Bradenton's embrace of the arts impresses

March 3, 2013 

A few weeks ago, I came down to Bradenton from my home in Tampa. I was here to interview for the job as arts and entertainment writer for the Herald.

One of the first things people I met with told me was that Bradenton had to fight its image as an unsophisticated town, that people used to call it "Bradentucky." Bradenton was revitalizing itself, they told me, but remnants of that image still persisted.

I was more than a little surprised. I've lived in Tampa for 43 years and even decades ago I always thought of Bradenton as a charming town, clean, smart and quaint.

I'm now finishing up my third week working here and those impressions still pretty much seem accurate. OK, maybe "quaint" wasn't exactly the right word, but compared to Tampa, well, I think you can see what I was thinking.

By the way, right after that first interview, I posted something on my Facebook page asking friends if they had any kind of negative image of Bradenton, and only one did. I got dozens of other replies from Tampa friends, and they virtually all had good impressions of Bradenton.

Anyway, my point is that I had a positive expectation of Bradenton coming into this job, and from what I've learned thus far it's an even cooler place than I thought.

You have a neighborhood called the Village of the Arts. Do you realize how amazing that is? Over the years I've seen communities of artists and arts-related businesses pop up in Tampa at least three or four times, and each time they've been quickly quashed by the city, or by business leaders, or by both.

Sure, Tampa has the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, and it's wonderful. There are a couple of fine professional theater companies, and an artists-in-the schools program that's a national model.

But Tampa's attitude has always been "we'll support the arts as long as you keep those freaky artists away from us." Artists from New York and California are valued; home-grown ones not so much. A "Village of the Arts" would be unthinkable.

So would a community theater raising millions of dollars in a couple of years to build a new theater. I'm bowled over by the support people, business and government have given the Manatee Players.

Stageworks, arguably the best professional theater company in Tampa, recently moved into its own theater. Stageworks needed a small fraction of what Manatee Players needed, and it took much longer to get it, in a city much larger than Bradenton.

Community theaters in Tampa consider a show successful if it breaks even and leaves them money in the bank to put on the next show.

Arts leaders in Tampa point out that they have more competition for arts and entertainments dollars. I think that's only part of it. "You know," one Tampa arts leader said to me Thursday, "Hillsborough's not very sophisticated."

Donna Slawsky, who owns Arts & Eats in the Village of the Arts, came here from New York City about 18 months ago. She and her husband chose Bradenton because it's a town that embraces the arts.

"You see it everywhere you go," she said. "You see it on the Riverwalk, you see it in the Village, you see it on the billboards. We still have a ways to go, but we'll get there."

If Bradenton's going to get better than it is now, I'm excited about being here when it happens.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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