Beloved Beaches Fine Arts Series Turns 50

Executive Director Kathy Wallis shares history and highlights

BFAS’s home concert venue, St. Paul’s By-the-Sea Episcopal Church

Jim Johnson moved to the Jacksonville beaches from Chicago in 1967 to take the post of choirmaster and organist at St. Paul’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church (SPBTS). Finding a dearth of classical music in the beaches area, Johnson sought to change that. He founded the Beaches Fine Arts Series (BFAS) in 1972, offering free concerts in the church’s acoustically renowned sanctuary and built on his “belief in the power of great music to positively affect all people.”  Fifty years later, BFAS continues to offer North Florida the chance to enjoy free performance seasons featuring world-class music and dance concerts, along with visual art by regional artists. Programming includes an eclectic mix of styles from classical to contemporary, jazz to world music, and traditional to avant-garde. BFAS’s mission is to be inclusive, diverse, and artist driven. 

Kurt Elling and UNF Jazz Ensemble 1 at UNF

Kathy Wallis was a singer in SPBTS’s choir under Johnson’s direction and a BFAS volunteer when Johnson decided to retire in 1997. Looking to ensure that BFAS would continue, he asked Wallis to take over because, as she puts it, “he wanted to have someone take over who knew it well.” Being a vocal artist, Wallis was committed to BFAS, but new to directing a nonprofit when she accepted the position as Johnson’s successor and executive director. As the organization celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Wallis has not only kept Johnson’s vision alive—offering continued, stellar, and free concert programming—but she has also helped it grow. BFAS now includes educational outreach that prioritizes school concerts, especially for students at schools lacking resources, and concerts that are broadcast to a national audience on National Public Radio’s Performance Today. BFAS believes in the power of music to affect the lives of young people. The BFAS educational outreach programs were awarded a state-wide award—the Distinguished Service Award—by the Florida Music Educators Association in recognition of their work with North Florida schools.

BFAS is community-supported, and their motto is “We are BFAS, you are BFAS.” Local business, church, school, and service organizations help with receptions and ushering at the concerts, acting as community hosts. A separate, large volunteer corps, collectively called the concert crew, assists at concerts and fundraisers, including BFAS’s major annual fundraiser, First Coast Dancing with the Stars. The ability to remain free relies on these fundraisers, along with community financial support such as corporate sponsorships, grants, foundation support, and individual donations.  

Marcus Roberts Trio outreach

To celebrate its anniversary year, BFAS has selected a slate of audience favorites to return for this performance season. The 50th anniversary visual artists roster includes artists never before exhibiting on the series. The work of Chris Clark (Cooli Ras), Marisa Yow, Jessica Hall, Elena Ohlander, Dawn Montgomery, Debbie Pounders, Lisa Lofton, Vanessa Withun, and Scott Blake will be on display at post-concert receptions. We talked with Wallis about some of her memories through the years, some of the unique features that make BFAS so enduringly popular, and what is on tap for this special anniversary season.

Can you share any anecdotes from the decades you’ve been with BFAS (e.g., standout concerts or visiting artists)? 

I have experienced many wonderful and amusing times with artists over the years. One of my all-time favorite ensembles is the Irish group Anúna who appeared on the series many times beginning in 2003 and inaugurated our “Beach Meets West” tradition. They were particularly wonderful as teachers and were able to rouse the kids to sing beautifully with them. We are sad that they could not join us for this special year.

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Author: Arbus

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