110. Key West Art Center

The building before you was built in 1853 near the waterfront. It began as a grocery store owned by George Babcock. It was known as a gathering place for the surrounding neighborhood.

The Great Fire of 1886 seriously damaged the building (see historic marker #28). It was rebuilt as a single story structure with the second floor added in the 1900's. In 1935, it became the first art gallery to exhibit artwork to the public in Key West. Much of the building's success is rooted in a government sponsored art project as a solution to the effects of the Great Depression.

In July 1934, Key West, once one of the richest cities in Florida, formally declared itself bankrupt. Of the 13,000 people who inhabited the town, 80% were on relief rolls and the City was deeply in debt.

Once-flourishing sponge and cigar industries had long since moved elsewhere making it difficult for Key West residents to pay their taxes. Unpainted houses, weedy beaches, debris littered streets and dilapidated storefronts became commonplace, all of which told the story of an isolated city in urgent need of help.

Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Governor Dave Sholtz appointed Julius Stone as head of Florida's Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) to ascertain what could be done. After careful study, Mr. Stone determined the only way to rescue Key West was to embark on an extensive restoration and beautification program to transform the weary, unkempt island town into a vacation paradise.

A significant portion of the city's gallant effort to reinvent itself came through the Federal Art Project (FAP), a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federally sponsored program that supported professional artists who needed work. Stanley Wood and Avery Johnson were the first WPA-FERA artists to arrive in Key West, followed by Alfred Crimi, Eric Johan Smith, Adrian Dornbush, Richard Jensen, and Peter Rotier. Chronicling the wonders of the island, their paintings, etchings and murals were hung throughout the town. Reproductions of their work were made into tourist brochures, posters and postcards and sent throughout the country to entice tourists to visit America's only Caribbean city.

As the reputation of Key West spread, more artists arrived such as Walton Blodgett, Marion Crawford-Parker, Townsend Morgan, and Martha Watson Sauer. In late 1937, the Federal Art Project and the WPA helped the city build a facility "for the encouragement of cultural development in the field of art" and the Key West Community Art Center was born.

As years wore on, the building suffered from its own crisis. Deferred maintenance had weakened the structure and it was on the verge of collapsing on itself. In 1960 the building was condemned. Realizing the significance of the building, local artists and businessmen persuaded Key West City officials to save the building and convert it to a City sponsored art center.

The Art Center quickly became the artistic home for a burgeoning cultural community. Activities at the Center created a widespread interest in art; professional artists, residents, and tourists joined in art lessons, lectures, demonstrations and gallery exhibitions. The cultural movement that began with the WPA project in Key West has influenced virtually every artist who works in this town. The artists change, yet the colors, the scenes and the talents of the island continue to amaze residents and visitors alike as they enter the doors of this still active public art gallery.