Along just a few blocks of Third Avenue West in downtown Bradenton are the homes of a 70-year-old theater company, a 71-year-old museum and, right between them, an arts center that is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year.
Carla Nierman wants to have that stretch of Third Avenue renamed “Avenue of the Arts.”
“I’ve been talking to people and no one’s opposed to it,” she said. “People think it’s a great idea.”
Nierman is the executive director of ArtCenter Manatee. As she was talking about the Avenue of the Arts idea, she was looking ahead to the future of her center, and of the arts scene in Bradenton that in recent years has burgeoned and became central to the personality of the city.
But on her desk were dozens of photos, some fading and glued to crumbling yellowed paper, that document the 80-year history of the distinctive art center. Many of the photographs will become part of an exhibit celebrating the center’s history. It’s scheduled to show at the center for a month starting May 23. In October, the art center will hold a birthday party for itself. The public is invited to both.
It’s an unusual kind of facility, in that it features galleries, classes, an art market and special events. Plenty of places have one or two of those features, but not too many have all four.
“I wouldn’t say there are lots,” Nierman said. “But a lot of them don’t make it.”
It’s a tribute to the community, to its artists and to outstanding support from board members that ArtCenter Manatee has endured so long, Nierman said.
It all started in 1937, when six Manatee County artists got together to talk about what they could do to strengthen and promote visual arts in this past of Florida.
Nobody knew their work would be talked about 80 years later, so nobody bothered making and preserving detailed records. There’s some evidence that the group first got together in January of that year. Somewhere along the line, they came up with a mission statement for a new arts center: “To enhance the visual arts in Manatee County and provide a platform for artists of all experience levels and ages to create, exhibit and market their work.”
That’s still the official mission statement for ArtCenter Manatee today.
“It’s been the same since the very beginning,” Nierman said. “We’re very proud of that. Our founders definitely had a vision.”
To enhance the visual arts in Manatee County and provide a platform for artists of all experience levels and ages to create, exhibit and market their work.
ArtCenter Manatee mission statement
What they didn’t have was a building. At first, they had some space at Pier 22. Only a few years later, in the early ’40s, it had to move. The exact reason is unclear.
“Something happened with the war and we had to get out,” Nierman said. “I don’t really know what happened.”
The art center found another home at the South Florida Museum. They know why they lost that one.
“A little manatee came along and needed a home,” Nierman said.
To make way for Snooty, in 1955, ArtCenter Manatee built it current building across Ninth Street West. It’s been there ever since.
The building looks very much the same, though it has been expanded a couple of times. And its environs have changed dramatically in the past 62 years.
Third Avenue wasn’t there yet. A motel stood just to the south, where the Wells Fargo bank is now, and the motel’s swimming pool was right where Third Avenue is.
When the motel closed, ArtCenter Manatee acquired its signs. It was unattractive and decrepit. Nierman called it “the Bates Motel sign.” She called it that before she knew that it had actually come from an hotel.
Though the center’s building has expanded sporadically, its programming has expanded steadily, with no signs of stopping.
“In 1937 when they first started, they had one exhibit and six classes,” said development director Cathy Mijou. “Now we have 22 exhibits and 291 classes.”
And instead of showing works exclusively by local artists, ArtCenter Manatee now features artists in all media from all over the world.
“We’re out of space,” Nierman said. “We’re always trying to deal with that. We’re open six days a week. Should we be open seven? We’re always working to stay relevant. We’re always looking for way to bring more people to Bradenton.”