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Art Center Comes Full Circle

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann A. Shank, former County Historian
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Art Center Comes Full Circle photo

When Joseph Steinmetz photographed this scene, the Sarasota Art Association was in the middle of its annual weeklong sidewalk show and sale. Scheduled as one of the Sara de Sota Pageant festivities, the show provided a sales outlet for area artists and a source of income for the association, which received a small commission from each sale.

By this time the Sara de Sota Pageant had shifted from its earlier focus on the legend of Sara de Sota to a celebration with a clearly Spanish theme. Residents were encouraged to dress in Spanish garb, and those who failed to do so might find themselves incarcerated in one of several circus cages placed along Main Street. Reflecting the festival's theme, a journalist described the art show as having "a typical Spanish bazaar atmosphere."

Now the Sarasota Visual Art Center, the Sarasota Art Association began in 1926. Its organization was the result of efforts by Marcia Rader, art supervisor for Sarasota schools. The association held monthly meetings and sponsored sketch groups and exhibits. It was not until 1941, two years after a reorganization that the SAA incorporated. Its stated purpose was to promote "the educational and cultural advantages of Sarasota in the field of contemporary art."

For more than 20 years, the Art Association was without a home. The members found gallery space in a variety of places - store fronts, hotel lobbies and even barracks at the airport. In 1948, beginning with a modest bequest, the members raised the funds necessary for an initial $12,000 building. The City of Sarasota made available a parcel of land in the Civic Center, between the Municipal Auditorium and the Chidsey Library. Architect Frank Martin, designer of the next-door library, donated the plans and supervision of the construction for the association's first gallery. The Garden Clubs' Poinciana Circle planted flowers and shrubbery in front of the building.

With rapid growth in Sarasota's art community, the center was already too small by the time it opened to the public Jan. 30, 1949. In time for the next gallery season, patio galleries at the back of the building provided additional space. These galleries, again designed by Frank Martin, were created by erecting walls around a patio of tropical plants and a sunken pool. An extended roof provided shelter for the walls and walkways, while the sky covered the pool.

A decade later, the association added an outdoor gallery by installing metal awnings over the west and south exterior walls: In the mid-1960s, a new section on the front of the building provided a more contemporary look as well as expanded gallery space. The outdoor and patio elements have been changed, and the entire gallery is enclosed and climate controlled. A vision for the future brought the Art Center nearly full circle, however. Members anticipated, and then created an outdoor area for sculpture on the north side of the building that can be enjoyed today.

Special Thanks to Ann A. Shank, County Historian, Sarasota County History Center for her research and time devoted to writing this article.