Buzz Worthy: Bradenton's arts reputation burgeons

March 17, 2013 

People in the rest of the state, the rest of the country and even the rest of the world are starting to discover Bradenton and Manatee County. And a burgeoning reputation for quality in performing arts and visual arts is one main reason.

It's noticeable in new structures and new residents, but also in new attitudes. The arts are burgeoning locally and that's making people look at Bradenton in a new way.

"It's getting healthier, definitely," said Carl Keeler, the gallery director for the Manatee County Cultural Alliance.

Like almost everything in Florida, interest in the arts is seasonal. The tourists are here in the cooler months, and in the summer even the locals don't want to leave home in the heat and humidity.

But at his two galleries, Keeler said, guest books show that 70 percent of visitors are from outside the state, and 10 percent are from other countries.

"Canada, Germany, England, France," he said. "It's pretty remarkable."

He's also hearing from people interested in moving here, specifically to live or work in the Village of the Arts. He can tell you about two visual artists off the top of his head, one from New Orleans and one from Colorado, who are seriously working toward relocating from those traditionally art-friendly areas to Bradenton.

Keeler, who has lived in Bradenton since the 1960s, has seen that trend begin and grow over the past two years. The city's reputation as an arts town has probably been spread informally through the national arts community, and by tourists who visit and then tell their neighbors up north about it. National arts publications have featured Bradenton artists and galleries, too.

What's even better is that the trend is probably just beginning. A

lot of people have pointed to development such as Riverwalk and the new Manatee Performing Arts Center as the culmination of years of work, which in one sense they are. But arts leaders look at those things as seeds, not fully grown trees.

"I believe it is just the beginning of an opportunity for the arts in Bradenton," said Janene Witham, the executive director of the Manatee Players, which will move into its new home in a few weeks. "From the Manatee Players' perspective this isn't the peak. All we're doing is moving into a new building. The possibilities for the arts with the downtown area and the Riverwalk are just beginning."

Already, Witham said, she can see the Manatee Players' reputation expanding geographically. Actors from as far away as north Tampa and Venice are calling for information about auditions, and are willing to make long commutes to work in Bradenton. The cast of "Miss Saigon," the first show in the Players' new home, includes north Tampa actors, she said.

Actors from other parts of the country have been calling too, and want to schedule their seasonal visits to Florida around Manatee Players shows and auditions.

That's all pretty new, and as the new theater gives the Players more artistic choices -- outdoor theater and site-specific works are among the possibilities -- Bradenton could become a full-fledged arts mecca in the foreseeable future.

Said Witham, "There could be art on every corner."

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

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