10 Arts Experts Pick Their Favorite Cultural Attractions in Florida
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
It’s always the season of the arts in Florida. Let these experts guide you to the cultural attractions, performers and places that distinguish the state and contribute to its cultural identity.
1. HOWARD HERRING
President, New World Symphony, Miami Beach:
New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy, is a training ensemble for young musicians established in 1987 and based in the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center in Miami Beach, with adventurous programming between September and May, including free, outdoor wallcasts projected on the outside of the building.
Miami City Ballet is a globally-recognized company of more than 45 dancers founded in 1985 with an impressive repertory of nearly 100 ballets. Its performances often emphasize the work of George Balanchine, but include world premieres and commissions by prominent choreographers, such as Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky and Liam Scarlett. Based in Miami Beach, the company tours internationally and serves as the resident ballet company at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale and the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
Art Basel Miami Beach is the foremost international modern and contemporary art fair in North America held in early December in Miami Beach since 2001. Sister fair to the original Art Basel in Switzerland, it showcases over 250 galleries from 31 countries inside the Miami Beach Convention Center, drawing up to 50,000 people.
Design Miami, one of the 20 satellite fairs spawned by Art Basel Miami Beach, has since 2004 been an official sister fair of Art Basel, celebrating global design and showcasing 20th and 21st century furniture, lighting and objets d’art in a tent adjacent to the convention center.
Seraphic Fire, one of the country’s preeminent choral orchestral chamber ensembles, performs repertoire ranging from Gregorian chant and baroque masterpieces to Mahler and newly commissioned works by the country’s leading composers. A two-time Grammy nominee, the Miami choir tours in American cities and appears in churches and concert halls in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and sometimes Naples.
ArtCenter South Florida is a creative learning and cultural center in Miami Beach that provides artist residencies and has presented exhibitions for free to the public for more than 1,000 visual artists since it opened in 1984. Its early investment in dilapidated property on a now thriving Lincoln Road has secured the center’s financial future as it continues to operate out of 924 Lincoln Road.
Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), occupying a new home designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron along Biscayne Bay in downtown Miami, is a contemporary art museum dedicated to collecting and exhibiting international art of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is a one-of-a-kind botanic garden on 83 acres in Coral Gables. Since 1938, it has been building and displaying a vast collection of endangered tropical, fruit, orchids and Florida native plants. The gardens become living art spaces every December with exhibitions by artists such as Mark Dion, Roy Lichtenstein, Fernando Botero and Dale Chihuly.
Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, opened in 2006, brings Broadway shows, jazz, gospel, regional theater, dance, flamenco, classical music and other world-class performances to its César Pelli-designed campus year-round. It’s also where you can catch resident companies New World Symphony, Miami City Ballet and Florida Grand Opera, as well as The Cleveland Orchestra, which winters here. An on-site restaurant, bookstore-café and weekly farmers market enlivens this once-dormant downtown Miami neighborhood.
Wynwood Walls, an outdoor living tribute to some of the world’s most famous graffiti and street artists, transformed Miami’s warehouse district of Wynwood in 2009, when developer and arts visionary Tony Goldman started commissioning artists to paint warehouse buildings. Galleries, restaurants and the crowds followed. Over 50 artists representing 16 countries have covered 80,000 square feet of walls, including Kenny Scharf, Shepard Fairey and Aiko, among others.
2. JUDITH LISI
President, Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa:
Opera Tampa, which debuted in 1996 with its first production, “Madama Butterfly,” produces full-scale operas annually featuring international performers, the Opera Tampa Orchestra and the 50-member Opera Tampa Chorus. A Straz Center resident company, the opera also presents the Florida Opera Festival, a series of opera and opera-related concerts and events, including performances from guests such as classical-crossover vocalist Katherine Jenkins, to appeal to first-timers and opera buffs; the season runs from November through April.
Bok Tower Gardens, a National Historic Landmark that has been a part of the Central Florida landscape since 1929, offers landscape gardens, a 60-bell Singing Tower carillon and a magnificent 1930s Mediterranean-style mansion in Lake Wales. Built on one of the state’s highest points, the 205-foot tower of marble and coquina stone has recitals daily, with live carillon concerts occurring mid-October through mid-May.
