The Eastern Shore Art Center in Fairhope has served as the cornerstone of the art community for as many years as I can remember. Since 2017, Bryant Whelan has been its Executive Director. Bryant has announced her retirement at the end of May, and a search for her replacement has recently been completed. Hers are indeed big shoes to fill!

Bryant and I sat down to discuss the programs and activities she helped orchestrate during her tenure and what she looks forward to as she leaves her post. Born in Mobile, Bryant was a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal School‘s fourth graduating class, having attended all 13 years of her primary education there. She earned her Fine Arts degree in Visual Communications at Auburn, which prepared her for a 25-year career in advertising and marketing.

With stops along the way, in Atlanta, Nashville, and Mobile, she took a bit of time away from the hectic advertising world to raise her children and began doing “decorative painting,” which allowed more time with her kids. She also worked for three years at the advertising agency McCann Erickson Worldwide in Edinburgh, Scotland. “I want to go back and rent a place for a month or two. I loved it there,” she says.

After raising her daughters, Bryant remarried after reconnecting with her high school sweetheart, Patrick Whelan. Recalling the first time she met Patrick at age 16 while on a school public service outing, Whelan said, “It was love at first sight.” She told her girlfriends then and there, “he’s the man I am going to marry.” But the romance was short-lived. Patrick’s father was Dean of Academics at Spring Hill College at the time, and before their senior year, his family moved to Chicago.

Bryant’s family grew up sailing on Mobile Bay. Their sailboat was named the Waltzing Matilda. When she and Patrick went on their first date, she asked him if he liked to sail. “No, but my dad has a sailboat called the Waltzing Matilda.”  Unbeknownst to Bryant, Patrick’s father had bought the boat from her father. That same 1972 O’Day Mariner is now happily part of Bryant and Patrick’s boating entourage.

After leaving the advertising business in 2011, Bryant was approached by Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center members in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. “I became the Executive Director of The Mary C. We loved it there,” she says. “Ocean Springs is an artist community.” 

Bryant had been the Vice President of Business Development for Red Square Agency in Mobile for six years. “I was concerned it would be a huge change going from a for-profit business to the nonprofit world. But it turned out that business development in advertising is similar to writing grants, creating sponsorships, and soliciting donations. My skills translated well.”  

Bryant found that arts leadership was a wonderful way to immerse herself self in the community. “Artists are fun people to hang around. Plus, I was spurred to return to my artistic roots and begin making art again. I was surrounded by inspiring artists.” 

During her tenure in Ocean Springs, a group of Eastern Shore community leaders came to visit to see what they could learn and bring ideas back to Fairhope to enhance the established art community at home. It was also about this time that her daughter was engaged and asked to have her marriage ceremony in Fairhope. 

They were riding down Scenic 98 looking out on the Bay when her daughter asked, “Do you think that the people in Fairhope take these views for granted?” “Not for a second,” was Bryant’s reply. “These events were foretelling of things to come,” she says.

Soon, a couple of friends contacted Bryant to tell her that there was an opening for an Executive Director at the Easter Shore Art Center. She interviewed, got a call immediately after, and accepted the job. Bryant’s husband Patrick worked remotely for NASA and was also game for the move. “Something felt really good about moving to Fairhope.”

She arrived on the job at the Eastern Shore Art Center in 2017 with clear goals in mind: create a sound financial footing, expand programming, and build a solid base of donor support. “I arrived at the end of a $500,000 capital campaign that we needed to complete. That was step one,” she says. “As with any staff change, we needed to create momentum and draw new participants and donors.”

‘“The number one thing that people want to know is that you will be a good steward of the money entrusted to the organization. People need to know that the funds we raise will work well for building the community.”  A five-year plan was developed, and she is proud that each goal has been exceeded. 

“The Eastern Shore Art Center is on solid financial footing,” she says. “We have paid off our mortgage, created investment accounts, and increased our number of programs by fifty percent. We have the capacity to pay for great staff and hire experienced teachers. That makes a huge difference.”

Under Bryant’s leadership, ESAC has launched several new programs that have become well-attended annual events. This includes the White Linen Night Gala in May, an Annual Fund Campaign that offers up to a $50,000 matching fund, and an annual online art auction called Art Squared. 

The Fairhope Plein Air event brings over 60 artists from seven states to Fairhope to paint for a week each year.  There is now also an annual free family event called “The Art of…” that brings in hundreds of kids to participate in art/science. Themes have included the Butterfly, the Fungi, and the Sea Turtle. It is a free family event for the entire community.

ESAC has held over 50 art workshops this past year in addition to their quarterly 8-week classes. “Our pottery classes are so popular we could open a separate facility just to teach pottery.” They managed to get through Covid better than most national art institutes. “We went after every bit of funding we could find, and that enabled us to keep our staff.”

“Everybody loves the Art Center,” says Bryant, “but many people still don’t know we are here.”  She goes on to say, “There is still a lot of untapped potential. The Eastern Shore Art Center will keep moving forward under new leadership.” The new director will be announced soon. “There is something wonderful and magical about Fairhope. People are all in. The Art Center becomes your community.”

What’s next for Bryant? “We love where we are. My main priority will be spending more time with my family, including my three grandchildren in Memphis and Birmingham. I want to go to my studio and paint. I am a member of Mississippi Art Colony, one of the oldest continuous art colonies in the country, so now I’ll be attending sessions twice a year. I hope to travel for artist residencies. And I want to get out on the water more.”

Sounds like a plan! Good luck to Bryant in all her future endeavors, and we offer our heartfelt gratitude for all you have accomplished on behalf of the Eastern Shore art community. Best wishes!

May 17, 2023
Artsy Side Of Life

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