The Locals Guide to the Sarasota County Art Scene
The Sarasota County art scene is as diverse as it is vibrant on Florida’s Cultural Coast. From posh galleries housing the works of Renaissance and Baroque Masters to quirky grottos piled with one-of-a-kind upcycled “salvage art” finds, art connoisseurs of all tastes discover a feast for the senses in Sarasota.
Since the outset of its modern development during the 1920s, Sarasota is a city that was built on the arts. The city remains to this day a haven for aspiring artists and their established mentors, as well as world travelers with an eye for culture. From classic galleries to cutting-edge arts institutions, it’s a scene with an abundance of culture to offer. Take a glimpse at the variety of the arts in Sarasota with our at-a-glance guide to some of the creative havens you won’t want to miss when you explore Florida’s Cultural Coast.
The Ringling Art Legacy
Discussions about the state of the arts in Sarasota nearly always begin with the legacy of John Ringling and his wife, Mable. The circus magnate and Roaring Twenties developer’s powerful cultural influence and generous patronage of the arts is most evident today on the grounds and in the galleries of The Ringling, the State Art Museum of Florida.
John and Mable Ringling, among the wealthiest couples in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, were passionate collectors of art who made Sarasota their winter home. During their annual trips to Europe to scout new circus acts, they amassed a significant collection of art, including works from Old Masters such as Rubens, Velazquez and Poussin. Upon their passing, the Ringling estate bequeathed their work to the State of Florida and the public museum remains to this day one of the world’s preeminent collections of Baroque art. In addition to Ringling’s permanent collection, the modern Ringling Museum houses galleries featuring a bold Modern Art collection, as well as special exhibitions that ranges from antiquity to artists at the forefront of contemporary movements.
Beyond the art galleries, fans of architecture, design and history will be drawn to the Ringlings’ home, Ca’ d’Zan, located on the sprawling museum campus. The Ca’ d’Zan was designed and constructed in the mid-1920s to fulfill Mable Ringling’s wish for a Mediterranean, Venetian Gothic style home on Sarasota Bay. Today, tours through the 5-story, 41-room mansion provide a peek into the opulent lifestyle of Sarasota’s greatest Florida Land Boom-era developers and cultural influencers.
During your visit to the Ringling, don’t miss a chance to immerse yourself into circus culture and history in the Circus Museum, view John Ringling’s bronze-cast replicas of Michelangelo’s David and classical Roman sculpture in the museum courtyard, delight in Mable Ringling’s award-winning historic rose garden, and enjoy inspiring dining at Muse at the Ringling.
The Future of Art at Ringling College of Art + Design
Also bearing the name of Sarasota’s most well-known artistic benefactors is the Ringling College of Art and Design (RCAD), founded in 1931. Today, the private arts college offers leading programs in computer animation and game and interactive media design, as well as more traditional fine arts, illustration and graphic design programs.
Experience world-class exhibitions as well as a taste of today’s emerging artists in the galleries on campus at Ringling College. From student-run galleries and BFA and MFA shows to stunning collections featuring the work of professional artists around the world, the Ringling College galleries offer a broad palette of changing exhibitions that are free of charge and open to the public.
RCAD’s newest visual arts center, the Richard and Barbara Basch Visual Arts Center, opens in 2016. In the Richard and Barbara Basch Gallery, visitors can find a selection of studio glass art from the Baschs’ private collection, which includes more than 270 pieces from the top working glass artists from across the globe.
The Christ-Janer, Crossley, and Willis Smith Construction galleries at RCAD feature the work of students, faculty, staff, and community education instructors associated with the college. Get a first peek at the artistic talent emerging from Sarasota in the student-curated exhibitions and shows featuring the work of students and rising artists at RCAD in these intimate gallery settings. The Patricia Thompson Gallery and the madeby gallery, located off campus, also feature the work of RCAD alumni and working artists in the local community.
Explore Sarasota’s Most Artful Neighborhoods
Tucked away in “old Florida”-style bungalows on narrow brick streets, the Towles Court Artist Colony in downtown Sarasota was established in the 1990s as a unique experiment to bring artists together in a live-work, studio-driven neighborhood. Two decades after the first artist studio was leased in 1995, the hidden community has evolved into a unique collective of artist studios and galleries, interior and graphic designers, art therapists and teachers, jewelry makers and potters, salons, cafes and more.
Slightly off the beaten path, but easily walkable in the downtown area, Towles Court is sometimes referred to as a “hidden treasure” in Sarasota. A self-described “free-style” community, the Towles Court art association recommends calling before visiting specific sites, but is typically open for 11am-4pm business hours, Tuesday through Saturday.
The quiet, hidden Towles Court community springs to life during its monthly Art Walks, taking place on the third Friday of each month. During these evening art walks, artists open their studios, galleries and businesses for extended hours from 5-9pm, and offerings of refreshments and live music are abundant.
