Will West Palm’s downtown be next big “art hub”?

South Beach wasn’t always South Beach. Twenty-five years ago, Ocean Drive was where your grandparents sat in folding chairs and played pinochle.

The strip became the international draw it is today when people with a sense of aesthetics, humanity and drive re-imagined it corner-by-corner and amped up its vitality in a way your grandparents couldn’t imagine possible. That spirit spread inland to the sleepy Design District and warehouse-filled Wynwood and draws ever-bigger crowds from around the world to Art Basel each year.

West Palm Beach is at a crossroads similar to where Miami was in the 1990s.

At the verge of a development boom, West Palm has a core of civic activists intent on making it more livable and taking it out of the shadow of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. This year’s Canvas Outdoor Museum Show, starting in November, promises to put a spotlight on those efforts, lure visitors from Art Basel and infuse public art into urban life on a permanent basis.

The show’s debut last year featured some 20 murals around the city, with a lineup of local and international artists whose works came to life in plain view. The works remain an attraction for bike tours and other visitors from downtown to Northwood Village.

Founder Nicole Henry, a Fern Street gallery owner with an art history background, says this year’s show also will include top international artists, including Pichi Avo, Laura Kimpton, David Walker and Ernest Zacharevic. It will go beyond murals and spread its imprint year-round, aiming to build a permanent presence in waterfront parks and elsewhere.

Canvas Art Charities, the nonprofit she formed to create the show, has a $1 million budget, which Henry said will come from philanthropists, grants, corporate sponsorships and the city, including West Palm’s Art in Public Places program, Downtown Development Authority and Community Redevelopment Agency. The money will bring in artists and pay for outdoor sculptures, lighting and other installations, as well as shipping containers to serve as canvases for outdoor murals.

The main locations will be along the Flagler Drive Waterfront, stretching from Banyan Street to Quadrille, an area that she has divided into five separate art parks, some to take shape this year, others in years ahead.

At the site of the old city hall and former Helen Wilkes hotel off Banyan, for example, Henry plans to work with developer Frank Navarro to convert those grounds into an art park in 2017. Navarro won city approval to redevelop the site with a hotel and two-story restaurant, and his firm will pay to have the land those structures overlook converted into the park, Henry said.

The sections just to the north come to life sooner, from Kids Art Park on Flagler between 2nd and 3rd streets; Chamber Park, between 3rd and 4th; Installation Park, near the ‘Darth Vader’ office tower between 4th and 5th; and Sculpture Park, between 5th Street and Quadrille Boulevard. “Eventually, the plan is to activate the whole city,” Henry said.

The Canvas Local Showdown starts Nov. 11 in Northwood Village. Organizers are putting out the call now for top local artists from Miami-Dade to Martin counties to compete. The top seven selected each will get a shipping container to paint a mural on. The public will get to vote on their favorite pieces and the winner will get a shot to return in 2017.

The idea is to showcase local artists, while giving them a chance to network with the bigger international names also participating in the show, Henry said.

Beyond muralists, she said, Canvas is looking for the best contemporary artists from photography to videos, installation art and sculpture.

Henry, who grew up in Miami, said another goal of the event will be to attract Art Basel artists and patrons to spend a little extra time and drive up to see the West Palm Beach show.

“West Palm Beach is the next big art hub,” she said. “It’s just an untapped market.”

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