enjoyed this episode of Main and Mulberry. Until next time, I’m Anna Bell.


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