When Vince Tatum learned about a new underwater art museum being developed by his friend and fellow artist Allison Wickey of the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County, he was immediately on board.
“A local group was already deploying artificial reefs along the coast to help encourage and protect sea life, so when I heard about Allison’s idea of submerging sculptures as reefs to create an art museum, it was genius,” says Vince, who works as a film production designer in Blue Mountain Beach and Atlanta. “The more I heard about the project, the more it made sense to add art as a way to get the public really interested.”
Allison took her idea to fellow board members of the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County as an initial project for the group’s then-new Art in Public Spaces program. She didn’t need to do much persuading.
“Board members were enthusiastic and supportive pretty much from the start,” says Allison, who has since served as board president and is in her second term on the board. “When we shared the concept with potential community partners and business sponsors, it came together quickly.”
The Cultural Arts Alliance joined forces with the South Walton Artificial Reef Association—the group deploying the artificial reefs along the Gulf Coast. Together, the organizations developed their plan, from deciding where to locate the museum to devising guidelines for the art to be marine-life friendly.
“When Allison and the Cultural Arts Alliance reached out to SWARA, it was a perfect opportunity to combine the work we were doing with marine conservancy and the concept of an underwater art museum,” says Walt Hartley, president of SWARA. “We had many of the logistics in place, including the necessary approvals to drop artificial reefs and the relationships with businesses who helped us deploy them.”
They selected a 1-acre area approximately 1 mile off Grayton Beach State Park in South Walton, in about 60 feet of water in the Gulf.
“The bottom is sandy, and the water temperatures are suitable for sustaining many subtropical marine species all year,” Walt says.
Art Becomes Nature
Under the name Underwater Museum of Art, the organization issued a call for submissions in late 2017. It received 14 proposals, choosing the first seven sculptures in early December 2017.
The artists had about five months to create and deliver their works to South Walton.
Vince’s work was among the initial selections.
Using his knowledge and experience as a film production designer, Vince devised a welded stainless-steel frame coated with marine-grade concrete. He chose a skull design that would be fish- and sea life-friendly, patterning the eyes after the shape of Southern Stingrays.
“Designing something with a domed shape that would attract corals and marine life was my intention,” Vince says. “The UMA project is a diver’s dream.”
He admits the process was a learning experience—one he has further embraced.
“I’d never done a sculpture before, but I knew this was a new opportunity for me,” he says. “I didn’t think of myself as an artist in this way, but I guess you could say I took the plunge and broadened my career.”
Weighing in at 10,000 pounds, Vince’s 6-foot-tall skull was the first sculpture deployed. It is at the center of the museum space on the sea floor.
All seven sculptures were launched one afternoon in late June 2018. They ranged from Santa Rosa Beach designer Rachel Herring’s “Grayt Pineapple” made of steel straps to Texas furniture designer Marek Anthony’s “Propeller in Motion”—a 51/2-foot-tall column of concrete pieces connected to a stainless-steel support.
“That was an amazing day the first time we deployed sculptures, but it is just as incredible and rewarding when we add to the installation in subsequent years,” Allison says.
As Reefs Grow, So Does the Museum
Designed to become self-perpetuating, the Underwater Museum of Art continues to expand. Each year, UMA adds sculptures—except in 2020, when the pandemic delayed that year’s deployment.
In 2022, the group received 27 submissions, selecting 10. Nine of them were deployed in June.
“Not only have the number of submissions increased, they’re coming in from farther away than the South,” Allison says. “The breadth of work and the creativity are inspiring—from an interactive genie’s lamp called ‘Three Wishes’ and a pair of seahorses named ‘Dawn Dancers’ to abstract works depicting an open-palmed hand dubbed ‘Wave’ and ‘We All Live Here’ modeled after the Beatles’ yellow submarine.
Several artists have multiple works in the museum.
Vince’s 2019 “X.Muta” mimics a giant barrel sponge. He created an oversized upright guitar in 2022 in tribute to the strong music community along Florida’s 30A corridor, naming it “Common Chord.”
“So much of our economy is based on the Gulf of Mexico and all it has to offer, but also our 30A corridor with multiple music events and festivals throughout the year,” Vince says. “It is just another way to pull all the best elements of our area into a sculpture.”
In all, the UMA features 34 works, including two from outside the United States: “To Replenish With Water,” designed by artist and marine researcher Beatriz Chachamovits from Brazil and “The Seed and the Sea,” by artist Davide Galbiati from Valreas, France.
“The submissions we’re receiving are thoughtful and consciously developed to reinforce our goal of conservation and protecting sea life,” Allison says. “For instance, Beatriz’s work portrays a stark-white collection of coral forms to emphasize the damage to reefs due to coral bleaching. Davide’s female figure holding an oversized seed is based on the importance of seeds as the continuation of life.”
Each Visitation Is a New Experience
Part of the museum’s beauty is it constantly changes.
“Not only are new works being added, but as the marine life begins to populate the sculptures, the pieces take on colors and forms that reflect the diversity of the sea,” Walt says.
At a depth of 60 feet, the UMA is too deep to view by snorkeling, but people can view it by diving the area.
“To my knowledge, we’re the only ones launching scuba charters directly from the shore of Grayton Beach,” says Walt, who operates Dive30A. “It only takes us about 5 or 6 minutes to reach the UMA. There are some fantastic other shops—like Emerald Coast Scuba in Destin—that offer UMA trips, but the boat ride is a bit longer.
“Folks can take their own boats as well. This UMA is definitely more suited to diving than fishing—too many snag hazards with the intricate sculptures. There are lots of other artificial reefs in the area that offer better fishing opportunities.”
Officials from UMA ask that people who venture out on their own respect the artificial reefs.
“If you’re taking your own boat, please do not anchor within the sculptures,” Walt says. “Find the super reef anchor point to the east of the park to safely anchor away to avoid damaging the statues and disturbing the sea life.”
The arts community and conservationists are not the only ones to benefit from the UMA. As word has spread, tourists are flocking to Walton County.
The museum was featured in major media outlets around the world, including Travel + Leisure magazine and National Geographic. It was named one of 100 “World’s Greatest Places” by TIME Magazine in 2018.
South Walton’s UMA is the first and only underwater art museum in the United States. Several others exist around the world, including Museo Atlantico in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa that began in 2016 and the Underwater Eco-Museum in Cannes that opened in 2021 off Sainte Marguerite Island.
“The UMA has far exceeded what we envisioned in the beginning,” Allison says. “Of course, creating more habitats for fish and marine life combined with art provides cultural, economic and educational opportunities for residents, students and visitors in South Walton. It really amped up tourism and visitation to our area, and we have had visitors come to see it from around the world since it was installed.
Underwater Museum of Art is on the Gulf of Mexico off Grayton Beach State Park.
GPS coordinates for the super reef anchor point are N 30°18.754/W 86°09.521.
For more details, contact the Cultural Arts Alliance office at 850-622-5970.