GULFPORT - People looking for locally produced art can find it in Gulfport, but it isn't always easy. The town's art gallery, Domain, showcases local artists, and the Industrial Art Center artists often have their compact galleries open along "Artist's Alley", but come the Art Walk nights, people would often complain the street vendors didn't sell enough art.
A group called Collective Soulz, with the support of the Gulfport Merchant's Association, wants to help change all that. Organizer Mark Spence, a Gulfport local who supports the arts but stops short of calling himself an artist, explains that, for a new artist, the street fairs and festivals can overwhelm.
"They don't want to get a booth because they're going to have to get a tent, table, lights, and they may not make it," he said.
Enter Collective Soulz, a 100 percent free launching pad for emerging artists. Spence, along with Terry Foster and the unwavering support of the downtown businesses, offers a low-risk, safe space for new artists to "try on" the Art Walks.
Here's how it works: artists have three Art Walks to display their art at the Collective Soulz table (always at the north end of Beach Boulevard). During these three Art Walks, they will have the chance to see if the sort of art they make is the sort of art people want to see at street festivals and gallery walks. If it is and the artist decides to start setting up his or her own table at Art Walk, they agree to reserve part of their own booth for another emerging artist.
"This gives them the ability to be able to see if they can actually make it as a working artist," Spence said. "And then if they do, then what they'll do is pay for a booth, we'll help them set up, they'll set up next to us, and they will, in turn, reserve another small part of their tent for another new artist."
Spence said he came up with the idea in December and started Collective Soulz because he realized Art Walk's void of artists had little to do with a lack of artists in Gulfport, but the costs and logistics of setting up a tent at festivals.
"I see so many people who make art who should be accessible to people who buy art, but they have no means to do it," Spence said.
Art Walk organizer Suzanne King praised Collective Soulz, saying she hears a call for more artists but has difficulty getting them to display at the twice-monthly celebration of Gulfport.
"When Art Walks started years ago, there were galleries whom have since closed their doors," she said "but now? It's harder and harder to convince artists to pay the money to rent booth space, set up a display, brave the outdoor elements and take a chance. People don't realize the expenses street vendors have – they have to buy tents, tables, lights. It isn't cheap. I'm thrilled the local community saw a need and stepped in to help. We've gotten great feedback on the first few nights where Collective Soulz had emerging artists on display."
Collective Soulz currently represents 12 artists whose talents range from photography to pottery and from drawing to music. For King, Spence, and everyone involved with Art Walk, Collective Soulz can't move fast enough to add more art back into Art Walk.
"Every time we can infuse art into this wonderful town," she said, spreading her arms to illustrate her point, "everyone wins."