Think of Southwest Florida and images of splendid beaches immediately come to mind. However, the region has a strong tradition of arts and culture told in its architecture, galleries, museums and theaters.
In Naples, art galleries line downtown streets, where you will also find free exhibitions at the von Liebig Art Center and lively performances at Sugden Community Theatre and Gulfshore Playhouse. Artis-Naples brings still more performance arts and is home to the Miami City Ballet and the world-class Baker Museum of Art. Year-round, the region hosts art shows including downtown’s prestigious Naples National Art Festival in February and the Stay in May Festival in April/May.
In the past couple of years, neighboring Bonita Springs has leaped onto the arts bandwagon with the expansion of the Center for the Arts to a second campus with performing arts and a new film center, which hosts an annual international film festival. In summer 2016, the Southwest Florida Performing Arts Center opened with a celebrity-chef restaurant and a slate of nationally known comedians, bands, musicals and dance groups.
The art scene in Fort Myers centers around its historic downtown River District, where Art Walk takes place the first Friday of the month and Music Walk the third Friday. The Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center and Arcade Theatre, home to the nationally acclaimed Florida Rep, occupy separate historic buildings with distinctive period architecture. A handful of art galleries completes downtown’s artistic landscape. Watch as Alliance for the Arts turns Fort Myers’ royal palm-lined McGregor Boulevard into a pedestrian-friendly art district of its own.
Downtown Punta Gorda’s riverfront architecture recalls the boom years of the late 19th century with Victorian mansions, handsome government buildings and colorful vernacular homes. Browse the galleries of the Visual Arts Center (VAC), which hosts the Peace River National Art Festival in March.
Sarasota arguably holds the loftiest reputation for the arts in these parts, stemming from the influence of the Ringling family, whose circus wintered here. The Ringlings exerted an Italianate influence on local architecture and the arts, culminating in the Ca’ d’Zan mansion on The Ringling grounds. Seeded with John Ringling’s own collection of Rubens and baroque art, The Ringling’s art museum collection covers 500 years of European art and specializes in late-medieval and Renaissance Italian works. In 2016, it debuted the Center for Asian Art to showcase revolving exhibits of its Asian collection.
The complex’s Asolo Repertory Theatre contributes to Sarasota’s rich theatrical tradition, which ranges from new plays at the Florida Studio Theatre to Broadway shows at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to resemble a scallop shell.
Taking up residence in a restored historic high school, the Ringling College of Art + Design’s Sarasota Museum of Art is expected to open in mid-2018. For a driving tour of other architectural gems, including examples of the vaunted Sarasota School of Architecture, pick up a copy of the Tour Sarasota Architecture Guide at visitors’ centers. Galleries fill the Sarasota—Bradenton area, which boasts two artists’ colonies—Towles Court near downtown Sarasota and Village of the Arts in Bradenton. The colonies and downtown Sarasota schedule monthly gallery walks where you can meet the artists.