Founding a festival

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By Bev Ringenberg


Special to the Beacon


Newcomers to Cedar Key generally aren’t here very long before they hear the name Bessie Gibbs. Long-time residents remember well the woman from New York who arrived here in 1946 and, along with her husband, Loyal (AKA “Gibby”), bought and restored the Historic Hotel. According to a newspaper article titled “Where Bessie Lives” written by Jack McClintock around 1967, the hotel was actually a bordello at the time they bought it, but it wasn’t long before she had turned it in to a nationally famous seafood restaurant approved by “Gourmet Magazine” and written up in “National Geographic.”

If you visit the Cedar Key Cemetery and look at the first headstone on the left past the entrance gates, you will see a memorial to Bessie Gibbs.  On the headstone, listed with a few other ‘hats’ she wore in her 29 years in Cedar Key – like mayor, fire chief, and judge – you will see that she is first remembered as “Founder (of the) Arts Festival.”

Pictures at the Historical Society certainly document that there were events where art was displayed in Cedar Key before the inaugural Spring Arts Festival on June 6 and 7, 1964. But, multiple news pieces confirm that it was in 1964 that Mrs. Gibbs and her committee, including Bob Brannon and Sally Tileston, started what was referred to in its early years as the Sidewalks Arts Festival.  

There were 40 artists and “over 400 paintings” at the first festival, no entry fees and $160 in awards (3rd place, $25, went to Carmen Day of Cedar Key). The event grew almost exponentially with 114 artists, $500 in prize money and an estimated 5,000 visitors in 1969, to 400 artists, $500 to Best of Show alone and crowds estimated to be as high as 45,000 in 1974, the year before the festival totally overwhelmed the town (see upcoming article “The Year the Festival got too Big”).

By the time of Miss Bessie’s untimely death in 1975 at the age of 64, she had stepped back from being Chairman of the event because of failing health, but in an article from the Gainesville Sun, dated March 26, 1972, it was written that “the festival has emerged from the ranks of the unknown into one of the most promising arts competitions and displays in the state.” Clearly, Miss Bessie’s vision had been realized.

Miss Bessie must have been a pretty amazing person to know. I suspect some people didn’t like the big city ideas that she brought to Cedar Key at the time, but I think most of us who appreciate Cedar Key as it is today can respect her remarkable leadership.  And, by the way, if you do go out to see the gravestone, you’ll see that Miss Bessie was also memorialized as “Friend.”

This year’s Spring Arts Festival, which is now known as the Old Florida Celebration of the Arts, will be the 50th.  Join in the celebration of the event planned for April 12 and 13, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.  The Cedar Key Arts Center’s April Show, which opens April 5,  5-7 p.m.,  is titled “50 Years of Art Festivals in Cedar Key.”  The exhibit will be open daily through the month of April, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. 

For more information about the event go to www.cedarkeyartsfestival.com.  If you would like to volunteer to help at the festival, or support the festival by becoming a Purchase Award Patron, contact the Event Coordinator at 352-543-5400 or cedarkeyartsfestival@gmail.com.