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How Sarasota Became Florida's New Art and Design Hot Spot

We take you on a tour of Sarasota's thriving arts and culture scene.

Art in Sarasota

A lot of people love Florida, but it’s never been at the top of my travel list. I’ll take a museum and restaurant combo over bikinis and beaches any day. But as soon as the doors of the new Art Ovation Hotel open, I’m ready to reconsider my biases. It turns out that, alongside the sunshine and white sand, the city has a thriving arts and culture scene, which I begin to discover at this hotel that houses a gallery and hosts art classes for its guests.

Lisa DiFranza, Art Ovation’s cultural curator, takes me from the lobby to the eighth floor through Legacy, the exhibition of professors and alumni of the city’s renowned Ringling College of Art and Design. In front of the elevators, my eye catches Diver, by photographer Sally Pettibon, who superimposes old photos. But I’m not the first to stare: It’s already been sold. After the visit, I order a glass of Mumm at the bar as a jazz trio ups the atmosphere. In the 4 p.m. golden light, shapes seem to emerge from Tom Stephens’ huge pastel-coloured abstract paintings. Am I seeing the Statue of Liberty and a UFO? It seems Sarasota’s spirit is doing its work.

This spirit may very well be that of John Ringling, the wealthy promoter who, in 1909, chose a sleepy Gulf-side town one hour south of Tampa as the site of his winter home and, later, his circus. The 66-acre estate includes a circus museum, the oldest rose garden in Florida, a no-holds-barred villa worthy of a Venetian palazzo, and a pink, U-shaped museum with 21 galleries and a Renaissance courtyard. Leading me onto the five-colour marble terrace of Ringling’s home, Ca’ d’Zan, my guide Isabel explains that Ringling once owned 25 percent of Sarasota. “And his stated goal was to make the city an American artistic hub.” With a 55,000-piece collection that includes five Peter Paul Rubens tapestries, a Diego Velásquez and a giant David with which I came, uh, cheek to cheek, it seems like a mission accomplished.

Art in Sarasota

Sarasota doesn’t limit itself to Renaissance art, either. After my Ringling visit, I take a tour of Sarasota’s architecture. Buildings like St. Paul Lutheran Church, the very purple Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall or even the wedding cake-style public library next to the hotel are evidence of the city’s architectural vitality. The city is home to buildings worthy of Palm Springs, thanks in part to Philip Hiss, a property developer who wanted to make the Lido Key a platform for the Sarasota School of Architecture, known for its modern designs, extravagant sunshades and louvred jalousie windows. Hiss first had a house built by Paul Rudolph, then a studio by Tim Seibert. The Umbrella House, also designed by Rudolph, which Hiss erected for speculative purposes (the visionaries here are also good businessmen), is a 186-square-metre glass box with a giant parasol roof, which also covers the swimming pool. Architectural Digest considers it one of the five most remarkable houses of the mid-20th century. In fact, most of the Lido Shores neighbourhood seems to have emerged from a futuristic 1950s dream, and I can see myself, decades from now, visiting as a snowbird.

On my last day, I take part in a portrait session offered by the hotel. Danica Jokić, a tall Serbian blonde graduate of Ringling College, hands us the material to paint Audrey Hepburn’s face from a photo. The woman to my right has already embarked on an assumed Fauvism. An hour later, my purple monochrome – with a few pale pink strokes added on a whim – isn’t all that far from the original. I’d even say that it is surprising, and beyond my expectations. Kind of like Sarasota.

Art Ovation Hotel

Photo: Limelight Photography

Wall-to-wall art

3 things to know about the Art Ovation Hotel

Want to chat with the hotel employees? Ask them about their choice of alter ego, displayed on their nametags. We met a waitress inspired by Jet Li and a hotel manager who’s a P.T. Barnum disciple.

Violins, cellos and even drums can be delivered directly to your room. We were assured no noise complaints have been made yet.

If you fall in love with a piece, buy it! They are all for sale and part of the profits go toward bursaries for students at the Ringling College of Art and Design.