For 65 years, the Longboat Key Center for the Arts has been a unique spot at the north end of the key, a gathering place in the historic Longbeach Village area for those who wanted to take classes in watercolor or photography or jewelry making, attend exhibitions featuring artists both local and beyond, take in the occasional lecture or jazz concert and, sometimes, simply mingle with like-minded residents.
That era will end when the center closes its doors after its final exhibition this month. The 2.3-acre site the center occupies will be sold to a private developer who plans to construct single-family housing.
It’s a moment that may feel as inevitable, in this time of growth and development, as it does sad. The center, originally a hodgepodge of humble glass-walled buildings dating back to as early as 1952, sits smack in the heart of the mostly residential village, where traffic and parking issues have sometimes been a problem. The newest addition to the center opened in 2001, greatly enhancing the look of the shaded, tranquil property but also causing its members and board to struggle to pay the mortgage.
That’s why the Ringling College of Art and Design entered the picture, paying off the debt 10 years ago in a merger with the college that kept the schedule of shows, classes and other events going. But the acquisition may have also alienated some of the center’s longtime supporters, who were used to having more control and more of a sense of ownership.
The good news, for those inclined to see silver linings, is that the town of Longboat Key and Ringling College have a plan to build a new cultural center on the key in the Town Center, a more accessible location for many key residents and a larger space that could in time accommodate a black box theater as well as art classes and shows. The bad news: That new center is a long time off. College president Larry Thompson has said the center could be completed in the next two to three years, but fund raising (an estimated $10 million to $12 million) needs to be completed first, through the efforts of the Longboat Key Foundation and using a portion of proceeds from the sale of the current center.
That means that for now there will be a big hole in Longboat’s cultural scene. And for those of us who enjoyed years of attending exhibition openings at the center, it’s a reminder that nothing lasts forever. As former center director Jane Buckman says, “It [the center] was 65 years of people being creative on Longboat Key.” Let’s hope that tradition survives.