Ybor City is a historic neighborhood in Tampa founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers and populated by thousands of immigrants, mostly from Cuba, Spain and Italy. A portion of the National Historic Landmark District is now an entertainment district. The Ybor City Museum is in a 1923-era bakery, with a recreated casita typical of a cigar worker’s home. It offers tours, exhibits and special events.
The Florida Orchestra, based in Tampa Bay, is the result of a 1968 merger of the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra and the Tampa Philharmonic. One of the state’s leading professional symphony orchestras, it performs nearly 100 concerts annually in Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg, with concert series that include masterworks, pops, coffee concert matinees and free “Pops in the Park.”
Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, held annually the first weekend in March, showcases 300 of the world’s most talented, juried artists, transforming downtown Tampa into an outdoor museum. Started in 1970, it attracts more than 250,000 people every year with displays of art that include ceramic, digital, drawing, fiber, glass, jewelry, mixed media, painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture, watercolor and wood, along with live entertainment, children’s activities and food vendors.
3. IAN WEBB
Sarasota Ballet Director
and Managing Director Mary Anne Servian:
Sarasota Ballet, established in 1990, has gained a national and international profile for mastering classical works by George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, and Agnes de Mille, in addition to more contemporary works by Twyla Tharp, Matthew Bourne, and Christopher Wheeldon. The company has earned a reputation as the foremost exponent of the choreography of the British master Frederick Ashton, hosting a first-of-its-kind festival devoted to his works in 2104 and continuing to annually explore his ballets.
The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is a landmark Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation 1,736-seat theater built on Sarasota Bay in 1968. It offers classical and modern music, dance, jazz, comedy and Broadway.
Ringling Museum of Art, established in Sarasota in 1927 by the circus magnate, has 21 galleries of European paintings, Cypriot antiquities, and Asian, American and contemporary art. Among the most celebrated items in the museum are the 16th-20th century European paintings, including a world-renowned collection of Peter Paul Rubens paintings.
Sarasota Orchestra, the state’s oldest continuing orchestra, with history dating to 1949, is an 80-member orchestra that performs more than 100 classical, pops and family concerts in four halls in Sarasota and Bradenton.
Sarasota Opera, based in a renovated 1926 theater, presents a fall-winter season of fully-staged operas. The company is particularly renowned for a long-standing Verdi Cycle initiative to perform all the works of Giuseppe Verdi. It also has a series devoted to neglected works of artistic merit, such as Alfredo Catalani’s “La Wally,” and a new American Classics initiative to produce one opera by an American composer each season.
Manatee Players, now based in a new performing arts center in Bradenton, has been staging live community theater productions for 70 seasons, ranging from musicals such as “Cats” and “Evita” to dramas such as “The Miracle Worker.”
Selby Botanical Gardens, home to the most diverse collection of bromeliads in the world, is on Sarasota Bay. Its seven acres host rotating exhibits, art installations and events, such as “Living Sculpture: the Art of Air Plants” and “Shakespeare in the Gardens.”
Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales (see above).
Vizcaya Museum & Gardens is an early 20th century villa that was once the home of industrialist James Deering. Its 50 acres include extensive Italian Renaissance gardens on Biscayne Bay in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood. The villa’s museum contains more than 70 rooms of distinctive architectural interiors with 15th through early 19th century European decorative art and furnishings.
The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville holds one of the finest art collections in the Southeast, with nearly 5,000 objects in its permanent collection. The museum offers world-class art spanning from 2100 B.C. through the 21st century, features diverse special exhibits, and is home to the Wark Collection of Early Meissen Porcelain.
4. JED DODDS
Executive director, The Studios of Key West:
Mario Sanchez, Key West’s most celebrated folk artist, portrayed life in the island city from World War I through the Great Depression. His painted wood carvings depicted street vendors selling strings of fish, chicken thieves and Cuban cigarmakers. His original artwork can be viewed at the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House and The Gallery on Greene.
