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Knight Arts Challenge People's Choice: Key West Art & Historical Society Preserves Memories of the Island

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People's Choice Awards nominees are live. The community can vote now through November 17 via text message for one of six selected Knight Arts Challenge finalists to receive $20,000 to fund their projects. It's a text-to-vote campaign: Choose your favorite group and text its code to 22333. Of the 75 finalists, the six People's Choice nominees are small, emerging groups from different parts of South Florida, all working to make the region a better place to live.

For a two-by-four strip of land, poised halfway between here and Cuba, Key West has always been larger than life. The stomping grounds of a diverse cadre of famous figures like Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Buffett and President Truman, it's a cultural cornucopia married to a tropical paradise.

Since 1949, the Key West Art & Historical Society has served as steward to this magical little key. Keepers of three museums, educators, art-appreciators and locals, the folks at KWAHS work tirelessly to preserve the remarkable legacy of the original Margaritaville.

See also: Knight Arts Challenge People's Choice: IFÉ-ILÉ Hopes to Bring Afro-Cuban Dance to the Masses

The society reigns over three historic properties in particular: the Custom House Museum, a four-story building once home to the island's customs office, postal service, and district courts; the Lighthouse & Keeper's Quarters Museum, a maritime icon that dates back to 1848; and Fort East Martello Museum, a Civil War fort and tower restored by the society back in 1950.

Christine Nottage, the society's development director, moved to Key West from Las Vegas about a year ago. She raves about her work with the society and life at the tail end of Florida.

"Everybody loves being involved in what's going on down here. It's a very passionate group -- it makes my job easier because people are so committed," she explains. "It was wonderful to come to this environment where people take ownership of this community very seriously. All the different galleries, the different non-profit orgs, our partners -- they really hold it personally to take care of these places."

In addition to their duties as historians, the society also has a whole host of local programs designed to engage locals and visitors in the city's unique charms. These include ArtCamp, a summer program that gifts scholarships to local kids for a week-long art immersion set in a Civil War era fort; Art! Key West!, an annual three-day, island-wide art festival and Hemingway Days, the festival devoted to everyone's favorite hard-drinking, bearded scribe. If they win the Knights People's Choice, the organization plans to use the funds to grow its educational outreach program, teaching kids about Key West's diversity and history through artwork.

They also offer a distinguished speaker series, hosting talks by people like John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest; Florida authors TD Allman and Terry Schmida and other notable names.

In other words, they keep busy. For such a tiny island, it's jam-packed with fascinating anecdotes and intriguing locales. And the society does their best to highlight all of the above. There's more to Key West than Duval Street, after all.

And while lots of people may have preconceived ideas about the area, they're often wowed at everything they learn through the society, says Cottage.

"I think people have no idea. I think they learn so much about the area," she says.

One of her favorite stories involves The Wizard of Menlo Park, himself. Turns out he wasn't limited to that California city.

"Thomas Edison has an office in our Custom House building. He worked for the U.S. Navy department during World War I. He was helping in developing weapons, torpedoes, so he brought his inventions."

So what's Cottage's favorite spot in her charming key? She's biased to the society's three museums, she admits, but beyond those:

"The Hemingway home is just beautiful. There are so many because they're not necessarily museums -- there are so many historic places here. All the different Civil War forts; the churches and the temples are a very important part of the history here; the architecture, the cemetery is a window into the past."

Clearly, it's hard to choose. One thing's for sure, Miamians who only cruise down once a year for Fantasy Fest may be missing out on a lot of unexpected cultural capital.

"Theres something about Key West that you just fall in love with the entirety of it. It's all the pieces and parts that make it what it is. I don't think it can be any one thing."

Luckily, the society's hard at work looking after the city's compelling legacy.

Follow Hannah on Twitter @hannahgetshappy.

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