Skip to main content

How the Beloved Community Arts Extravaganza Began and Grew to Become One of the Top Festivals in the Nation

By Laura Landsbaum

Public art is a way of life in The Woodlands and for nearly 20 years, The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival has been a mainstay on the spring calendar. But how did it all get started? Created in 2004, the original event was called Art Fest and was held at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands.

The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands Development Company (now Howard Hughes), The Woodlands Township, and the late David Gottlieb (an individual advocate of the arts) were the founding partners. The Pavilion, Howard Hughes and The Woodlands Township remain heavily involved in the arts council and festival to this day.

“Dr. Gottlieb and his wife Brenda worked with the Art Colony Association, who was operating the Bayou City Arts Festival in Houston,” said The Woodlands Arts Council executive director Jenny Carattini-Wright. “They were hired to come to The Woodlands and create the festival.”

The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival has grown into one of the top rated fine art festivals in the country. (Courtesy Visit The Woodlands)
The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival has grown into one of the top-rated fine art festivals in the country. (Photo courtesy of Visit The Woodlands.)

In 2006, the arts festival relocated to The Woodlands Waterway as it served as a perfect backdrop for the event.

“With Town Green Park’s completion and the development of Waterway Square, we wanted to create high quality programming for The Woodlands Waterway, which was a key attraction in the Greater Houston region,”  said Nick Wolda, President of Visit The Woodlands. ”The Woodlands Waterway created the perfect backdrop and The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival brought it to life.”

That year, The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival featured more than 180 artists for a two-day May show that attracted about 4,000 visitors, according to Carratini-Wright.

In addition to bringing visitors to the new waterway, the arts festival created a cultural experience for residents of The Woodlands and visitors, while expanding the arts in the community.

Everyone’s Arts Festival

Since its inception, community involvement has been part of The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival. Local artist Denise Liebl created the first art piece for the festival, a mosaic that had visitors selecting and placing mosaic tiles.

“We created the pattern for the stage in the amphitheater in Town Green Park and then we bought glass mosaic tiles and had the audience come and lay the tiles,” Carattini-Wright says. “So you can now go to Town Green Park and see this beautiful mosaic stage that was created at the very first Waterway Arts Festival.”

“I think everybody was excited to have something cultural happening in The Woodlands,” Carattini-Wright says. “We didn’t have to take our kids to Houston to see and be exposed to beautiful art.” 

The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival isn’t just limited to visual arts these days. Performing artists also get spotlighted. Stages are sprinkled throughout the festival ground and local performers — musicians and authors — share their talents with festival goers. Last year’s festival featured book signings and author events and Books on the Green will be back again this spring. Food vendors have become an important part of the festival too.

Books on the Green has added literary power to The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival. (Courtesy Village Books)
Books on the Green has added literary power to The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival.
(Photo courtesy of Village Books.)

The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival has certainly come a long way. In the early years, this festival used to be a two-day event.  

“We began the festival in May and then we figured out it was too hot, so we moved it into April,“ Carattini-Wright says. “We did start with two days and expanded to three days in 2015.” 

Last year in 2023, the festival drew more than 22,000 guests.

The festival has been capped at 200 artists, who are selected by a jury panel with more than 1,000 artists typically vying for the coveted invitations. 

Now in its 19th year, The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival’s original founders couldn’t be happier with its continuing success and seemingly ever-growing footprint. These days it is routinely rated as one of the top fine arts festivals in the country.

“The arts play a significant role for our community, enriching the lives of its residents and visitors, and contributing to its cultural vibrancy,” said Kim Phillips, Vice President of Marketing, Howard Hughes, and board of director of The Woodlands Arts Council. “Supporting the arts in The Woodlands for residents and guests to enjoy is part of our legacy at Howard Hughes.”

This year’s The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival will take place from Friday, April 12 through Sunday, April 14 at Town Green Park. Come enjoy this years festival. For tickets, please visit here.


Many thanks to The Woodlands 50th Anniversary Sponsors:

FOUNDING – Howard Hughes

PRODUCER – The Woodlands Township

LEGACY – Woodforest National Bank

HERITAGE – Waste Connections Inc.

GOLD – Entergy Texas, Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital

SILVER – SVN/JBeard Real Estate, The John Cooper School