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Why Sarasota is the Cultural Capital of Florida

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The courtyard at The Ringling.

Ask anyone to describe life in Sarasota and it’s likely you’ll hear “arts and culture” in their very first sentence. Beyond being known for our beaches, Sarasota County is a community rich with live theater, concerts, ballet, opera, galleries, museums and even, the circus!

“Sarasota is clearly the cultural mecca of Florida,” explained Jim Shirley, Executive Director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance. “There are few communities in the nation that have the depth and quality of arts and cultural offerings that are found here.”

In fact, according to the most recent study (Arts & Economic Prosperity V), nonprofit arts and culture are a significant industry in Sarasota County – one of that generates $295 million in total economic activity.

A History of Arts

John Ringling

The arts has been woven into the very fabric of our community largely in thanks to circus magnate, John Ringling of Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. He began wintering in Sarasota in 1912 and fifteen years later he moved the circus’ winter headquarters here. Ringling also brought with him a clear vision for real estate development and a voracious appetite for arts and culture.  Alongside his wife, Mable, they traveled Europe and built a collection of art by old masters such as Rubens, van Dyck, and Velazquez and constructed a Renaissance-style 21-gallery museum to house their treasured collection of paintings and art objects.

With the seed of arts planted in prominent style, a community was created where artists were valued and creativity was cherished. Today, that legacy lives on.

Numerous publications have noticed it too. American Style Magazine named Sarasota as the No. 1 “Small City for Art in the United States” while NerdWallet has listed Sarasota in the “Best Small Cities for Art Lovers“. Meanwhile, Sarasota’s iconic Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall has been recognized as the No. 1 “Performing Arts Hall in North America” in the 2,000-seat category by Venues Today five times. And Movoto has named Sarasota among “The Best Cities in Florida for the Arts“.

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A Passion for Performing Arts
You’ll discover the curtain rising nightly at dozens of renowned performing arts venues along Florida’s Gulf Coast. In fact, has said that Sarasota is known for “Most Big Cultural Institutions per Square Inch“. Some of these notable institutions include Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Asolo Rep Theatre, Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota OrchestraFlorida Studio Theatre, Circus SarasotaPlayers Centre for Performing Arts, Urbanite Theatre, Sarasota Contemporary Dance, West Coast Black Theatre Troupe, Venice Theatre, Manatee Performing Arts Center, and McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre. For a list of even more, visit

Annual Festivals
Beyond the cultural institutions that produce art on a regular basis, Sarasota is swimming with annual festivals – something for every month. Here is a list of local favorites: Sarasota Music Festival (June), Ringling International Arts Festival (October), Forks & Corks Food and Wine Festivals (January), Englewood Fine Arts Festival (March), Sarasota Film Festival (April),  Sarasota Film Society’s Cine-World Film Festival (November), Sarasota Chalk Festival (November),  Crystal Classic Sand Sculpting Competition (November), Atomic Holiday Bazaar (December), Florida Studio Theatre Improv Fest (July), Fine Arts Festival of Manatee County (February), and the Bradenton Blues Festival (December).

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Museums and Galleries Galore
The Ringling stands as the hallmark in the community, where you can wander through 31 galleries filled with treasures: old masters, contemporary art and exhibitions from around the world. Beyond The Ringling, there are dozens of centers for visual art along the Gulf Coast. Galleries extend through out downtown Sarasota and the Rosemary District, while Coastal Living Magazine has named the community of Towles Court  among the Top 10 Artists Colonies in North America.

Art walks and festivals are weekly occurrences, whether partaking in first Friday gallery walks on Palm Avenue or Music on Main in Lakewood Ranch, and third Friday art walks in Towles Court. You can view even more with this list of recurring events in Sarasota. What’s more, organizations like Art Center Sarasota and Longboat Key Center for the Arts provide education, exhibitions, and cultural programs to the local community.

On the horizon, the Sarasota Museum of Art (SMOA), as Sarasota’s first museum of modern and contemporary art, promises to continue the tradition of creative discovery and discourse. Transforming the former Sarasota High School, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, SMOA will include an exhibition space with multiple galleries, a 110-seat auditorium, classrooms and community gathering places.

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Lights, Camera, Action
Sarasota even has a history of a strong film production scene, but that scene is now growing exponentially.  The annual Sarasota Film Festival was just called one of the Top 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World by Movie Maker Magazine.

New sound stages are opening soon on the campus of Ringling College of Art and Design. The $18 million project is a collaboration between Ringling College and Semkhor Productions, promising to be a remarkable resource for students as well as for commercial use. According to a recent article in the Sarasota Herald Tribune “Tampa-based WEDU, the region’s primary PBS station, is set to start shooting there in April and ‘Clerks’ director Kevin Smith will film a web series on the sound stages in June”. This follows recent productions by actors Justin Long and Dylan McDermott.

Also, numerous independent films are developed here from local creative entrepreneurs as well as web series, short films, documentaries and other content being created locally, growing in quality and budget as they expand their skills and resources.

What’s more, the Sarasota County Film and Entertainment Office, which meets the global standards and requirements of the Association of Film Commissioners International, has been enriching the arts scene since 2006, providing rebates for local productions and supporting the efforts of  filmmakers.

“We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary as a full time professional film commission,” explained Director, Jeanne Corcoran.  “We’ve served nearly 3,000 projects of all types in myriad ways over this time, generating an approximate $40 million economic impact.”


Sarasota Mod Weekend at the Umbrella House in Lido Shores. Photo by Veronika Bajtala, courtesy Solstice Planning and Architecture.

An Appreciation for Architecture
Throughout our region, you’ll discover architecture that celebrates our history, climate, and way of life from the Venetian and Mediterranean-style influence of John Ringling, to the mid-century modern movement indigenous to our region known as the Sarasota School of Architecture. From the 1940’s-60’s, notable practitioners such as Paul Rudolph, Gene Leedy, Ralph Twitchell, and Victor Lundy among others, pioneered an innovative regional style that is still studied and revered by architectures students the world over. The annual SarasotaMOD Weekend organized by the Sarasota Architectural Foundation celebrates this legacy. Today, contemporary architects continue to push the boundaries of the medium in what has been referred to as a new golden age of architectural innovation.


Looking to the Future
The community is committed to maintaining a hub for creativity and culture. One of the most exciting initiatives dedicated to continuing our place as Florida’s premier destination for arts and culture is known as Sarasota Bayfront 20:20. Community and civic leaders have begun to collectively articulate a long-term master plan for re-investing in 42 acres of land along the Bayfront near the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The goal is to make this project a permanent expression of Sarasota’s cultural prowess while inhabiting one of the city’s most beautiful and accessible waterfront settings.


If you are thinking about moving to Sarasota and making arts and culture a part of your life, speak with one of our agents about Sarasota real estate, or visit and search the arts and culture lifestyle section on our website which provides a list of neighborhood and communities in the heart of the artistic action.

Why Sarasota is the Cultural Capital of Florida was last modified: July 5th, 2017 by Kathryn Parks