Arts & Entertainment Guide

By Kay Kipling December 1, 2009

A Festival of Art

aeg.jpgWhen thousands of arts lovers converged on the Ringling Museum grounds for the inaugural Ringling International Arts Festival this past October, it was an exciting new celebration, bringing innovative dance, theater and music performers from around the world and visitors, including festival partner Mikhail Baryshnikov, from many points out of town. And it was also a happy confirmation of something Sarasota has always known: that we are, in fact, a cultural center worth reckoning with.

The festival, a labor of many months between the museum, the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Florida state government and the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau (with many proud local sponsors), was a significant indication that when it comes to the claim of being Florida’s cultural capital, Sarasota is not about to surrender the title. In truth, from early fall through late spring, almost any week in Sarasota is a festival of the arts, with so many offerings in theater, dance, visual arts and more that even the most ardent fan can only experience a sliver of the cultural pie. Indeed, the arts have traditionally been as much a draw here for part-and full-time residents as our beaches, weather and sporting opportunities.

Arts boosters usually point to John Ringling as being the visionary who started the cultural ball rolling here. The circus king, who had as keen an eye for art as he did for promotion and real estate, was determined to leave his mark on Sarasota and to attract wealthy, cultured visitors from all over the world to view his impressive collection of fine paintings, sculpture and decorative arts.

To that end, he built, beside the mansion where he and wife Mable lived in splendor, a grandly conceived museum along the bayfront—a museum he eventually left to the people of Florida in his will. The museum first briefly opened its doors in 1931; but that was a bit of a false start, as the Depression of the 1930s brought both Ringling and Sarasota financial troubles that made it impossible to keep the museum open consistently. Starting in the mid-’40s, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art welcomed visitors on a more regular basis. Splendidly expanded and renovated in 2007, the Ringling is now one of the 20 largest museums in North America and includes museums of the circus and the Ringling mansion on its bayfront campus.

Other arts organizations and creative types followed Ringling’s lead. Both the Players of Sarasota, the area’s first community theater, and Art Center Sarasota, a members’ organization that presented shows and artistic get-togethers, had also been birthed well before the 1940s,

for example.

But it was the post-World War II boom that put Sarasota solidly on the cultural map. Chalk it up to a combination of easier transit to and from Florida from up North, the critical mass of veterans on the move, and the always appealing allure of Sarasota beachfront living. It was during this era that Sarasota’s reputation as an artist’s and writer’s colony, particularly on the beckoning barrier island of Siesta Key, really began to rise.

We still like to point to Sarasota as an artists’ colony, but in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, before even more rapid growth began to swell our population, this truly was a comfortably cozy seaside town where painters, sculptors, writers and performers gathered, sharing both professional and personal interests and friendships. The list of names of creators who have spent time here (some for decades) and brought their creative energies with them is an extensive one: writers John D. MacDonald, MacKinlay Kantor, Stuart Kaminsky, Stephen King, John Jakes; visual artists Syd Solomon, Jimmy Ernst, David Budd, Conrad Marca-Relli, John Chamberlain, Richard Anuskiewicz; and musicians Eric von Schmidt, Brian Johnson and Dickie Betts among them.

And then there are the artists, both on stage and behind the scenes, who have brought their talents to bear not only individually, but as part of our thriving theatrical, dance and music scene. Take, for example, the Asolo Repertory Theatre and the Sarasota Opera, both of whom have recently celebrated 50 years of bringing us live performances. The Asolo Rep began its days as a summer theater festival headlined by faculty and students from Florida State University, performing Restoration-era comedies and the like in the small jewel box of a theater brought to the United States from Italy by early Ringling Museum director and theater lover Everett “Chick” Austin. The 18th-century theater was the perfect setting for those early period productions (today it has been lovingly restored and remains a home for theater, concerts and other cultural offerings on the museum grounds).

The Asolo Rep grew into a year-round rotating repertory company that proved fertile ground for such up-and-coming stars as Polly Holliday, Sharon Spelman and Isa Thomas. As it expanded into a new home at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts and gained more of a national reputation, it’s continued to present top-quality performances, sometimes with blockbuster musicals to open the fall season, while the rotating rep in winter and spring gives audiences the chance to see as many as four or five plays during a span of just a week or so.

The company also helped give birth to what was then the Asolo Opera and what eventually became the Sarasota Opera, now in its own recently renovated 1920s-era theater downtown. Today Sarasota Opera is known far and wide for the quality of its productions, which are staged with painstaking attention to the composer’s original intention. Opera lovers from around the country and even from abroad plan Sarasota vacations around the opera’s schedule.

