Similarly, sculpture artist Theodore Gall has displayed here for more than 36 years. “I used to live in Chicago, so it was a natural time to leave the cold and run down to the warmth of Miami,” Gall, 71, said from his home in Ojai, Calif. “If you find an avenue that works for you, you stick to it. Miami loves art, and you’ve got an awful lot of guys like me.”
But along with the crowds and familiar faces, there have been the inevitable growing pains. The mid-1990s was a period of instability, marked by a rotating cast of directors. By the turn of the millennium, patrons and national artist groups began complaining publicly that the show had grown too large, with too many ancillary draws — like food and music — competing with the art. Applications from artists for about 300 spaces fell from about 2,000 to 1,400 in 2001 and, during the recession, declined further to about 1,200 in 2010.
But prudent fixes, such as fencing the area to better control crowds, moving the food and music attractions farther from the artists’ booths and implementing a strict two-day juried process restored the festival’s reputation.
About 1,400 applications arrived this year, said festival president Monty Trainer, and organizers have added space to allow for 380 artists. About 75 of these artists will have already participated last week in the festival’s Visiting Artists Program, making appearances at local schools to foster students’ appreciation for art and promote careers in it.
That outreach program began in 1986 with artists Jones and Marc Sijan, who visited two elementary schools in Coconut Grove after veteran educator Von Beebe, then principal at Coconut Grove’s Frances S. Tucker Elementary, realized a need.
“Some of the best artists in the country were coming each year to display their work here, yet there were no programs to enable local students to interact with the artists and to experience the nation’s best arts festival. As a local school principal, I felt that we were missing a wonderful educational moment for the community’s children,” said Beebe, who now works as an academic counselor at the Carrollton School in Coconut Grove.
The outreach program now accepts applications from 150 public and private schools in South Florida. Beebe recalled that Jones delighted children with his mechanical wood creations at that first Visiting Artists session.
“When I first started doing the show it was a high-quality show, but then it had stuff that in our business we refer to as craft stuff, not as sophisticated. And over time the quality seemed to climb,” Jones said. “The market there wants a higher quality type of work. You can sell things to people who are looking to spend money, and that enables us to spend time working on something. I’m working on a piece for next year that takes several hundred hours.”
Meantime, Cinnamon’s publicity stunt that grew into something far more reaching merrily rolls along.
“Fifty years is more than the Super Bowl. More than the number of presidents,” said Trainer, who confirms that plans to honor Cinnamon with an installation at Kenneth M. Myers Bayside Park in the Grove could become a reality in the spring.
“He keeps getting better, like the Energizer Bunny,” Trainer said.
Cinnamon, never one to promote himself — nor reveal his age — nonetheless is touched.
“That is such wonderful news,” he said of the honor, quickly turning attention back to the festival. “It has grown into a definitive art show and that is an incredible, wonderful feeling to have begun something and see it mature to what it is today.”
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.