Key West Parades. “Everyone knows Fantasy Fest in October, but locals know that the wackier parades are off the beaten track! From the 6,000 “undead” who come out for the annual Zombie Bike Ride in late October to the Zero K Run ambling across Cow Key Channel Bridge in bovine costumes in April, Key West loves an excuse to dress up and strut their stuff.”
John Martini, a Jacksonville-born sculpture artist who lives in Key West and France, is known for phantasmagorical creatures cut from massive steel plates. His whimsical welded figures and animals are shown internationally, but can also be viewed at Lucky Street Gallery in Key West.
Rick Worth, the “hardest working painter in Key West,” has lived there since the 1980s. His work adorns everything from cars to Fantasy Fest floats to the sides of buildings. His large-scale mural, “Wilhelmina Crossing the 7 Mile Bridge,” on a building at the corner of Olivia and Simonton streets, puts a Keys twist on the classic 1851 painting. He also has a mural that illustrates life in Key West’s Bahama Village at the corner of Petronia and Thomas streets. Worth shows his work at the Lucky Street Gallery on Greene Street and teaches “Painting Boot Camp” at The Studios of Key West.
Judy Blume, the beloved young adult author (“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” “Blubber,” “Deenie” and “Forever,” among others), has called Key West home for more than two decades. “Key West has more celebrated writers than we know what to do with, but the coolest of them all? Judy. Blume.”
Annie Dillard is a writer and poet who lives part-time in Key West and received a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2015. Her second book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1975.
Green Parrot Bar, a Key West institution since 1890, is a watering hole with a jukebox and live music on weekends. It’s “not just one of America’s greatest saloons, but a cultural institution. The Parrot has South Florida's most eclectic booking and rollicking stage, and is THE meeting place for artists & tradesmen.”
Tropic Cinema is a retro-style cinema in Key West with three theaters for mainstream and indie films, plus cultural events and lectures. “Brilliantly programmed and run with efficiency and charm by legions of volunteers, the Tropic is a haven for cinephiles.”
The Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show is an Old Florida roadside attraction in Hernando County, an hour north of Tampa. Part of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, the show features costumed, underwater mermaids who since 1947 have been delighting crowds in a 400-seat submerged theater. “This crowd-pleasing bit of living history feels fresh in light of today's circus and burlesque arts movements.”
Coral Castle is a stone structure created by hand over three decades by eccentric Latvian-American Edward Leedskalnin in Leisure City, about 35 miles south of Miami. It’s “an outsider art spectacle: weird and wonderful.
5. LAWRENCE BUDMEN
Classical music critic and contributor to South Florida Classical Review:
Seraphic Fire based in Miami (see above).
Palm Beach Opera, founded in 1961 and based in West Palm Beach, presents four fully-staged operas each season at Kravis Center for the Performing Arts and other locations, including in 2015 a world premiere, “Enemies, A Love Story,” by American composer Ben Moore, an opera based on the Yiddish novel written by Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer. “They have high artistic standards.”
Sarasota Music Festival, a classical music festival sponsored by the Sarasota Orchestra, “brings renowned musicians from around the globe each June for three weeks of great chamber music concerts and a teaching institute with students from top U.S. conservatories.”
The Florida Orchestra, based in Tampa Bay (see above), for nabbing its new music director, Michael Francis, formerly chief conductor and artistic advisor to Sweden’s Norrköping Symphony Orchestra. Francis has been hailed as a rising star internationally, conducting the London, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Toronto symphonies, the New York, Japan and Seoul philharmonics, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Mariinsky Orchestra, among other major orchestras.
Naples Philharmonic, the resident orchestra of Artis-Naples, was founded in 1982 and is recognized as one of the country’s best young orchestras. Its new music director, Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko, “one of the most gifted and well traveled of the young generation of Russian conductors.”
6. KATHY GRIEF
Marketing director, The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg:
The Dalí Museum in downtown St. Petersburg houses the largest collection of the Spanish surrealist painter’s works outside of Europe, with more than 2,000 works of art in the 20,000 square feet of gallery space, including oils, watercolors, sketches, sculptures and other objects. Of the 18 "Masterworks" Dalí produced, eight are located here.