Other now venerable institutions sprang to life in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and after, including the Sarasota Orchestra (formerly the Florida West Coast Symphony), which presents a full complement of classical, chamber and pops music year-round; the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, an “only in Sarasota” seashell-shaped hall that this year celebrates its 40th season of bringing top performers in every discipline to local audiences; the Sarasota Film Society, indulging our thirst for non-mainstream movies with screenings at its quaint Burns Court Cinema downtown and a new theater in Lakewood Ranch; and, in the ’80s, the Sarasota Ballet, which presents both classical and contemporary choreography with a talented young company of dancers (dancers an influential New York Times critic praised for their “speed, charm, full-bodied immersion and multifaceted detail” after one performance in 2008).

The list goes on: Venice Theatre, now marking its 60th year of presenting community theater to south county residents; the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, a downtown mainstay; and Florida Studio Theatre, where three stages and a highly regarded educational program challenge and intrigue audiences and participants of all ages.

But perhaps the most telling examples of Sarasota’s inexhaustible artistic energy come with additions to the scene that demonstrate how one or two or a dozen people with a dream can bring it to fruition. Whether you’re talking about the Sarasota Film Festival, now in its 12th year of showing new and independent films to a hungry viewing audience; the Jazz Club of Sarasota, conceived in a living room and now almost 30 years into presenting one of America’s unique art forms; or the buzz of a more recent arrival like Fuzión Dance Artists, the brainchild of two young choreographers bursting to share their passion with others, the beat goes on.

Even in the recent tough economic times, that turns out to be true. The Ringling College of Art and Design, an institution dating back to the early 1930s, has charged ahead in the past few years, adding new buildings to its campus, attracting record numbers of students from around the globe, and steadily increasing the disciplines—including such hot new fields as computer animation and game design—those young talents can study. Graduates from the Ringling and other visual artists who’ve decided to make their home here are also finding new ways to exhibit and sell their work outside of the traditional gallery system, forming nonprofit entities like the new s/ART/q, which plans regular shows and collaboration among working artists to share both studio and exhibition spaces. And organizers are hoping to open a contemporary museum with changing world-class exhibitions, the Sarasota Museum of Art, in a landmark building (the old Sarasota High School) within a few years.

As if all that weren’t enough, the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau is currently at work on a business plan to present yet another cultural festival next fall—another attempt to both showcase what we have to offer here and to drive the cultural tourism that is so crucial to our economy. It all lends hope for the health and vigor of our artistic future—a belief that, as Al Jolson famously said in Hollywood’s first talking film, “You ain’t heard nothing yet.” z


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Asolo Repertory Theatre, (941) 351-8000. For more than 50 years, the Asolo Rep has been presenting professional, Equity theater productions, with a rotating repertory cast and format almost unique in North America. The season typically gets underway in October or November and continues into May or June; the past couple of seasons have seen blockbuster productions of A Tale of Two Cities and Barnum. Overall, the Asolo Rep aims for a mixture of some classical, some contemporary works, employing both regionally based and New York actors.

Banyan Theater Company, (941) 358-5330. For many years, Sarasota’s summer “off season” was sparse in dramatic pickings. Seven or eight years ago, the Banyan came along and changed that, offering theater-hungry audiences professional quality productions in the FSU Center’s Cook Theatre. Three shows presented in the traditionally slower months of June, July and August run the gamut from Eugene O’Neill to Tennessee Williams to Neil LaBute, giving us plenty to talk about after the final curtain.

The FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 351-8000. This center is home to the professional Asolo Rep, the FSU/Asolo Conservatory of Professional Actor Training (which presents its own four-play season in the smaller Cook Theatre here), Sarasota Ballet of Florida and, in the summer, the Banyan Theater Company.

Florida Studio Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. (941) 366-9000. Downtown’s theater scene is a lively one, thanks in large part to FST’s diverse offerings, which run virtually year-round. The mainstage season at the Keating Theatre mixes drama, musical comedies and new work; and a smaller, intimate cabaret stage is perfect for musical revue shows, many of them developed here by FST.  The Gompertz Theatre, on First Street, also presents smaller-sized shows, often of a hard-hitting nature.  And FST also makes time for performances from its own comedy improv troupe and a three-play Summerfest season.

Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, 25 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota. (941) 366-5454. If you’ve lived in Sarasota any time at all, chances are you’ve sampled the productions—and the prime rib—offered by the country’s oldest continuously running professional dinner theater. Typically, the Apple has presented Broadway musical comedy standards like Evita or Cats; lately, they’ve also branched out into straight comedies and newer musical revues. Runs pretty much year-round, with a brief break in September.

