When artists and art enthusiasts first gathered in Town Green Park for The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival, the Woodlands Waterway was only a few years old. The area was still being built – there was no Waterway Square, only a handful of businesses, and swan boats were still a dream of the future.

“The thought was to activate The Waterway with a big, signature event,” said Nick Wolda, Co-Founder of The Woodlands Arts Council and President of Visit The Woodlands. The Woodlands had just turned 31, and it was known as a great place to live, but not necessarily seen as a must-visit destination. "What better way to draw in travelers from around Texas and beyond than an arts festival along the new Woodlands Waterway?," said Wolda. 

The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion had the early start of an arts show within its property when Town Center Improvement District’s Nick Wolda (who later created The Woodlands Convention & Visitors Bureau/Visit The Woodlands), The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion’s Jerry MacDonald and Dr. David Gottlieb, and The Woodlands Development Company’s Alex Sutton came together to create The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival with this momentum.

Fast forward 18 years, and The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival has become one of the top-ranked arts festivals in the nation. It’s grown from an initial 5,000 attendees in 2006 to an impressive 23,000 in 2022. Locals and visitors both regard it as a long-standing springtime tradition, and time and time again, the community has voted it the best event in The Woodlands.

Best of all, many of the volunteers who brought the event to life in 2006 are the same ones who spend time and effort transforming The Woodlands Waterway into a beautiful waterfront art gallery during The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival today. Jenny Carattini-Wright, now Executive Director of The Woodlands Arts Council, first began working with The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival as a volunteer.

“I came into [The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival] because I really wanted to participate, share my love of art and culture, and see what we could do to make it grow,” Carattini-Wright said. “It was definitely a small, hometown effort – just as it still is today. The whole community came together to make it happen.”

Carattini-Wright’s involvement in The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival happens now on a much larger scale. As Executive Director of The Woodlands Arts Council, she oversees planning and production of the festival. Carattini-Wright previously served as Festival Director from 2011-2016, during which The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival was named one of the Top 5 fine art festivals in the nation. In her role as Executive Director, she continues to develop the festival and other initiatives of The Woodlands Arts Council around town.

Photos Courtesy: The Woodlands Arts Council

When The Woodlands Arts Council first began, the organization was focused on developing the festival. As The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival has grown, the nonprofit has, too. The Woodlands Arts Council spreads passion for art throughout the community in multiple ways: They’ve created a “Spotlight on the Arts Gallery” at The Woodlands Mall; they host quarterly “ArtFeel” events (open mic nights where the community is encouraged to express their feelings about an art piece); they use the funds raised at the art festival to develop art programs at schools and scholarships for young artists in the area. The eye-catching art benches and bike racks along The Waterway are also thanks to their effort and support.

The Woodlands Arts Council’s mission is “to provide regional, cultural, and educational enrichment opportunities that encourage, support, and promote the performing and visual arts”. This is accomplished throughout the year, but the team really goes above and beyond during The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival – a signature event in The Woodlands that brings together the community, businesses, volunteers, and a variety of artists.

According to Carattini-Wright, between 500 to 1,000 artists apply to be part of the arts festival every year. A jury of professionals reviews the applications using a scoring system, and the 200 artists with the highest scores are invited to come showcase their work at the festival. Clay, ceramics, painting, photography, sculpture, jewelry, fiber – the best of the best, all right here in The Woodlands.  

The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival

Partnerships with local businesses enhance the festival with art activities. The Woodlands Children’s Museum works with The Woodlands Arts Council to create kid-friendly art projects, themed around the artists who are showcasing their work. For the first time this year, they are also partnering with Village Books to produce “Books on the Green”, a new celebration of the literary arts within the festival.

Festival stages will be graced by local and regional performers throughout the weekend, celebrating yet another kind of art found in The Woodlands. There’s also a spotlight on local talent in the “Emerging Artists” section of the festival, featuring six up-and-coming artists.

Once all of the artists are selected, partnerships are developed, performers are booked, and every aspect of the festival is planned out, The Woodlands Arts Council makes the weekend one to remember with the help of 400 to 600 volunteers.

“[The volunteers] come back year after year and it’s like a big family reunion,” Carattini-Wright said. “They love what they do. They care about our community. They care about art. They care about our mission. It’s like a big family, and I think that’s why people come back to volunteer every year. I think it gives them a lot of joy.” 

Photo Courtesy: The Woodlands Arts Council

Even those who aren’t volunteering find a lot of joy at The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival each year, and it keeps them coming back. Local families return to see art along The Waterway every spring, and Carattini-Wright says guests often drive in from Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and beyond.

"Festivals like this are tradition building for the community. It creates a space for the community to come together, to bring outside influence in, to help broaden our viewpoints and spark enthusiasm and creativity. This festival gives everyone the opportunity to experience life differently in The Woodlands.” - Jenny Carattini-Wright

The vision that inspired the festival – to establish a signature event that celebrates art in The Woodlands, attracting artists and art enthusiasts from across the nation to the iconic Woodlands Waterway — has become reality. And with the help of the community, it has thrived.