Wat Mongkolratanaram of Florida, or Wat Tampa, is a Buddhist Thai temple on the bank of the Palm River in Tampa. It hosts a Sunday market that sells Thai groceries and prepared foods. “You get a little glimpse into true Thai culture and it makes for an amazing afternoon.”
Tampa Bay’s Performing Arts Venues. “I love The Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, The Mahaffey Theatre in St. Petersburg, Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, and a host of smaller independent theaters like American Stage Theatre Company in St. Petersburg, which puts on Arts in the Park, a series of summer outdoor plays.”
The Ringling in Sarasota (see above). “I love the historic home tour” of Ca' d’Zan.
The Ernest Hemingway’s Home and Museum in Key West was home to one of America’s most honored and respected authors who lived and wrote there for more than 10 years.
St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the continental United States. “I find the history here so cool. The area is filled with gems like Castillo de San Marcos fort, the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum and the historic downtown cobblestone streets.”
The Festival Scene in the Tampa Bay, from food-and-wine fests like Los Vinos de Dalí in April at The Dalí Museum to cultural heritage festivals such as Festa Italiana in April in Ybor City and the Cuban Sandwich Festival in March, also in Ybor City. “I love the entire Gasparilla Pirate Festival every January, from the races to the parades and the music and movies.”
Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales (see above).
Dry Tortugas National Park in the Keys is a remote park about 70 miles west of Key West. The 100-square mile park is mostly open water with seven small islands. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, the park is the home of magnificent Fort Jefferson.
7. N.Y. NIATHIRI
Executive director, Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community:
Historic Eatonville, the “town that freedom built,” is the the first incorporated African American settlement community in the United States and the one-time home to author Zora Neale Hurston. “I call it Zora’s Cosmos.” There are year-round tours, literary destinations identified in Hurston’s books and the annual “Zora! Festival,” which will be celebrating the author’s 125th birthday in 2016. The festival, held the last week in January, features a book fair, a three-day outdoor arts festival with live music and performances, historic preservation workshops, a “Hatitude” brunch and party celebrating the writer’s love of hats and creative writing workshops.
St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the continental United States, is a “heritage treasure.” Fort Mose, the first African settlement to legally exist in the United States, is there. Now a state park, there’s an interactive museum, and living historians and reenactors bring the fort’s story to life.
Ethnic Miami, with its many neighborhoods – Little Haiti, Little Havana and Historic Overtown – “lets you experience Miami in the micro.” It’s worth a long weekend spent exploring these places. Wynwood is also a particularly vibrant arts community.
American Beach, on Amelia Island north of Jacksonville, was founded in 1935 by Florida’s first black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, and was the only beach in Florida that welcomed black Americans, offering safe overnight accommodations during Jim Crow segregation. Florida’s first African American resort community, it has its own historic district.
The John G. Riley Center/Museum of African American History & Culture is the former home of Riley, a longtime educator who was one of the few African Americans in Tallahassee to own property at the turn of the century. It hosts exhibits, arts showcases and other events.
The Black Archives Research Center at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee is one of 10 black archives in the United States and is one of the largest repositories of African-American history and culture in the Southeast. The center and its museum holds more than 500,000 individual archival records and more than 5,000 individual museum artifacts, some dating back to the 17th century.
The Dalí Museum (see above).
Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum in Key West has an extensive collection of artifacts from 17th century shipwrecks, including exhibits and presentations on slave ships, Key West African cemeteries and other reflections of African ancestry. “It does an excellent job of showing the way people lived together in a place too little to segregate.” The museum’s Key West Africana Festival, held in June, focuses on the African diaspora.
8. ROBIN DRAPER
Travel writer and founder of AuthenticFlorida.com:
Pine Island Art Show and Matlacha artists’ community, about 60 miles north of Naples in Southwest Florida, features works created by more than 100 local artists every February. The historic fishing community’s wildly colorful bungalows are now occupied by artists and the tiny island has six galleries, including the polka-dotted headquarters of Leoma Lovegrove, an impressionist-expressionist painter whose bold, Florida-centric paintings are on display in galleries throughout the world and two Presidential libraries; she also has a collection at Bealls.