Following in the footsteps of the Towles Court Artist Colony is the Historic Downtown Village in Gillespie Park, at the northern edge of downtown Sarasota. The Historic Downtown Village, established circa 2010, is a colorful collection of renovated American Craftsman style cottages housing local art and classes, boutique shops, and cute, mom-and-pop style eateries.
Pay a visit to the Artful Giraffe in the Gillespie Village for whimsical art and gifts, and stick around for a variety of classes taught by local artists in the studio behind the shop. The Artful Giraffe “Paint Your Own Pottery” studio gives anyone the chance to try their hand at creating and painting their own clay creations, which are then glazed and fired by Artful Giraffe ceramic artists.
The Historic Downtown Village in Gillespie Park also features a monthly Art Walk throughout the entire year, on the fourth Friday of each month. Similar to Towles Court, Village shops stay open for extended hours, offering live entertainment and Art Walk bites.
Just outside the western edge of the Gillespie Park neighborhood coexist the Rosemary Historic District and the Sarasota Design District. Located within similar geographic boundaries, these unique districts are another hidden gem that embody the visual culture and unique style of Sarasota’s contemporary tastemakers.
Architecture and design-centric businesses and retail make up the core of the Rosemary and Design Districts. For interior design aficionados, the showroom at Home Resource is a must-visit, even if only for a day of window-shopping. Home Resource is the leading contemporary furniture showroom in southwest Florida, carrying premiere European and North American furniture lines, almost exclusively available in Sarasota in this region.
Just minutes away from Home Resource, Sarasota Architectural Salvage (SAS) offers an entirely different style of contemporary furniture and art from its sophisticated neighboring showroom. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure in the one-of-a-kind, warehouse-style shop that is one part art and furniture gallery, one part trinket-laden rummage pile, and 100% unique treasure heap. SAS has garnered national praise for its upcycled furniture and art, largely crafted by from materials that are salvaged from historic structure demolitions and renovations around the greater Sarasota and Tampa Bay region.
For a well-rounded exploration of local arts and culture in Sarasota, a visit to the eclectic neighborhoods and districts detailed above is the best way to truly immerse oneself in the homegrown local scene.
Artists of All Ages Represent Community in Sarasota’s Art Centers
Art education, cultural programs, and exhibitions that celebrate the Sarasota visual arts community at all levels and ages are the mission at Art Center Sarasota, as well as neighboring community Art Centers in Venice and North Port.
Art Center Sarasota’s history extends as far back as the era of Ringling, when the area’s original arts association, the Sarasota Art Association, was established in 1926 to promote art exhibitions for artists living in the local community, as well as affordable public access to arts education. Ninety years since its inception, the Sarasota Art Center and its neighbors in the south county flourish in their mission to support local art.
The Sarasota Art Center’s permanent space was erected in the post-World War II era in the unique, regional modern Sarasota School of Architecture style. A 2011 renovation to the building updated the Art Center to its current format, which includes a number of galleries to support several diversely themed and juried local exhibitions in an ever-changing exhibition schedule.
The Art Center galleries are free and open to the public. In addition to its exhibitions, Art Center Sarasota offers year-round art education for all ages. Youth education in the form of Saturday classes and summer camps offer a variety of age-appropriate, multi-media art education programs for the K-12 set. An array of adult workshops and day and night classes cover a range of enriching art education opportunities, from oil painting to sculpture and jewelry-making.
Experience Florida in Photos at Clyde Butcher Art Gallery
A remarkably intimate invitation into the breathtaking world of Florida’s Everglades awaits behind the doors of the Clyde Butcher Venice Gallery and Studio.
World-renowned nature photographer and preservationist, Clyde Butcher, houses his 2000 square-foot darkroom in south Sarasota County, where he processes his large-scale black and white photographs of the most untouched Florida wilderness. Butcher’s images reveal the majesty of the Florida Everglades, as well as their fragility in a rapidly-developing world. His work is often compared to the photographs of Ansel Adams, whose images of the untouched American west in the early 20th century provided the basis for the successful movements to expand the National Parks system and preserve the landscape.
Clyde Butcher’s work is a powerful reminder of the majestic and rare ecosystem that existed long before the development of Florida. For fans of landscape photography, and those who wish to experience Florida in its truest nature, the Clyde Butcher Gallery and Studio in Venice should not be overlooked.
Planning Your Journey Through Sarasota’s Art Scene
Advice from the local experts on the Sarasota art scene: Don’t expect to be able to absorb it all in just one day—or even one week. Discovering the arts and culture of Sarasota is process that is in constant evolution, alongside the ever-changing and growing scene on Florida’s Cultural Coast.
The attractions listed above only begin to scratch the surface of the vibrant arts and culture that await in Sarasota. The best way to treat the eyes and other senses in true Sarasota fashion is to do as the locals do—hit the streets and explore the scene. Be it a gallery lined with sumptuous Baroque paintings, awe-inspiring photographs of the primitive Florida landscape, or one-of-a-kind upcycled furniture crafted by quirky antique salvage hunters—there’s something for every explorer that seeks an artful adventure in Sarasota.
The question, now, is: Where will the art lead you?