Manatee Players, 102 Old Main St., Bradenton. (941) 748-5875. This venerable community theater has been presenting a full season of plays (mostly musicals of late) for decades in its Riverfront Theatre site in downtown Bradenton. (Plans are underway for a move to a newer, larger home, also near downtown, once construction is completed). The quality is often well above the usual concept of community theater; strong educational programs here, too.

The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 365-2494. The Players is the great-granddaddy of the area’s community theaters, now celebrating its 80th season. Its bread-and-butter productions are the Broadway musical favorites its mostly mainstream audiences love, onstage September through April. But the Players also presents a lively mix of concerts, a summer play fest, and, starting this season, edgier work in its smaller theater, formerly a rehearsal space.  There’s also a performing arts school at the Players, where students of all ages hone the talents that may eventually launch them onto mainstage.

Venice Theatre, 140 W.  Tampa Ave., Venice. (941) 488-1115. Another milestone anniversary is being celebrated at Venice Theatre, turning a sweet 60 this season. The mainstage of this community theater presents a blend of musical favorites, the occasional drama and a comedy or two. The smaller, black-box Pinkerton Theater plays host to more contemporary Stage II offerings, along with cabaret shows.  Again, there’s a strong educational component to the theater’s programs. And this June, VT welcomes up to 14 theater troupes to perform in the 2010 American Association of Community Theaters International Festival.

Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, (941) 366-1505. And yet another anniversary, in this case, the 10th for this profes-sional African-American theater company, presenting a three-show season at Art Center Sarasota. WBTT’s forte has always been musicals, but they present the occasional drama, too, drawn from either African-American playwrights or relating to the African-American experience.


Artist Series of Sarasota. (941) 360-7399. Now in its 14th season, the Artist Series continues to captivate audiences with classical music while also expanding into performances emphasizing pop and Broadway sounds. Most concerts take place at the Historic Asolo Theater, October through June.

Fuzión Dance Artists, (941) 345-5755. Sarasota’s first contem-porary dance company, Fuzión presents a range of dance genres in an equally wide variety of venues, from the Historic Asolo Theater to downtown’s Whole Foods. The company and its choreographers also work with students of all ages.

Gloria Musicae, (941) 954-4223. This longtime professional chamber chorus welcomes a new music director this season with Dr. Joseph Holt. Usually the ensemble presents three concerts a year, including a December holiday event, a Fourth of July celebration and often a large-scale piece in March or April. Venues vary; for ticket info you can call (941) 360-7399.

The Jazz Club of Sarasota, 330 S. Pineapple Ave., Suite 111, Sarasota. (941) 366-1552. Founded in 1980, the Jazz Club promotes and perpetuates jazz year-round with jams, members’ concerts and educational programs. For years they’ve presented the Sarasota Jazz Festival; now they’ve added a Venice jazz fest to the mix, too.

Key Chorale, (941) 921-4845. This ensemble celebrates 25 years of presenting choral music in the community, performing masterworks at the Sarasota Opera House and other venues. New this year: the Unboxed Series: Uncommon Music in Uncommon Spaces, giving the group a chance to branch out with lesser-known pieces.

La Musica International Chamber Music Festival, (941) 366-8450. The international chamber music festival, under the artistic direction of Bruno Giuranna and Derek Han, occurs each April, with rehearsals open to the public at New College’s Sainer Pavilion and two weekends of concerts at the Sarasota Opera House. The festival theme for 2010 is “Resolution.”

New Music New College, (941) 487-4888. If you’re looking for contemporary music with an avant-garde edge, you just might find it within this five-program series, which features both student musicians and professionals, local and national, in concerts on the college campus.

Perlman Music Program Suncoast, (941) 955-4942. For six years now the famed music program for talented young students has made its winter home in Sarasota, offering audiences the chance to see rehearsals and recitals throughout the last two weeks of December.  The residency culminates with a Celebration Concert at the Sarasota Opera House led by Itzhak Perlman himself.

Sarasota Ballet, (941) 359-0099. Now in its third season under the artistic direction of Iain Webb, this international professional company has garnered much acclaim for its stagings of new or rarely seen dance pieces, with works by choreographers ranging from legends like Sir Frederick Ashton to more contemporary masters such as Matthew Bourne. The season typically runs from October or November through April, with performances at the Sarasota Opera House and the FSU Center.