Photographer Clyde Butcher is renowned for his large-scale black-and-white landscape photos of the Everglades and Florida wilderness, which can be viewed and purchased at his galleries in Ochopee and Venice. “He’s an inspiring human being. When I first saw his work, I said to myself, ‘that’s where I want to go.’ ”
Florida Folk Festival is a three-day celebration in May of Florida music, dance, stories, crafts and food at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs. From fiddle tunes and songs about gators to kumquat pie, Florida’s heritage is explored through more than 300 performances over the Memorial Day weekend along the banks of the Suwannee River in north Florida.
Wynwood Art Walk in Miami occurs every second Saturday of every month in the new hipster Wynwood neighborhood north of downtown Miami, home to over 70 galleries, museums and collections. Thousands of people crowd the streets to hear live music, eat at the food truck roundup and experience Miami’s art scene. “It’s one of the most fascinating neighborhoods, with all different cultures and artists coming together.”
Sarasota Opera (see above).
Ringling Museum of Art (see above) and historic Asolo Theater, reconstructed from a 500-seat, 18th-century Italian opera house on the Ringling campus, has a distinguished series of live music, theater and dance performances every season. “Standing in the courtyard of the Ringling Museum surrounded by pink marble with the sun setting on the statue of David is one of those magical Florida moments.”
Hippodrome State Theatre, or “The Hipp,” is a 1911 former post office and courthouse in downtown Gainesville that features Broadway and off-Broadway productions and art house films. Since it was founded in 1973 by local actors, the theatre has produced more than 100 premieres of news works by such acclaimed playwrights as Tennessee Williams and Eric Bentley.
Florida Nature Photographer John Moran, raised in Fort Myers, has a portfolio of landscape and wildlife photography that ranges from the Gulf to the Atlantic, with an emphasis on Florida’s rivers, lakes, coasts, swamps and springs, and the creatures that inhabit them. His works have appeared in National Geographic, Life, Time, Newsweek, Smithsonian and The New York Times magazines. His photos can be viewed in periodic exhibits in museums and studios around the state, including Rum 138, a canoe-kayak outpost with its own art studio on the Santa Fe River in the small North Florida town of Fort White, 32 miles north of Gainesville.
9. JENNIFER BRYANT SHEPHERD
Historic Coast Culture representative, St Johns County Arts Culture and Heritage Council:
St. Augustine Art Association, started in 1924 with a small group of artists, now has its own impressive gallery with rotating exhibits. A local favorite event is its annual St. Augustine Art & Craft Festival, now in its 50th year. It’s held over Thanksgiving weekend every year.
Butterfield Garage Art Gallery, housed in a 1927 parking garage in St. Augustine’s historic district, opened in 1999 and showcases the area’s most distinguished professional artists.
The EMMA Concert Association opens its season each fall with a series of six evening performances, four matinee concerts and other special engagements. Concerts are held at the regal Lewis Auditorium at Flagler College in the heart of St. Augustine’s historic district.
10. CHRISTINE DOLEN
Former theater critic, Miami Herald:
GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables stages consistently high-quality productions of provocative Off-Broadway plays, has won many regional Carbonell Awards and excels under the astute direction of Artistic Director Joseph Adler.
Actors' Playhouse, based out of the restored Coral Gables-owned Miracle Theatre, has a way with large-cast musicals and has produced more than a quarter century of award-winning work.
Zoetic Stage, a Miami theater company that performs at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater in downtown Miami, has given the region excellent world premieres from two of its playwright-founders, Michael McKeever and Christopher Demos-Brown, and has done great work on Off-Broadway plays and Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins."
Slow Burn Theatre Company, now in the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center, does great productions of challenging musicals, including impressive work on some that weren't huge hits on Broadway.
Island City Stage, now performing at the Abyss Theatre in Wilton Manors, is South Florida’s award-winning LGBT company.
Thinking Cap Theatre, performing in its own space at The Vanguard in Fort Lauderdale, is a small company that does intellectually engaging work.
Palm Beach Dramaworks, a company focusing on classic plays, is expanding the work in its beautiful downtown West Palm Beach theater to include a smaller space for work on new plays.
Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Jupiter has the largest subscriber base of any South Florida theater and a focus on lavish musicals like “Billy Elliot” and classic plays.