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The Making of an Art Colony

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Mikki Hartig of Historical and Architectural Research Services
Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources

Sarasota History - The Making of an Art Colony photo

Sarasota’s dedication and to recognition for art began in the 1930s. This was essentially due to John Ringling’s bequest of the Mable Ringling Museum of Art and his residence, Ca’d’Zan, to the State of Florida. With such a treasure house of art, artists were bound to gather and establish schools of allied arts and what became know as the Sarasota Art Colony began to form. To many people, artists and Sarasota became synonymous.  

Although first organized in 1926, the Sarasota Art Association was not incorporated as a non-profit until February 28, 1941. The Sarasota Herald saw art as Sarasota’s ‘biggest light industry.” Artists first came to teach at or attend the Ringling School of Art. A number of the school’s teachers and students settled permanently in Sarasota. Art students included others that had taken up art as a hobby, such as prominent Sarasota resident, Karl Bickel, the retired president of the United Press Associations* who became one of the art colony’s most influential friends. A number of former World War II soldiers that had been stationed in the area during the war, returned to Sarasota to study art under the GI Bill.

Along with the appeal of the Ringling Museum and Art School, Sarasota’s variety of landscapes and subject matter such as orange groves, celery farms, cattle ranches, the beaches, and tropical wasteland appealed to many artists who settled in Sarasota. The atmosphere that truly drew many artists to Sarasota was the carnival atmosphere provided by the Ringling circus and its endless subject sources such as its animals, circus wagons, rehearsals, stables and old train cars. Of course, the climate and friendly atmosphere also created a paradise for artists. Not only did they come to Sarasota to paint and study art but noted artists gravitated here to build their homes. These artists, like other people of any stimulating profession, like to interact and exchange ideas and to do so they needed to live in contact with one another. One artist brings another and then there are ten and then fifty and then what historians call a school. Other recognizable artists such as Helen Sawyer, Elden Rowland, Shirley Clement, Truman Fassett, George Kaiser and Martha and William Hartman also chose Sarasota as their home. These artists offered receptions, talks and demonstrations.

By 1949, a fast growing art colony had been established in Sarasota with at least 1000 artists and art students and a half dozen art schools had been opened. Sarasota’s art colony included Syd Solomon, Jerry Farnsworth, Harold Slingerland and many others including such famous illustrators such as Al Buell, Ben Stahl, Thornton Utz and Al Parker. By 1950, the Sarasota Art Association consisted of over 500 members and several well-known art schools were founded such as the Armagansett a school by nationally acclaimed artist, Hilton and Dorthy Leach. Other art schools at the time were the Farnsworth School of Art on Siesta Key, Syd Solomon’s Sarasota School of Art on the Phillippi Creek, the Frank Swift Chase School on Bay Road and Laura Lock’s School on South Palm Avenue, the site of many meetings, parties and exhibitions in the early colony days. At least a half a dozen other art schools existed such as the (Nancy) Coldwell School, the Remsen Studio and the Posey School of Sculpture. Sketch groups were often organized. All forms of fine arts in all media were taught. Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon classes were offered for students who had only the weekend free. Evening classes were also sometimes provided by some of the artists and at the various schools. .

 Local artists and the Sarasota Art Association organized and sponsored an annual grand Beaux Arts Ball (a photo from it is pictured above). It was held at the John Ringling Hotel with participants putting great planning into and wearing extremely elaborate costumes. Prizes were given for the most original. The dance was open to artists, students and the general public. There were many other social gatherings, cocktail parties and occasionally all day picnics. There was a true spirit of fellowship among the artists.

At one point in time, Sarasota perhaps had more artists per capital perhaps than any other city in the United States. By 1951, approximately 1,500 artists made the Sarasota area their home. The national publication Art Digest published the statement “Sarasota shows the way” and went on to print a full column on the city’s artists. According to a 1953 survey, Sarasota catered to over 1,300 art students and their number was steadily growing.  It was certainly the art center of the South.

An Arts and Crafts Colony was established by Ken Hillard to showcase the work of Sarasota artists to visitors and local residents. It was located near 48th Street and north Tamiami Trail during the 1950s. The Florida Art Colony was also established to provide studio and gallery space for local artists at the Sarasota airport. From an economic point of view, art was big business for Sarasota.  The artists put hundreds of thousands of dollar into the local economy each year.

The fame of many of the artists, especially those that came to Sarasota during the 1930s and 1940s received national attention. In 1953, Edmund Lewandowski, head of the Department of Art at Florida State University wrote “When I think of many cities I have visited in the past two or three years… I am at a loss for words to express my amazement at the intensity and quality of the art activity that goes on in Sarasota.” That same year, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Francis Taylor,  proclaimed that there was no place in the entire south, east of St. Louis and south of Washington that possessed such wealth of art and wonderful surroundings such as Sarasota. Truly, a city dedicated to art. Undoubtedly, art had indeed come to Sarasota to stay.

*Editor’s note: United Press Associations was the forerunner to UPI (United Press International).