When you think of Sarasota the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t stunning displays of live performance, magnificent art collections or a strong history of modernist architecture. You’d probably picture the white sand beaches on the outlying keys, the bay along the Gulf of Mexico and maybe a sneaky alligator or two. Though generally a destination for older mid-westerners and northeastern folks escaping the winter chill, there is a strong tradition in the Western Florida County of supporting and fostering the arts.
This is all indebted to someone who also, would not come to mind at first: John Ringling, one half of the Ringling brothers. When he and his wife decided to call Sarasota home they basically built up the entire town in the early 20th century and left their sprawling estate to the people. In fact, wandering Sarasota you will encounter Ringling’s influence from his bust overseeing traffic on Lido Key to historical artifacts from early 20th century circuses like wagon wheels preserved in the ground.
Sarasota is more than a circus, though, and here’s the proof.
1. Art Outside
Right along the bay in Sarasota proper is a giant sculptural representation of the V-J Day kissers and then across the street, a bright red abstracted form. This is just one immediate way in which the dichotomy between classicism and modernist representation is fostered throughout the city. This isn’t reserved for just the downtown district, but to the keys across the bay and beyond. The shopping area of St. Armand’s Circle is peppered with classical sculpture, so even as you stroll along for some retail therapy or pop into one of the many fantastic restaurants, you can’t escape art.
Even the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens (the only botanical garden in the world dedicated to the display and study of epiphytes, you know, orchids and the like) approaches its rotating displays as any other curated exhibition would. The garden (pictured above) also has a building dedicated to artwork related to plants and botany. Next year, the garden is pushing the boundaries of how an audience engages with representational history and botanical gardens when they will feature Marc Chagall’s works from the French Riviera. Trees and plants from the French Riviera will be planted on the pathway to the building where the artwork will be housed, providing a multisensory experience.
2. Performing Arts
Probably one of the most exciting cultural highlights of Sarasota is the Sarasota Opera. The Opera offers visitors grand world-class performances on the same level as those in larger cities but the director, Victor DeRenzi, approaches the performances classically. This means that unlike other contemporary opera houses, its staging is done as closely as possible to the source material utilized. Though this classic approach might seem slightly outdated and may have a lot to do with the older clientele who support and frequent the performances, it is actually rather refreshing when considering New York and L.A.’s grand reinventions.
The thread of classicism woven throughout the town continues into the theatre world as well. Not one, but two European theaters were broken down piece-by-piece and sent over to Sarasota.
Continuing along the live performance route, Sarasota is home to a handful of professional and repertory theaters. The live performance scene seems to spill out into the streets. In fact, there are over 3,000 seats spread out among ten theaters. Most excitingly, these performance houses don’t go dark in the summer—Sarasota’s off-season. In May, the city will be celebrating May Curtain Call, which is basically theatre month.
The ballet is celebrating its 25th year and for the last nine years has been under director Iain Webb, a Brit who has helped bring the ballet national and international acclaim. The Sarasota Ballet often partners with the Birmingham Ballet in the UK and the Royal in London.
3. The Ringling
A showman of the greatest caliber, John Ringling and his wife Mable are truly the architects of Sarasota. The Ringling museum sits on the grounds of their spectacular Venetian Gothic style home called Ca d’Zan, which means “house of John,” in an old Venetian dialect. But this is not just another grand old home. This museum and its sprawling estate are a cultural and representative microcosm on multiple levels. Ringling literally spent all of his fortune to build it and fill the art museum.
At the Ringling you’ll encounter the new Circus Museum, the old Circus Museum, the art museum with a strong emphasis on baroque but featuring several large Rubens, a great early to mid renaissance collection, rooms shipped down from gilded age New York, a James Turrell installation only active at sunset, rotating exhibitions, a new center for Asian Art, and a modern and contemporary art center. And this is before mentioning the gardens filled with roses and banyan trees (pictured at top), early 20th century casts of Italian Renaissance and ancient Greco-Roman sculptures or the view along the bay that when you stand upon the edge of Ca d’Zan will make you seriously think you’ve suddenly transported to Venice, Italy.
4. Modernist Architecture
Have you ever wondered what Bauhaus philosophies would look like when combined with regional Southern American architectural sensibilities? Well, from 1941 to 1966, the Sarasota School of Architecture was famous for combining the international approach with some of the more practical realities of the sticky hot summers of Florida. They pioneered the “indoors-outdoors” approach to architecture and design.
Founded by Ralph Twitchell, the school is known for unleashing onto the world midcentury modernist masters Paul Rudolph, Edward “Tim” Seibert, Mark Hampton, Victor Lundy, Gene Leedy, Jack West and Carl Abbott.
Currently on view at the Ringling is a recreation of a masterpiece designed by Paul Rudolph: the Walker Guest House. This mid-century modernist case study is actually still lived in by the original owner so the recreation offers an unprecedented access. This home and tradition of modernist architecture is just one more facet to the way in which art, culture and the surroundings come together in Sarasota.
5. Culinary Art
Finally, what better way to devour culture than through a place’s cuisine? Even in the edible sense, there is an interesting mash up of classism and contemporary approaches living perfectly happily beside each other.
With classicism comes French food. The Bijou Café across from the opera house is the perfect place for a pre-show meal of French classics. On the more modern side of the French spectrum is Lolita Tartine, which offers a bright space and delicious namesake dishes, as well as a fun European atmosphere.
Around St. Armand’s Circle, you’ll find an old school Floridian-Cuban spot, Columbia, with an amazing Spanish vibe made even brighter by white sangria made with cava. On the contemporary front there’s Shore with fresh approaches to Floridian produce and amazing cocktails.
If you want a coffee place with a creative college vibe, head to Kahwa Coffee (pictured above) where their post-industrial chic décor and excellent roasts certainly hit the mark.
Melissa Karlin is a writer, photographer and professional social butterfly based in Los Angeles. When she’s not traveling, she’s usually drinking coffee and watching obscene amounts of TV.