By LENNIE BENNETT
Times Art Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — Every art festival in our area is old enough to have a sense of tradition. But Art Festival Beth-El, opening Saturday with a cocktail reception and continuing through Monday, seems especially venerable. A remarkable fact about the festival, now in its 36th year, has been its organizers' ability to pack a lot into little space. Unlike most outdoor festivals whose booths seem to spread as far as the eye can see, Beth-El is housed inside, within the confines of Temple Beth-El.
The result is a highly edited collection from about 150 artists from around the United States. The selection process differs from most other festivals that use a committee to review submissions from artists. For Beth-El, a small group of women, most of whom have volunteered for the festival for decades, choose and invite the artists. They work all year seeking new artists to add to the mix of perennial favorites and bestsellers; through the years, the festival has gained a stellar reputation. Profits benefit the temple's educational and outreach programs.
A drawback to the format for some festivalgoers is that participating artists aren't required to attend and most don't, since they don't set up individual booths or handle their sales, so we don't have the chance to chat with them.
But the experience is fun. The art is stacked up the walls and arrayed on temporary partitions and tables, allowing us to see much more all at once and make mental comparisons.
The festival has, in recent years, spilled beyond the temple into walkways and classrooms to include a sculpture garden, student art and a boutique with lower-priced items.
This year's judge is Mark Ormond, a distinguished independent curator who will award $7,000 in prize money, a small purse compared with other shows because Festival Beth-El does not seek corporate sponsors. That has never seemed to deter good artists, probably because sales have always been strong. Let's hope that tradition continues.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.