America's First Underwater Art Museum Opens

Scuba divers will soon swim through an art museum in the Gulf of Mexico, the first of its kind in the United States. The permanent art exhibit is opening in late June off the Florida panhandle and it’s free to anyone willing to take the plunge.

The sculptures in the exhibit at the Underwater Museum of Art are made of natural materials and will work like artificial reefs, housing sea life, on an otherwise barren and flat sandy ocean floor. Allison Wickey, one of the artists, told Newsweek that snorkelers should have no problem seeing the exhibit from the surface of the water on clear days, but it’s meant to be seen 60 feet underwater at eye-level.

“You will be able to see wildlife up close. When you look down into the water you will be able to see schools of fish,” she said.

06_05sculpture An underwater sculpture installation "The Silent Evolution" by artist Jason de Caires Taylor is seen between Cancun and Isla Mujeres December 11, 2010. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

The space will be transformed into a haven for wildlife, where the natural world will blend with contemporary art. As soon as the seven sculptures are carefully dropped to the seafloor, the art will be taken over by nature. For instance, a 10,000-pound concrete skull designed by Vince Tatum will attract coral.

Over time, barnacles will appear and algae will grow. Within a few years, the sculpture could be unrecognizable. Another piece of art, a hollow stainless-steel pineapple, will give small fish a place to hide out from sharks. A whole new habitat will form, Andy McAlexander from the South Walton Artificial Reef Association, told Newsweek.

“Through art we are creating life,” said McAlexander. “It is a perfect environment for all species of aquatic life.”

The project is a joint venture between the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County (CAA) and the South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA). According to the CAA’s website, most of the ocean floor near where the museum will be installed is barren sand flats, an environment that normally would not support much marine life.  

Before long, fish will start to gather to eat the bacterial growth. Sea turtles will visit the area to feed on algae. Sharks will circle the area to feed on fish. It’s a domino effect that gives species a greater abundance of opportunities for propagation, McAlexander said.

This project is part of a worldwide movement of artists transforming spaces on the seafloor into galleries. Since Italian sculptor Guido Galletti sank a bronze cast of Jesus into the seabed off the coast of Genoa in 1954, artists from across the world have recognized the opportunity the seafloor presents for showcasing their work.

Another underwater sculpture garden called the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA) near Cancun is also thriving since its installation in 2009. Green algae now coat the statues of people sculpted by British-Guyanan underwater artist Jason deCaires Taylor. Some of them are kneeling with their heads in the sand, while others look up toward the sky, muted sunlight shining on their faces as they stand in a patch of wild seagrass. This seabed was also once barren, but now it is a 420-square-meter wildlife haven.

“There is a lot of meaning behind this work,” said Wickey. “It’s great for the imagination too.”