It might have been hard to imagine in 1993, when the Cultural Arts Association (CAA) was first incorporated as a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, the number of lives it would touch and in how many ways. Now celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, the CAA, since renamed the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County, has redefined what it means to support art in the community.
This year, the CAA is the chosen beneficiary for Alys Beach Crafted, the collection of events celebrating crafted beverages, the culinary arts, and fine craftsmanship to be held October 25 through 28. Jennifer Steele, the CAA’s executive director, says it’s a natural extension of the longstanding relationship the CAA has enjoyed with Alys Beach and the Alys Foundation. “They have been very willing and supportive of new programs, so we have developed a great level of trust,” she says.“The relationship that has been building over the years, as well as the nature of the event—the fact that it focuses on craftsmanship and art—makes it a natural pairing.”
The Alys Foundation supports the CAA through general programming funds as well as specific initiatives. These include Art on Demand, a program the CAA launched as a new way to engage the community during the pandemic and public events came to a halt. Local experts were recruited to create free, virtual workshops on songwriting, mixology, sand sculpting, architecture, figure drawing, mural painting, even the art of charcuterie—anything people might enjoy learning and experiencing while largely restricted to their homes.“While we were all in flux and not knowing what was going to happen, art for many people was a saving grace,” Jennifer says. With the Alys Foundation’s support, Art on Demand has since expanded to include a variety of in-person workshops as well.
Long before that, many already knew of the CAA through popular events like the 30A Songwriters Festival, a four-day music extravaganza that takes places every January with more than 200 songwriters and musicians performing original music at locations all along Highway 30A in South Walton. Locals and visitors also experience the CAA through the Art in Public Spaces program, which has grown to include the nation’s first Underwater Museum of Art, featuring more than forty sculptures off the coast of Grayton Beach that act as artificial reefs. TIME Magazine has included the underwater museum on its list of the “World’s 100 Greatest Places.”
Jennifer is also excited about the Watersound® Monarch Art Trail, an outdoor sculpture program created with the St. Joe Community Foundation to place eight sculptures along the South Watersound Parkway’s walking and biking path.“We’re also working with Florida Department of Transportation, Walton County, and Scenic Walton to install public art at the county’s first pedestrian underpass at Inlet Beach,” Jennifer says,“and we’re partnering with the Walton County Tourism Department to install murals and other public art throughout Walton County. So we have a lot of new public art projects in the works, and that excites us.”
The CAA’s focus on inclusivity helped inspire another program close to Jennifer’s heart—the Prison Art Program, which the Alys Foundation supports as a partner. The Prison Art Program provides a creative outlet for men incarcerated at the Walton Correctional Institution by inviting them to create original art for an exhibit, which the men named “Con-scious Expressions: An Insider’s Perspective.” The men also receive art materials and take art classes, and more recently a songwriting instructor began a residency at the prison.
“Too often, once people are sent to prison, they are rarely thought of,” Jennifer says. “We wanted to be able to reach that population that gets forgotten.”
Reflecting on the CAA’s thirty years and her own fifteen with the organization, Jennifer marvels at growing from a staff of two when she started to a staff of ten today, and seemingly doing the work of many more. “Sometimes in staff meetings I can’t stop smiling, because my staff is so inspired and excited, and they’re always thinking of new ways we can make impact,” she says.“It keeps me wanting to accomplish things for the creative community and the community at large.”
Meanwhile, she adds, supporters of the CAA seem to understand better than ever the importance of art to sustain a healthy community. “Businesses, the private sector, and the public sector are coming to us now with ideas and questions, and it’s nice to be on the other side of that instead of trying to convince people that the arts matter,” she says.“I think they already know it.”