Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters Celebrate the Many Contributions of Women Throughout Its History

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Virginia Woolley instructs junior artists in 1948. Photo courtesy of Festival of Arts 

In celebration of 90 years of living pictures at the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters, the organization has cracked open its archives to highlight some major historical moments from its timeline. For March, in honor of Women’s History Month, the Festival is recognizing some remarkable women who helped shape the organization into what it is today.

From the first artwork sold to current times, women have always played an important role in the Festival of Arts. Thousands of female artists have showcased their artwork there since its inception, and thousands more have helped behind the scenes as volunteers, staff and board members.

On the opening day of the Festival of Arts in 1932, artist Virginia Woolley’s painting “Flower Stalls” was one of the first pieces sold. Woolley was an active participant in the creation and growth of the Festival and helped to establish exhibitor policies for the art show and contributed to the children’s art program. She served on the Festival’s first board of directors, alongside four other women, including Marie Ropp, who helped to shape the Pageant into what it is today.

In the mid-1930s, Ropp and her husband Roy took the Pageant from a sideshow attraction to a full theatrical production. Ropp researched and wrote the narration, selected music, created costumes and oversaw many production details for the early Pageant performances. Thanks to her efforts, the Pageant became a theatrical phenomenon attracting audiences from around the world to see what Ropp would later describe as “Art That Lives and Breathes.”

These women’s contributions to the Festival of Arts paved the way for more female artists as the organization grew. Artists Monica Dunham, Anne England and Mada Leach created countless opportunities for creativity and inspiration through their passion for the arts. They helped to expand arts education at the Festival of Arts and beyond by teaching classes, establishing exhibit tours and creating programs to support local artists. Their contributions to the art community are as numerous as the artists’ lives they’ve touched.

In 1957, the Festival of Arts established its scholarship program and awarded the very first scholarship to Sally Dunn Reed, a senior graduating from Laguna Beach High. Since then, over $3 million has been awarded to local students in film, performing arts, visual arts and writing. One of those recipients would later be the first female director of the Pageant of the Masters.

In 1996, Diane Challis Davy was named Pageant Director, and she has spearheaded the curation, theme, and production of each Pageant performance for the last 27 years, including this summer’s production of Art Colony: In the Company of Artists

In 2019, Challis Davy was named one of the Top 10 Female Industry Innovators by Advanced Imaging Society for her innovative use of technology to enhance art and storytelling. Also, under her leadership, the Pageant received the prestigious Thea Classic Award from the Themed Entertainment Association, recognizing outstanding attractions from around the world.

Steeped in history, countless women have helped to shape the Festival of Arts, an organization that appreciates, encourages and values creative people. As the organization prepares for its summer’s shows, it salutes the many women who have contributed to the success of the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters.

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