Beyond the obvious beauty of the Emerald Coast, there’s a deeper, more elusive splendor situated less than a mile off the shores of Grayton Beach State Park. Recently showcased in Time’s famed Greatest Places of 2018, the Underwater Museum of Art (UMA) resides about 57 feet under the Gulf of Mexico’s emerald green waters, marrying the beauty of sculpture and the life-sustaining power of artificial reefs.
The UMA’s permanent underwater sculpture garden, launched in 2017, draws a wide variety of marine life and provides a vital habitat in the form of a living reef. Conceived by Allison Wickey, president of the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County (CAA), the UMA attracts art lovers and marine wildlife in a mutually beneficial partnership.
Wickey called the local UMA a perfect storm of ideas. She developed a love for the snorkeling reefs established by the South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA), and she simultaneously discovered the existence of other sculpture reefs around the world.
“I wondered why we weren’t doing something like this ourselves,” Wickey said. “We have so many artists here, but I wasn’t sure if it was even possible because the idea seemed so pie-in-the-sky.”
She pitched the idea of the sculpture garden to the SWARA board, and the organization immediately embraced her vision and joined forces with the CAA. And the rest is history.
The UMA offered its first call to artists in 2017 and dropped its first round of sculptures in 2018. By the end of 2019, the garden will be home to 19 permanent underwater sculptures.
The sculptures must be made of marine concrete, stainless steel, aluminum, limestone, marble, or other natural material to avoid harming the environment. As the team learns more about the process moving forward, Wickey expects it may lean more toward concrete pieces because of the increased durability.
Each year, the UMA determines how many sculptures it intends to add and issues a call for artists. Interested artists can submit an application with a sculpture idea. The top submissions are then reviewed and chosen by a jury, and new sculptures are added to the museum.
The entire effort has morphed into a collaboration between a number of local organizations. Emerald Coast Scuba in Destin has adopted the UMA, providing scuba certification for some of those in leadership and also by working to keep the site clean. Additionally, when Walter Marine out of Orange Beach comes to Walton County to drop a reef for SWARA, the UMA is able to piggy-backs onto the trip and drop its own sculptures. The partnership reduces expenses for the UMA and makes for a very efficient process.
The sculpture garden is a dive-site only due to its depth and isn’t suitable for snorkeling. While there is currently no tracking of visitors to the UMA, Wickey said that Emerald Coast Scuba takes people out to the site weekly. She also said that those interested in seeing the sculptures should contact Emerald Coast Scuba for more information.
“This began as a grassroots effort and we had very little experience with anything like this,” she said. “We’ve learned every step of the way, so it will be interesting to see how it evolves over time.”