No doubt, this job has its benefits. Through a mutual friend, I was introduced to Maria V. Goldberg over lunch at Fish House Restaurant located on Pensacola’s waterfront. Maria is the Director of Marketing, Public Relations, and Events for Great Southern Restaurants which owns Fish House.
Before joining the restaurant, and events company, Maria served as the Executive Director of Pensacola’s Museum of Art. Her list of involvement in arts, culture, and entertainment organizations will leave you breathless, so who better to give Linda and me a tour of Pensacola’s art scene? On a Thursday morning, we met at Bodacious Olive to talk about the history and people behind the thriving art and entertainment community.
“We are fortunate to have had these people that wanted the Big Five that every city of note wants to enhance the quality of life in their city: an art museum, a symphony orchestra, an opera, the performing arts theater, and the ballet.” For a metropolitan area of about 450,000 or so, Pensacola has had the Big Five for decades. “This didn’t just happen,” says Maria. “Fast forward to today, and we have so many galleries, organizations, and festivals related to arts and culture because of the “Big Five” that were established here years ago.”
Throughout Pensacola, you will see sculptures, murals on buildings, open markets, and festivals that are held almost every week. “The arts and cultural community have the community’s support,” she says. For the last century, the city has had lots of generous donors to ensure the art scene thrives. It was and is important to them. She goes on to say, “Every organization has strong people that support their favorite form of art. It has resulted in a richer, fuller existence in Pensacola.”
These huge proponents of the arts are often found behind the scenes. Maria says, “People craved the arts during the pandemic. The restrictions created a greater appreciation, and we missed it terribly.” When Covid shut things down, the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra held a socially-distanced Symphony on the Plaza, as well as Opera al Fresco outside by the Pensacola Opera. They were so well-received, they kept them.
“When the arts are part of the community, it makes a better community,” she says. Maria told the story of an Ohio couple that owned a worldwide business and was thinking of relocating to Pensacola. The first thing they wanted to know when visiting was about the arts. That was twenty-five years ago. “You may not go every day, but you want them here, and that, in itself, is comforting.”
Maria came to Pensacola twenty-five years ago after earning her undergraduate in Art History and master’s degrees in Arts Administration at Florida State University. Having grown up in the Panhandle, Maria was hired to serve as Director of Development for the Arts Council of Northwest Florida. A year and a half later, the Council was dissolved, and she was named Executive Director of the Pensacola Museum of Art, where she worked for over eight years before leaving to pursue other interests.
Since leaving the Museum of Art, Maria has remained very much involved in the Pensacola art scene, serving on boards and helping to create new programs and events while working closely with the benefactors that support the arts throughout the city. She worked alongside fellow arts advocate David Bear and many others on Arts Culture and Entertainment, INC, (Or ACE), a non-profit organization in Escambia County that raises funds through government, corporate, and individual sources as well as provides grants supporting the arts.
ACE’s mission is to be the premier arts and culture community, growing and raising awareness of the arts to enhance the quality of life for Pensacola residents. In 2014, ACE led the effort to create Foo Foo Fest, a 12-day celebration held during Pensacola’s shoulder season. Foo Foo Fest starts on the first full weekend of November and has something for everyone interested in art, music, live performances, and just about every cultural experience you can imagine.
Visit Pensacola is the organization that promotes Pensacola’s beautiful beaches, by far the biggest generator of tourism dollars to the city. ACE is there to create tourism through Arts, Culture, and Entertainment. Maria worked closely with David Bear to get Foo Foo Fest off the ground. David approached the county commissioners about supporting ACE and developing a celebration that would attract visitors between November and February. “David set all this in motion. We knew the event had to be cool and had to be fun or we didn’t want to do it,” says Maria. “It was all David’s vision; it has been wonderful to be part of something really special.”
Foo Foo Fest hired Hummingbird Ideas, a small, boutique marketing agency in Mobile to help launch the event. They came up with the name Foo Foo Festival, and it was perfect! “Pensacola is a Navy town. A Foo Foo is a promptitude musical gathering on a naval ship,” says Maria, who has served as a committee member since inception and as chairperson for three years. The Festival is celebrating its tenth anniversary this fall.
Pensacola’s Great Gulfcoast Art Festival is celebrating 51 years this Fall and starts things off leading into Foo Foo Fest. The Festival is followed immediately by the Blue Angels Homecoming Airshow at NAS Pensacola. The Foo Foo Fest committee organize, plan, and provide grants to various artistic non-profit groups that are intricately woven into the two-week celebration. In addition, there are over 50 Friends of Foo who also present arts, cultural, and entertainment programming during this two-week time frame. Foo Foo Fest, through Hummingbird Ideas and Giant Noise markets the festival and events to the entire southeast region.
Gallery Night Pensacola is every 3rd Friday of the month and has been happening for 25 or 30 years now. The Palafox Market is one of our favorite things to do on a Saturday. It started small and operated for four months out of the year. It has slowly expanded to encompass four blocks and operates year-round from 9 AM until 2 PM every Saturday. They have recently announced another two-block expansion to include Ferdinand Square.
Ferdinand Square is the cornerstone of the Pensacola art community’s Museum of Art, Artel Gallery, Performing Arts Center, the Saenger Theater, and Vinyl Music Hall. Downtown businesses benefit significantly from the markets, restaurants, and entertainment venues, making it a destination spot surrounding the art museums and performing arts venues.
Throughout Pensacola’s revitalization, you will find historic preservation taking place with cultural aspects front and center. The old jail now houses the Museum of Art. The old City Hall is now the Pensacola Museum of History. The old Courthouse is now The Center, where Pensacola’s Little Theater is located. Thanks in large part to the Clark family, it is undergoing renovations, including a theater overhaul, gallery repurposing as well as the creation of a rooftop performance venue and café upon completion. Arts organizations are offered office space from which to operate here including Pensacola Ballet, West Florida Literary Foundation, the Stamped Film Festival (LGBTQ) and many more.
The old Courthouse was leased to Artel Gallery, for one dollar a year. It serves as a center for the arts community with rotating local exhibits. Opened in 2014, it highlights the diversity of the City through exhibits representative of the cultural groups that have shaped Pensacola’s history. On our recent visit, the vision of artist and graphic designer, Joe Vinson, was on display with his “Lost Pensacola” exhibition.
In the fall of 2017, the University of West Florida’s Historic Trust installed murals in downtown Pensacola. It was through this initiative that Pop Murals began. Today, there are currently 12 historic images of Pensacola’s rich history on the sides of buildings with QR codes explaining the history behind the image.
One of Pensacola’s newest cultural additions is America’s First Settlement Trail. There is a three-mile red line loop on sidewalks throughout the hub of the arts and cultural center with badges and QR codes telling Pensacola’s history including where then Governor Andrew Jackson first took possession of Florida, and the American flag was raised for the very first time. When bike racks were needed along downtown and Palafox Street, artist Evan Levin, who also owns Vinyl Music Hall with his brother, wanted to do something fun and creative. So, they did.
We conclude our walking tour of Pensacola’s art scene amazed and impressed. This didn’t just happen and the cultural arts in Pensacola are there because the people of Pensacola want them and support them. The Palafox Street transformation in the last 10 years is remarkable. From boarded-up storefronts to the vibrant entertainment destination it is today. It has resurrected Downtown Pensacola. The grand dame of Palafox Street is the Saenger Theater where many of the premier cultural events still take place.
Thank you, Maria, for a wonderful tour! You are an inspiration and Pensacola is truly fortunate to have your time, talents, and treasure working hard behind the scenes to continue the City’s rich cultural tradition.