Interview with Denise Kowal (Sarasota, FL)

Denise Kowal is a Sarasota artist, longtime Downtown commercial property owner, CEO & Founder at Sarasota Chalk Festival, Going Vertical, and Floralia Infiorata… 

What is Going Vertical?

The Going Vertical project grew up as part of Sarasota Chalk Festival, so a lot of people kind of connect the two together. We launched them always at the same time. I launched it because I consider street art as one of the most exciting movements and art forms that are taking place now all over the world. And as any street art it is always controversial…so we started sponsoring artists and bringing them in and now we have incredible talent from around the world.

I heard about the MTO’s amazing work that was painted over. It is so sad.

We have a few of his works painted over. Did you watch his documentary?


Yes, I did. Dr. Robin… 

It shows transition of what he went through as an artist coming from Europe and his view on the American cultural aspect so it was a really great experience working with him and with all of the artists we bring in.

You have pretty good collection: Pixel Pancho, 2501, James Bullough collaboration with Karl Addison (JBAK), I know he also did a piece in Venice last year…

In Venice a totally different community than Sarasota.  A lot of the artists wanted to be, of course,  around all the other artists so we created walls this year so they worked on big panels that we created at The Chalk Festival.

Where do you keep all those panels?

In our storage.

What? But people can’t see that!

Part of our event is very ephemeral. We asked building owners to please keep it up for at least one year, but the reality is we had no control over that. Some of the works that we spent thousands and thousands of dollars on and sometimes it’s painted over in one month.

So you decided to keep it in storage.

We kind of look at it like it’s an “in-the-moment” experience when people get to see the artist creating their artwork, so displaying it to us really isn’t the biggest part of the event; We are going to bring them out again this year, we might paint over it again we might not. We’re always struggling for sponsorship and money, which you can imagine. So, It’s always kind of a tossup of, do we put those panels up and just let them be exhibited this year or do we not have enough money and we need to use those panels all over again… It’s very different… Street art is very different than museum or gallery type art… These are meant to be very ephemeral come and go, you know. Yes, people get attached to them but we don’t look at it that way. The whole point of it is that these artists are coming to perform and be a part of the festivities, we’re not paying them to create gallery work for us. It’s a different contract, you have different responsibility to the artist at that point.

How many artists do you plan for this year?

This year we have quite a few artists coming. We get over a thousand of applications every year from around the world. Every year, it grows on its own, The Chalk Festival has become one of the most important pavement art festivals in the whole world, and it’s the only place where we bring together close to 99% of the world’s most famous pavement artists. We do not put call to artists anymore, we stopped it in 2011. Because we were getting so many applications anyway.


How do you choose artists, are there some criteria and a person responsible for this? It must be hard to make a choice having such a big list of artists. And what do local artists say?

We did a big collaborative project with the city of Sarasota on public property. I chose International, national and local artists. To me, the conversation doesn’t really make sense when you break it down. If you only used local artists, they would never have an opportunity to do their artwork in other communities. You have to allow that diversity… I like the diversity of the international with the national and the local because now you’re mixing incredible different political views, social views, cultural views and that’s what helps everybody grow… That’s what helps you to become a more intelligent person that looks at things from different perspectives. We find it very important that we mix up the entire thing but with that being said, we always accept local talent, we don’t care if you’re a beginner or have never done it before. If you want to participate, no matter what local people are always accepted. We always find space for them and something for them to do, to either do graffiti or chalk on the ground… We do try to raise enough money to always allow locals to participate with the professionals.

How people in Sarasota react to this kind of art?

Everybody has such a different talent, even my Going Vertical Artists; every year I have people saying “oh, I love that mural, I hate that mural…” A lot of people hated the Pixel’s Pancho piece, for example.

Pixel Pancho, Sarasota, Going Vertical, mural, street art


If it wasn’t my building that I own it would’ve been painted over the first week. Now… Once you let it sit then people get to understanding it more. Then it doesn’t have so much energy and you get to hear about all of the people who absolutely love it. But when you do something at first that just has Mickey Mouse and a skull face a lot of people just go instantly to, you know, “You’re taking something incredibly happy and iconic and you’re placing death with it,” and they can’t look passed that, they can’t look into the cultural years of what that means and how symbolic it is. So, once it stays there people kind of have to talk about it, you know, it’s talked about at dinner parties. It is important to have both types; who like it and who do not like, because if you have what everybody likes all the time the dinner party is going to get very boring. How much can you grow, in your thought process if you’re not challenged and everything is just identified within your own being? It’s good to have things that challenge people’s thoughts, it gives them things to talk about.

Controversial works normally attract more attention, it is also good. It is like a museum, if it shows only local artists it is not a museum at all.

Who the artists are is very important to us, not necessarily their notoriety but their passion of what they do and whether they’re growing in their art form. Our festival actually is a collaboration of the volunteers, such as myself, and the artists, those are the people who make it happen every year. They contribute the most every year to make it happen; it really is kind of owned by the volunteers and the artist. Spray paint is very expensive, one wall can cast about $3,000-5,000 just in supplies. We have many spray-paint sponsors so we have a lot of paint and sponsors but we still spend a lot too because you can never have all the colors the artist needs. For MTO, during all the time he was painting here we spent about 20,000 – 25,000 dollars. This event is a fund raiser for a specific thing, it’s strictly about the art. To bring artists together to create this community event that is also global. That is our drive to showcase the best art that we can.


Did you have some problems like “I want to see a sketch first, I don’t like this artist… I want another artist…”?

That is when the sponsorships really come into play. The best scenario is obviously that they have this wall, they will let you do what you want with it, they sponsor you a little bit and they let you do whatever and maybe they sign an agreement that you don’t ever want to enforce but that says they will keep it for at least a year. We’re investing in artist, we investing in materials…. It is collaboration between property owner and the artist, another property another artist and we are putting them together. We ask them to keep it at least one year. If we have sketch we can show them but unless they are paying the artist, 100% their value, we don’t allow them to have much say in it. They can pretty much like is or dislike it or allow or not allow it but they won’t have much control over the content. Now, If they are paying the artist their set daily rate that they would normally charge then they can collaborate with the artist, but that’s a paid job so that’s a different. Clearly if an artist isn’t being paid much, they can’t be told what to do.

Many artists have an idea only when they are at the wall and just let it flow, it is not always possible to show a sketch.

That’s why you need a lot of walls, you know make friends with all the property owners and figure out who is willing to give you their space and what their criteria is. We consider walls way in advance and figure out if the owner is a picky person or flexible, who are they, what do they represent for the community.

How did you come up with this idea? What was the beginning?

My kids. Actually not kids anymore: 26 and 29. They grew up in downtown Sarasota, and of course like all kids downtown were doing tagging, graffiti. My kids tended to be mostly sticker art. But a lot of their friends were spray artists.

Were you kids involved in the Going Vertical project?

Yes, my older son is in Design and Printing so he prints everything for us; our bags, T-shirts, everything. My younger son is always a designer who does a lot of the branding for the festival like the website, social media, and all that kind of this stuff. They are very, very involved.

The whole family is into art! Thank you, Denise! It was really interesting to talk to you! I hope we can collaborate somehow in the future! 

More about Going Vertical on the page World.

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