Sarasota Concert Association, (941) 955-0040. This long-established association presents classical concerts by internationally renowned artists at the Van Wezel, January through March; the trick is getting on the subscriber list or catching a returned ticket, as it’s a popular series.  But aficionados say it’s well worth the wait.

Sarasota Concert Band, (941) 364-2263. Professional musicians perform regular concerts as well as summer performances in area parks, some with a patriotic theme.

Sarasota Opera, 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota. (941) 366-8450.  This acclaimed company presents both a one-opera fall season and a four-opera season during February and March, at the recently renovated opera house downtown. Among its distinctions: Each season offers a Masterworks Revival Series and presents a seldom heard work by maestro Giuseppe Verdi. The company also maintains a unique Sarasota Youth Opera program.

Sarasota Orchestra, 709 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 953-4252. Formerly the Florida West Coast Symphony, this 80-member orchestra is the oldest continuing orchestra in the state. Of late, the artistic direction has broadened beyond its traditional Masterworks series and chamber music offerings to include multi-media experiences blending video with both popular and classical music, through its Pixel Pops and Journeys to Genius series. The orchestra is also justly proud of its educational outreach; the Youth Orchestra programs, currently marking a 50th anniversary, include more than 200 students.

Sarasota Pops, (941) 926-POPS. The home-grown orchestra, which also welcomes occasional guest artists, performs a series of five concerts throughout the November to April season, most at the Church of the Palms in Sarasota. (941) 366-6468

SOUL SPEAK/ SOUL MOVES. This long-running collective of artists presents live poetry performances, as well as dance and art; it also produces videos and documentaries.

Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 953-3368. This distinctive seashell-shaped hall along Sarasota’s bayfront boasts a wide-ranging season of Broadway touring theater, inter-national dance companies both classical and modern, acclaimed world orchestras, comedians, children’s programs and more, mostly October through May.

Venice Symphony, (941) 488-1010. Kenneth Bowermeister conducts this 75-piece symphony orchestra, which presents an active season of classical, pops and chamber music, most at Venice’s Church of the Nazarene, plus a summer music camp.


Circus Sarasota, (941) 355-9335. Not many towns can boast their own one-ring circus, but this is Sarasota, which has been synonymous with the circus arts for more than 80 years. Co-founders Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacobs (daughter of legendary clown Lou Jacobs) oversee winter performances (usually in February) under the Big Top that feature top stars from around the world in the fields of high wire, aerial, juggling, equestrian acts and more. Circus Sarasota also offers numerous educational and outreach programs.


McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre, 3333 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 925-FUNY. Get in the mood to laugh with McCurdy’s line-up of nationally known stand-up comics; the north Sarasota club also has open-mic nights and training and special programs through the Humor Institute.


Sarasota Film Festival, (941) 366-6200; 364-9514. Each spring, Sarasota welcomes actors, filmmakers and film lovers to a 10-day celebration of the art of film, with screenings of brand-new movies at downtown’s Hollywood 20 and parties, talks with and by the artists, and more. This year’s fest is set for April 9-18; the organization also sponsors year-round screenings of classic movies and reaches out into the schools with its educational programs.

Sarasota Film Society/Burns Court Cinema, (941) 955-FILM or (941) 364-8662. SFS, which recently marked its 25th anniversary, presents international films at its intimate Burns Court location in downtown Sarasota and also hosts the weeklong Cine-World Festival each November. The society also operates movie theaters in Lakewood Ranch.


New College of Florida, 5800 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 487-5000. New College continues to win raves as an innovative, affordable four-year liberal arts school;  it’s the honors college of the state university system. Academic tracks include art, art history and music—and many more.

Ringling College of Art and Design, 2700 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 351-5100. This internationally recognized four-year professional art and design school has been receiving lots of buzz in college rankings of late, plus adding to its ever expanding north Sarasota campus with new buildings and to its creative disciplines with new majors and minors. Among the school’s specialties: graphic and interior design, computer animation, fine arts, illustration, photography and digital film making.

Sarasota County Arts Council, 1226 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 365-5118. The council, whose long-established mission is to promote, develop and coordinate the arts, arts organizations and related programs in Sarasota County, is currently taking a fresh look at its future direction, with new board members and a philosophy that stresses arts advocacy.

State College of Florida, 5840 26th St. W., Bradenton. (941) 752-5000. Formerly known as Manatee Community College, this institute of higher education is home to a fine and performing arts department that includes instruction on art, photography, film, music and theater. Both a gallery and a theater space are active on the Bradenton campus; there are also classes in Venice and Lakewood Ranch locations.

University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, 8350 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 359-4200. Both undergraduate and master’s degrees in a wide range of academic programs are offered at this campus just north of the Ringling Museum.

