Downtown Bradenton revels in arts, entertainment

The arts enhance the city and define its cultural identity

mclear@bradenton.comMay 19, 2013 

If you've been paying attention to what's going on in Bradenton, you know what the biggest arts development in recent months has been.

In March, the Manatee Players said goodbye to its historic home at the Riverfront Theatre and introduced the city's theatergoers to the Manatee Performing Arts Center with a spectacular production of "Miss Saigon."

The center lived up to all the hype, from the great sightlines to the spacious stage and gorgeous lobby, highlighted by an opulent chandelier that was used in the film "Gone With the Wind."

But the real beauty of the new theater became apparent in the high-tech production of "Miss Saigon" that showed Manatee Players' audiences that they're going to be treated to a style of theater that they only could have imagined until now.

That show, and the subsequent "Fiddler on the Roof," actually marked the end of the 2012-13 season for Manatee Players. The company's first full season at the Manatee Performing Arts Center begins in August with a production of "Les Miserables."

There are two theaters in the performing arts center, which will allow Manatee Players to stage more shows than ever before. Other shows in the inaugural season include "Grease," "Always ... Patsy Cline," "Young Frankenstein," "Our Town," "Peter Pan," "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," "Stepping Out," "Shrek," "Beehive," "Man of La Mancha," "Greater Tuna" and "My One and Only."

One great thing about the new performing arts center, with its 280-seat Cora May Stone Theater and its more intimate 100-seat studio theater, is that it will allow other events that until now would never have had a place to perform, to come to Bradenton.

One's on tap already. On May 25, Theatre Winter Haven, one of the most acclaimed community theaters in the state, will bring its production of "Golda's Balcony" to the Manatee Performing Arts Center.

And there's talk of bringing some films from the Sarasota Film Festival to the performing arts center next year.

But the Manatee Players are just part of what one local official called a "perfect storm" of the arts in Bradenton. The storm started last year, with the completion of the Riverwalk and the spectacularly successful first annual Bradenton Blues Festival. (The second annual festival, featuring Shemekia Copeland, is set for December of this year). That perfect storm shows no signs of calming.

In fact, the respected quarterly arts magazine American Style recently named Bradenton the second-best small city for the arts in the United States.

It takes a Village

One reason is the Village of the Arts, the quaint and distinctive 13-year-old neighborhood of artists, galleries, studios and restaurants.

"It's really an exciting place to be," said Christine Turner, a village resident who owns and operates the Baobob Gallery with her husband, Gordon. "We've been here for 10 years and it just keeps getting better."

There's plenty in the village to please arts lovers any day of the week, but the neighborhood really comes alive during the artwalks, on the first weekend of every month, when visitors can celebrate the art, music and food of Bradenton.

In the past few months, efforts to enhance the neighborhood for its residents and visitors have been enhanced, through community meetings and through studies conducted by the University of South Florida and New College in conjunction with Realize Bradenton.

The challenge, Turner said, is to continually improve the neighborhood without destroying its charming ambiance. The study recommended, among other things, that problems with standing water be alleviated by planting gardens to absorb water rather than building sewers to take it away.

Taylor said she's watched artists in other cities try to create something like a village of the arts, but it's usually quashed by city leaders.

"We're fortunate to have a city government that values the arts," she said.

Incidentally, the city that finished just ahead of Bradenton in that American Style magazine poll was Sarasota. That brings challenges to Bradenton as it evolves its own artistic identity. Arts leaders want Brandeton to complement its neighbor to the South.

"That gets brought up a lot," Turner said. "People point to what Sarasota does. We want to keep getting better, but we want to be Bradenton, not another Sarasota."

South Florida Museum

Another downtown Bradenton institution is the South Florida Museum, which bills itself as the largest cultural and natural history museum on the Gulf Coast.

The museum hosts permanent and rotating art and scientific exhibits in several galleries, and it's also home the Bishop Planetarium and the Parker Manatee Aquarium. The aquarium offers care and a temporary home for injured or ailing manatees who are released back into the wild after they're rehabilitated.

The museum regularly hosts after-hours parties with live music and local cuisine, as well as a Film Friday series. This summer, the series features classic sci-fi flicks about alien invaders, from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to "Little Shop of Horrors."

"The residents said that they wanted more to do downtown," said Brynne Anne Besio, executive director of the museum. "Our cultural events and film nights have been popular. I think people are beginning to realize that they can come downtown and find something interesting, even scientifically interesting."

Also downtown is ArtCenter Manatee, one of the premier visual arts center in the area. It's one of the few galleries in the country that hosts the National Watercolor Society and it hosts rotating exhibits and classes year-round.

Old Main Street

Old Main Street Merchants Association's Main Stree Live block party is 5-10 p.m. every third Thursday (except for July and August) on Old Main Street. Vendors sell food, drinks, arts and crafts and local bands provide music.

Downtown Development Authority's Downtown Bradenton Farmers Market is 9 a.m.-2 p.m. every Saturday, October through May, on Old Main Street. The market offers fresh produce, plants and flowers, plus jewelry arts and crafts.

Other annual downtown events include the DeSoto Heritage Festival's Seafood Fest and the Grand Parade and After Parade Party.

The institutions and events in the downtown area do much more than attract residents and visitors, local arts leaders say. They actually help define the city.

"Bradenton's culture is not new, not artificial, not pretentious," said Johnette Isham, executive director of Realize Bradenton, "It is a lively reflection of the diverse groups that have, and continue to contribute."

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 799. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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