The Sarasota Art Association was established as the first arts organization in Sarasota. The group met monthly and exhibited in rental facilities; it went on to become a focus point for the visual arts in the 1930s and ’40s, opening its building on North Tamiami Trail in 1949 and eventually renaming itself Art Center Sarasota.
Circus king John Ringling moved the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus winter headquarters from Connecticut to Sarasota, providing an outstanding tourist draw and a huge boost for the local economy. Our love of the circus art form has lingered over the decades since.
The Players community theater was formed by a pioneering band of theater lovers. The original pecky cypress building with 246 seats soon opened at the corner of North Tamiami Trail and Ninth Street, and hundreds of productions showcasing local talent followed.
The 21 galleries of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, with its collection of works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Velasquez and other Old Masters, were on view to the public for the first time. The museum struggled during the Great Depression and following John Ringling’s death, but found new footing in the late 1940s.
A branch of Lakeland’s Southern College opened as a school for fine and applied art, soon to be christened the Ringling School in John Ringling’s honor. The first class boasted 75 students; now, as the Ringling College of Art and Design, there are 1,600 students and more than 140 faculty on the campus.
While visual artists had already been drawn to the area much earlier, post World War II a fresh surge of painters, sculptors, writers and other creative types was drawn by the climate and easy living, especially on Siesta Key. The artists and writers colony that formed included such names as MacKinlay Kantor, Syd Solomon and John D. MacDonald, and, later, John Chamberlain and Jimmy Ernst.
The birth of the Sarasota School of Architecture, introducing open-plan structures with lots of glass and modern construction techniques, took place, continuing to offer what Paul Rudolph called “clear geometry floating above the Florida landscape” through the mid-1960s.
The first concerts of the Sarasota Orchestra—then the Florida West Coast Symphony—were presented. It is now the longest continuously performing orchestra in the state, with vigorous youth orchestra programs, too.
The first Ringling Museum director, A. Everett “Chick” Austin, oversaw the purchase of the decorative elements of an Italian theater built in 1798 in the town of Asolo, Italy. Seven years later, the theater opened for performances of drama, opera and more on the museum grounds.
Venice Theatre opened its doors, as Venice Little Theatre, just weeks after its first meeting, with a production of George Kelly’s The Torchbearers. Its home was a World War II Quonset hut at the former Venice Army Air Base. VT is now, per capita, the largest community theater in the country.
The Asolo Theatre Festival, conceived by Florida State University faculty members, presented its first season of summer plays. For decades, theater productions continued in what is now the Historic Asolo Theater housed in the pavilion of the Ringling Museum; the Asolo Rep company welcomed audiences to productions in its new and larger theater in 1990.
The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, designed by William Wesley Peters of Taliesin Associated Architects of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, opened its doors with a gala performance of Fiddler on the Roof. The landmark lavender seashell-shaped building has presented countless Broadway productions, concerts and performances ever since.
Florida Studio Theatre was founded by Jon Spelman as a company touring to nursing homes, migrant camps, prisons and community centers. By 1977, FST had found a home at the former Women’s Club on Palm Avenue. It now operates five theaters downtown.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens was founded on the 15-acre bayfront property that had been home to Marie and her husband Bill. The botanical gardens opened to the public in 1975 and has become a foremost center for research as well as a major tourist attraction.
The Sarasota Opera, formerly the Asolo Opera Company, presented its first season in its home at the lovingly restored A.B. Edwards Theater downtown. In 2016, the opera completed its Verdi Cycle, presenting every note of the composer’s music over 28 seasons.
The Sarasota County Arts Council—now the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County—was founded with the assistance of longtime State Sen. Bob Johnson. Two years later, it expanded its role as arts advocate with its oversight of arts funding through the tourist development tax.
The Sarasota Ballet was founded by Jean Weidner Goldstein, as a presenting organization for visiting dance troupes. The company formed its own resident ballet troupe in 1990 and is now marking its 30th anniversary season.
The Percent for Art program was established, requiring that developers set aside half a percent of the cost of their projects for the public art fund or a piece on their building site. The public art collection has now grown to more than 80 pieces.
Nate Jacobs founded (and remains artistic director of) Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, dedicated to presenting productions related to the African-American experience. After years of a nomadic existence, the company found a home in 2013 in its own building, which also saw an expansion in 2019.
The state of Florida passed governance of the Ringling Museum to Florida State University, providing funding for immediate repairs in 2002 and another $43 million once the museum board raised $50 million more, resulting in huge improvements to the Sarasota campus.
The inaugural Ringling International Arts Festival (RIAF) welcomed performers and artists from around the world to the Ringling Museum and Asolo theaters for several days of shows, a partnership with the Baryshnikov Arts Center that brought Mikhail Baryshnikov himself to town. The festival ended in 2017.
The Sarasota Art Museum finally opened on the former Sarasota High campus after years of fund raising, planning and restoration—the first museum here dedicated solely to contemporary art.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and Historic Spanish Point merge, broadening opportunities for the organizations and visitors with an expanded focus on nature, history and education.