Visual Arts, Museums and Galleries

Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art, 1419B Fifth St., Sarasota. (941) 366-2093. Monthly exhibits, original paintings, sculptures and mixed media assemblages.

Art Center Sarasota, 707 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 365-2032. One of Sarasota’s longest-running arts institutions, offering a wide array of classes, workshops and unique exhibits.

Art Uptown, 1367 Main St., Sarasota. (941) 955-5409.Cooperative gallery featuring paintings, sculptures, ceramics, basketry and other media.

BAS Studio/Gallery, 537 S. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota. (941) 955-4390. Original oil paintings on canvas by artist Beverly A. Smith are on exhibit in this Burns Square gallery.

Cambridge Christner Fine Art, 415 S. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota. (941) 724-8889. Original art works, including acrylics by Torres Rojas, oils by masters, paintings by artist Lena.

Clyde Butcher Gallery & Studio, 237 Warfield Ave., Venice. (941) 486-0811. Black-and-white landscape photography featuring natural Florida environments by acclaimed photographer Butcher.

Crissy Galleries, 640 S. Washington Blvd., Suite 150, Sarasota. (941) 957-1110. Specializing in fine art and antiques.

Dabbert Gallery, 76 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. 955-1315. Contemporary paintings, sculptures, watercolors, drawings, bronzes and more.

Elizabeth Rice Fine Art, Home Accessories and Antiques, 1467 Main St., Sarasota. 954-8575. Contemporary fine art, as well as Biedermeier furniture and antiques.

Elizabeth Stevens Gallery, 1945 Morrill St., Sarasota. (941) 365-4222. Paintings by Marge Bennett, blown glass, pottery and jewelry are featured at this Towles Court space.

Galleria Silecchia, 20 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. (941) 365-7414. National and international sculptors, painters, glass artists and more; regular shows.

Hodgell Gallery, 46 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. (941) 366-1146. A home for contemporary fine art and glass works.

Imperial Fine Art, 1453 Main St., Sarasota. (941) 954-8901. Fine art prints and original works, many by very well-known artists.

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 351-1660. The state museum of Florida houses an extensive Baroque collection, modern collection, Asian art and changing exhibitions, including this year’s Gothic Art in the Gilded Age show.

Longboat Key Center for the Arts, 6860 Longboat Drive S., Longboat Key. (941) 383-2345. This long established center, now affiliated with the Ringling College of Art and Design, offers classes, exhibits, sales and special events, usually throughout fall, winter and spring.

M Gallery of Fine Art, 16 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. (941) 400-9181. Fine oil paintings, sculpture and high-quality conservation framing available.

Sarasota Season of Sculpture, (941) 366-7767. Every other year, the SOS presents an exhibition of large-scale sculptures along Sarasota’s downtown bayfront; this year’s show, Organic Lyricism, features pieces from The Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, N.J., and runs through May 31.

Selby Gallery, Ringling College of Art and Design, 2700 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 359-7563. Selby presents works by national and regional artists in a variety of media; it also hosts annual faculty exhibitions and the “Best of Ringling” student show. There are other galleries on the Ringling campus as well; for more info go to

Stakenborg & Villlet Fine Art, 1545 Main St., Sarasota. (941) 487-8001. An art resource for collectors of paintings, drawings and prints, including works by such artists as Durer and Picasso.

State of the Arts Gallery, 1525 State St., Sarasota. (941) 955-2787. This contemporary fine art gallery presents work from local and national artists, including owner David Steiner, in regular exhibitions.

Towles Court, just west of U.S. 301 between Adams and Morrill streets. This working artist colony offers several gallery/studio spaces for viewing and buying; a gallery walk takes place from 6 to 10 p.m. every third Friday of

the month.

Venice Art Center, 390 Nokomis Ave. S., Venice. (941) 485-7136. The area’s largest community art center, offering exhibitions, classes and occasional special events, such as a Paint-Out in Paradise.

William Hartman Gallery, 48 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. (941) 955-4785. Displays 18th- and 19th-century antique prints.

Wyland Galleries of Sarasota, 314 John Ringling Blvd., St. Armands. (941) 388-5331. Marine and wildlife art by Wyland and other environmental artists is featured here, along with Oggetti glass.

In addition to Sarasota’s museums, several other fine arts museums are nearby, including the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, the Salvador Dali Museum, also in St. Petersburg, and the Tampa Museum of Art, set to reopen in a new, expanded space in February 2010.



This article appears in theDecember 2009 issue of Sarasota Magazine.

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