Appreciation of Beauty is a Treasure Coast Art

By Kerry Firth & Rich Stringer

So, you'd really like to hear a symphonic orchestra. Wouldn't it be nice to watch a Broadway-caliber play? Come to think of it, maybe you should purchase a bit of fine art for your second home. Sure, you could fly up to the Big Apple to do these things, but the place still needs to thaw out, and air travel can be such a hassle. Relax; you have a plethora of art and entertainment options in your own backyard.

"It's actually astounding how many cultural destinations and events there are in our county" said Mary Jane Kelly, executive director of the Cultural Council of Indian River County. History shows that support for the arts was the bedrock for the foundation of our community. Noting that Indian River County broke away from St. Lucie County during the 1920s in protest over the arrest of a Vero theatre owner for providing a show on Sunday, Kelly explained "those values became so deep rooted in the cultural formation of this community that it continued to attract the culturally aware transplant."

Scenic Beauty Inspires the Visual Arts

This early seed of artistic freedom quickly bore fruit. In 1936 a group of five local artists formed the Vero Beach Sketch Club that evolved into the present day Vero Beach Art Club. The volunteer group of artists, now more than 500 strong, meets monthly for demonstrations, holds workshops, exhibits and continues to promote the arts, including awarding annual scholarships to local college art students, with proceeds from its ever popular art shows including the monthly Art in the Park exhibitions in Humiston Park, the Art by the Sea show at the Vero Beach Museum of Art in January and the Under the Oaks art show in March at Riverside Park.

Perhaps the Art Club's most significant contribution to promoting the arts occurred when it teamed up with the Alliance for the Arts, a separate nonprofit established in 1978 solely to create a regional museum for the teaching and appreciation of the arts, to found the Vero Beach Museum of Art.

The Museum of Art, situated on 7.2 acres of Riverside Park on the east bank of the Indian River lagoon in Vero Beach opened its doors on January 31, 1991 and has grown to be the largest cultural arts facility of its kind on Florida's Treasure Coast. The museum offers national and international traveling art exhibitions in its Holmes Gallery, as well as emerging and established Florida artists in its Schumann Florida Gallery. The Museum also curates exhibitions from its permanent collection in the Stark Gallery and Stark Rotunda Gallery, and displays large-scale sculpture in its outdoor Wahlstrom Sculpture Garden.

Additionally, the Museum boasts an education wing that includes seven studio classrooms, an art library, seminar rooms, an outdoor studio and foundry, a 250 seat state of the art auditorium, museum store and exceptional public spaces for art installations and public programs. The Museum is an integral part of the community, each year offering a curriculum of over 100 accredited classes to more than 1,000 students in conjunction with Indian River Community College.

While classic art leads the way at the Museum, the Treasure Coast has made waves in artistic circles with its native Florida Highwaymen art movement, which has been recognized as for its significant contribution to African-American and Florida folk art. The brightly-colored landscape paintings have been displayed in the museums of New York City, used as backdrop to create nostalgic movie sets, and one hangs in the Governor's Mansion. One of the largest collections of these works can be found just north of the Brevard County line at the Grant Antique Mall.

To truly appreciate the energy of the Highwaymen, however, you should visit the Backus Gallery in Fort Pierce. It was A. E. "Bean" Backus, a white landscape artist in a racially divided Florida of the 60's, who took a few young African-American men under his wing and taught them the basic techniques for the art form. The leader of the group that became the Highwaymen, Alfred Hair, took formal lessons from Backus and then taught others. Both Backus and Hair (along with the Highwaymen as a group) were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1993 and 2004, respectively. Florida art isn't just about lush landscape paintings on canvas, though.
You won't have any trouble finding Azaleas, the gallery created by local artist Ambie Hay, because she's painted the exterior walls with murals depicting a European village and garden. It's worth the visit just to park and look at store. But you'll be drawn inside, where she has created her own oasis of art and color in the back corner of a parking lot in downtown Vero Beach, by her one of a kind cabana paintings, vintage Vero Beach signs and eclectic decorations and accessories.

Since the day Art Deco came to Miami, Florida has been funky and whimsical, and Azaleas is just one of a number of small offbeat galleries dot the Treasure Coast. Just up the road in Sebastian is Coconut Bills, a fun filled gallery of nautical gifts featuring seascape wall decorations, sculpture and furniture. A step inside the gallery takes you on a tropical adventure filled with brilliant color and lasting memories.

