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The little art festival that did

For the past 31 years, Art Festival Beth-El has been building its reputation as one of the best shows in the Southeast by presenting well-edited shows.

Most of the show's volunteer leaders _ Ellie Argintar, Sonya Miller, Donna Berman, Nan Bugatch, Jan Sher, Ann Soble and Barbara Sterensis _ have worked together for years, spending weeks visiting other shows in their search for new artists to add to their mix.

This year's show, one of the oldest in Florida, opens Saturday and runs through Monday at Temple Beth-El, with a variety of art and craft in many media and price ranges by about 150 artists.

Argintar and Thelma Rothman started the festival in 1973 with 20 artists.

"The art all came from a gallery in Palm Beach," said Miller, a longtime guiding light of the festival. "They were asked to donate their work, which they were very nice about doing, but it was all their leftovers that hadn't sold. Once we started having awards and letting them sell their work, artists began sending in their best."

Together, the committee goes to every art festival in Florida and several large ones in other parts of the country to find new artists. Miller says that, like last year, much of the art they found the most exciting was figurative and representational rather than abstract.

"But the biggest trend is glass," she said. "There are at least five more glass artists than we've had in the past, from all over the United States. Some of the work is very massive, some ethereal. Color seems to be very important. We have examples of both blown and cast glass."

Miller also said she was surprised at the number of sculptors working in bronze, given the expense of working with that metal and the difficulty of "finding foundries where the work can be cast." She said three artists working in bronze made the cut this year.

Most of the award winners from last year will be back, including Best of Show winner Stephen Bach, a painter, along with winners from years past, such as ceramicist James Cook, who, Miller said, is bringing new work.

"We want artists who have shown before to have new things," she said. "We look for that because it indicates an artist is growing, looking for new techniques or a new approach to a subject."

This year's judge is Andy Maass, formerly director of the Tampa Museum of Art and now director of the Florida Holocaust Museum. It's a small purse he has to give away _ $6,000 total compared to $50,000 distributed at Tampa's Mainsail festival, for example. But because of the show's prestige and the well-heeled collectors who patronize it, artists can walk away with sales that compensate.

The festival does not release sales numbers, but Miller said that last year, despite the sluggish economy, it did very well; organizers are even more optimistic about this year's financial success.

"We're going great guns," she said. "We have more purchase awards than we've ever had, which leads us to believe people are in the mood to purchase good art." (Purchase awards are pledges patrons make to spend between $500 and $2,500 at the show.)

Miller herself has been a generous patron of the show over the years.

"My house is made up of art from this show," she said. "And it fills me with such joy when I go somewhere else and recognize art that was bought at the festival."

In addition to the main show inside the temple, the festival offers limited-edition prints from Syd Entel Galleries, a sculpture garden and a boutique that sells more moderately priced art and craft. On Monday, the Avenue of Shops opens, offering affordable gift items and jewelry. Also on view is a juried exhibition of work by local high school students.

Serious buyers will have first pick at a preview cocktail reception Saturday, $20 at the door; admission to the show is free Sunday and Monday.