Florida's Artist Centers, Colonies and Districts
Sure, you can go to an art gallery. But why not just meet the artist herself? There are several thriving (and up-and-coming) artist colonies and districts in the Sunshine State.
Art might seem to some a solitary occupation. And, of course, from the dawn of creation to the eve of completion (unless it’s a pre-ordained group project) a piece of art, much like a piece of writing, generally requires seclusion. But when it comes to selling art, and sometimes even being inspired enough to make it, standing alone isn’t always the best policy.
Thus the development of artist colonies, small communities within larger villages or towns where artists and artisans keep their studios in connection with one another. Visitors are often permitted to watch the artists at work, and have the advantage of being able to view and purchase the crafts of the entire colony in one fell swoop.
Meanwhile, the artists themselves have the benefit of likeminded colleagues nearby for a chat when creativity is flagging—not to mention a chance to sell their artwork and, of course, get plenty of admiration from patrons. The town that hosts such a colony sees a renaissance in an arena that may have otherwise gone to commercial development.
Florida has several near-Utopian examples of such colonies. They’ve arisen from the large population of artists who flock to the state to take advantage of the lush landscapes, and are set in quaint locales than were destined for the wrecking ball.
Some, like the Atlantic Center for the Arts, located in New Smyrna Beach, are non-profits that offer residencies, studio space and learning opportunities for emerging artists. ACA offers exhibition opportunities for Florida artists, adult workshops and a kids camp for ages six to 12 for nine weeks each summer.
The ArtCenter/South Florida in Miami Beach, a non-profit organization founded in 1984, advances the knowledge and practice of contemporary visual arts and culture in South Florida. A unique cultural identity evolved from an unwavering commitment to a core focus over the course of 25 years by nurturing emerging visual artists, exhibiting contemporary art and providing community access to contemporary art education.
Since its inception, ArtCenter has promoted art-making through its on-site series of low-cost classes and workshops. All of ArtCenter's public and arts education outreach programming are service oriented to provide the community with resources that might not otherwise be available. ArtCenter's artist in residence program and gallery exist to provide affordable work and show spaces for outstanding artists on South Beach's highly visible Lincoln Road. These two programs are central to the success of ArtCenter, as most exhibitions, education and outreach programming are influenced by the artistic integrity of the current population of artists-in-residence.
Other colonies, however, are more commercial ventures for the artisans and craftsmen, and easier to navigate for guests who might be in town on vacation. But each has its own rules, and it behooves the aficionado to get to know them just a little bit in order to get the most out of the settlement.
Railroad Square Art Park is a wonderful place to visit. Initially the historic McDonnell lumber yard, and then the Downtown Industrial Park, today it rents 100,000 square feet to more artists-per-capita than anywhere in Florida, including those who train and teach at nearby colleges Florida A&M University (FAMU) and Florida State University (FSU). During the week there are several store open in Railroad Square and a caboose café to enjoy lunch.
Come visit The Other Side vintage store, go rock climbing at Tallahassee Rock Gym, visit 621 Art Gallery and stock up on fresh herbs at Athena’s Garden. If you are looking for old records, comic books or just an off-the-beaten-path bookstore, Railroad Square is the place. Grab a map at the front of the park and go explore. Visitors will also enjoy the festive, community atmosphere at the First Friday Gallery Hop, every first Friday of the month from 6-10 p.m., or the Third Saturdays at Railroad Square from 3-8 p.m. Both events have food booths and live music.
The Village of the Arts in Bradenton, a community of more than 35 artists, operates on a similar schedule. Sure, you can walk around this charming area, which was created in 1999 and is directed by the non-profit Artists Guild of the Manatee. Pop in to Ortygia or Charisma Café for a bite. But most of the resident-studio/workspaces, which are colorful, redeveloped cottages numbered with yellow Village of the Arts signs, are not open to the public on weekdays.
Visiting hours vary, but most galleries are open on Saturday, and many galleries are open Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Still, the best time to drop by is the first weekend of every month, when ArtWalks turn these few blocks into a veritable street fair from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays.
Nearby in Sarasota, Towles Court Artist Colony is more open in terms of format and layout. For one thing, some of the boutiques and shops are open Tuesday to Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the monthly ArtWalks, when all fling doors wide, takes place on the non-competitive third Friday.
For another, “the arts” is interpreted more broadly in this district, and you’ll find everything from culinary arts to healing arts, including massage and art therapy, falling under that category. In addition, the rescued and remodeled bungalows in this formerly blighted part of town are intermingled with outdoor sculpture and elaborate tropical gardens, so you’ll often see artists and writers working en plein air.
Old Florida and Melbourne
Indeed, an “artist colony” such as Cocoa Village might look more like a quaint downtown area where the shops have more architectural than thematic things in common. In fact, Cocoa Village is a hotbed of Old Florida, fronting a past that includes Highwaymen painters, cow herders and steamboats.
It stands to reason, then, that this historic Village is now a home for artists, artisans and antique collectors, as well as a center for events that include a weekly farmer’s market, a weekly live free jazz concert during lunchtime, and gallery walks. With such a wide array of activity, perhaps it’s more appropriate to call this a district as opposed to a colony.
Note the Melbourne City Council, who has taken note of the kind of success that the arts, mingling with redeveloped real estate, brings to a town. That area’s downtown Eau Gallie is continuing to grow as an Arts Distict and is also home to the Brevard Cultural Alliance. Retail spaces now include antique and specialty shops, an art show is held annually, and the Henegar Center for the Arts provides a theater and office space for non-profit organizations. But if the cultural opportunities are as good as the retail ones, who’s going to complain?