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Chalk Festival comes back to the drawing board in Sarasota

Pavement art festival returns to Burns Court to rave reviews from some, but not all are happy.

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  • | 10:00 a.m. April 11, 2019
Hundreds of spectators milled around the festival in Burns Square.
Hundreds of spectators milled around the festival in Burns Square.
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For the first time in more than five years, the streets of Burns Square were adorned with artwork last weekend as the neighborhood hosted the Sarasota Chalk Festival.

The event brought street artists from across the globe to Sarasota to produce intricate chalk designs. To the delight of some merchants in the downtown district, it also brought an influx of visitors.

“I would give it five stars,” said Larry Adami, the owner of Antique Clock Emporium. “We had over 3,000 people in three days — a year’s worth of people came through.”

Despite the glowing review from Adami and others, the Chalk Festival left Burns Square under contentious circumstances in 2014. Some businesses had expressed displeasure with the festival, calling it a disruption after the event expanded to 10 days. Founder Denise Kowal, who launched the event in Burns Court in 2007, said she decided to move it to Venice because of issues with the city’s events policies and fees.

At the time, Kowal expressed some regrets about the circumstances, calling Pineapple Avenue the perfect location for the Chalk Festival even after the move was finalized. Last year, the opportunity to return arose because of an unfortunate development: Avenida de Colores, the nonprofit that runs the festival, decided to cancel the 2018 event because of red tide.

As a result, the group planned two events for 2019: one in Burns Square in the spring and another in Venice in the fall. Following this weekend’s event, Kowal said it was exciting to revisit the Chalk Festival’s roots.

“I think people really enjoyed seeing these world-class artists, and the artists enjoyed being back in downtown Sarasota,” Kowal said. “So many of them feel that’s where their careers started. I think it went incredibly well.”

So: After five years apart, could the Chalk Festival once again become a long-term fixture in Burns Square?

That’s complicated.

Kowal said she’s waiting to see the final budget details before deciding whether Burns Square is a viable location for the chalk festival. The turnout was good, and she said she got positive feedback from neighbors around the event location. But still, Kowal said, there remain challenges in Sarasota. She’s not sure if the festival is capable of overcoming them.

“When we came back here, I was like, ‘Oh, I forgot how hard it is to do this and have to deal with so many moving parts,’” Kowal said. ‘The city, the people in the area, the neighbors, the shop owners — all that. In Venice, all I have to deal with is the Airport Authority. That’s it.”


Taking stock

Kowal continues to have issues with the city’s events regulations.

She said the event was three days because that’s the longest she could request without getting merchant approval for the street closures. Compared to Venice — the Venice Airport Fairgrounds has recently served as the festival’s venue — Kowal said the city’s event review process felt more difficult. She said she had to do more legwork herself, and she didn’t officially receive her permit until about a week before the event.

According to a city spokesman, the city charged about $2,400 in fees for the festival. Although the city has had discussions about revising its downtown events policies in the years following the chalk festival’s departure, it is not currently considering any changes to existing regulations.

Kowal was also concerned about the crowds the event drew in Sarasota. The event included a $10 recommended donation for admission, foregoing a mandatory entrance fee to avoid incurring additional expenses with the city. She was disappointed to see some attendees sharing their admission stickers with others to avoid having to pay the $10, saying it was a challenge for the festival to break even on its expenses.

“If someone genuinely can’t afford to give, of course we want you there,” Kowal said “But we need people who can afford it to donate generously.”

She said the festival was only able to make back its budget once it started charging for admission in Venice a few years ago. She was hesitant to do that in Sarasota, where the festival had previously relied on a donation-based model, but she also said the budget was a driving factor in whether the event could return.

“We hate begging for money; we hate having to prove what we do is important,” Kowal said. “We’re artists, and we want to create.”

Although the $10 donation wasn’t required, it did become a point of frustration for some Burns Square businesses.

 John Farr, a co-owner of the furniture store McCormack & Company, was upset visitors to his store ended up paying for access to the festival just so they could get to the business.

“I think it should be in the streets, but there should be a way they don’t cut off merchants’ businesses,” Farr said.

Farr said the event didn’t result in increased sales for him, but other merchants said the festival was a boon for business. Kari Staples, owner of Pineapple Bay Trading Company, reported an increase in sales at her store.

Acknowledging some merchants had been critical of the Chalk Festival in the past, Staples said it was a luxury to not rely on the spike in activity associated with the event.

“They might not need it,” Staples said. “We do.”

Aferdita Spata, owner of Burns Court Bistro & Wine Bar, said many of the festival attendees found their way into her restaurant. 

She was happy not only for the additional business, but for the exposure for Burns Square.

“It brought the community together,” Spata said. “I would love it to come back here, honestly.”

Spata isn’t the only one who expressed that sentiment. Kurt Wenner, a pioneer of three-dimensional pavement art who debuted a new technology at this year’s event, said there were benefits to holding the event in Burns Square.

“It’s kind of nice to be in a city center in Sarasota,” he said. “It feels more like a normal pavement art experience, in that you’re in the structure of a civic environment — with all of its complications, but also the feeling of being in the town.”

The future of the Chalk Festival in Sarasota remains to be seen. As Kowal plots whether Burns Square is a sustainable venue, some stakeholders are rooting for a true homecoming.

“I hope it comes back,” Staples said. “She can do it twice a year, for all I care.”


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