Perhaps no gallery inspires memories like the setting of the Old Opera House Gallery on US Highway 1 in Sebastian. Originally built in 1913, the building served as Town Hall during the formation of the city. Because it had a stage inside, hence the name, the building was a center for community activities such as weddings and plays. More recently, the structure had another identity --- hurricane victim --- but owner Lisanne Monier says "after two year of rebuilding from the hurricane, we're bringing FUN back into the gallery".

All the World, Even the Treasure Coast, Is a Stage

The existence of opera in early 20th Century Sebastian was not as unusual as you may think. Theatre has been a leading force in community arts throughout our history. The people of St. Lucie County were aware of the value of the arts. In 1923 Rupert "Pop" Koblegard opened the largest vaudeville theatre on Florida's east coast, the magnificent Sunrise Theatre. With its shops, restaurant and seating for 1300, some people thought the theatre was too ambitious for its time. Pop would answer his critics with a cheerful "It is better to be ahead the times than behind them." How right he was, and for the next sixty years the Sunrise Theatre was the center of the community.

During the booming 20's the Sunrise hosted vaudeville and Hollywood stars. When times got tough during The Depression, it sponsored cash drawings. The elegant theatre offered an escape from World War 2, and survived the challenges presented by the dawn of the Television Era. However, as with most historic public theatres, the times eventually caught up with the Sunrise and it closed in 1983.

After 24 years of silence and an $11 million restoration, in January 2006 the Sunrise Theatre reopened with all of its original splendor. Once again the walls resound with music ranging from jazz to blues, country to folk, and the stage again hosts productions ranging from opera to comedy and everything in between. An evening at the theatre is now a date with history when you attend one of the nationally acclaimed live events at the restored 1923 concert hall.

While celebrities took center stage at the Sunrise, the birth of community theatre on the Treasure Coast took place in the early 1950's when a group of aspiring actors formed the Vero Beach Theatre Guild and presented shows at the local air base. The all-volunteer, live community theatre flourished. Continuing to provide a home for amateur actors, directors and production crew since 1985 at its San Juan Avenue headquarters, the Theatre Guild brings the public five major productions annually, as well as various smaller productions and concerts.

While local residents bitten by the acting bug can aspire to the stage of the Guild on the mainland, over on the island sits Vero Beach's Riverside Theatre, the first and only professional Equity theatre company on the Treasure Coast. Built in 1973 through private donations, the theatre was home to the Vero Beach Theatre Guild until 1984, when Riverside transitioned into a producing professional theatre. In the twenty seasons since the move to a professional company, Riverside has grown into one of the state's largest programs.

In 1980, the Riverside Children's Theatre (RCT) added education and programming for children, and with the hiring of a full-time education director in 1985, classes and productions starring local children truly began. In 1983, the Friends of Riverside Theatre, a fundraising group, started the Celebrity Series which has become an integral part of the Theatre's programming. In 1991, the Agnes Wahlstrom Youth Playhouse became the home of the RCT. In 1998, the Anne Morton Theatre (AMT), Riverside's second stage, opened as the home for RCT productions, but also serves as the host for productions by Riverside 2, the Acting Company's second stage series, and the Actors' Cabaret.

Those attending recent productions have noticed that major construction is ongoing, and in spring of 2007 the New Riverside project will open to with a permanent home for Riverside 2, a renovated lobby and a renovated Mainstage audience chamber.

Further up the coast, on the Brevard Community College campus is the Maxwell C. King Center for the performing arts. This state of the art theatre offers Broadway touring shows, classical and popular artists, ballet and contemporary dance, opera, country music artists and family oriented events in a 2000 seat performance hall. Florida's State Legislature provided funds for the design and construction of the 12.3 million dollar facility that was completed in 1988. Over the span of time, it has continued to meet its mission to improve the quality of life for Brevard residents by providing access to high quality, challenging and diverse touring and local performing arts events.

As inspiring as a Shakespearean soliloquy may be, no art form touches the human spirit more universally than music. Whether it's the retired Big Band crooner in the condo by the beach, a local high school band playing at halftime of a major bowl game, or a local boy with his first country music video on television (Yee Haw, Josh!), music is part of our lives. While Vero's Downtown Fridays and local festivals like Sebastian's Clambake or Jensen Beach's Pineapple Festival feature the more popular forms of music, the classical music art form is alive and well on the Treasure Coast.

For seventeen years during the January through March season, the Atlantic Classical Orchestra has served the public with performances in Vero Beach at the Waxlax Center for the Arts in St. Edwards School and at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart. This classic-sized orchestra of professional musicians often presents guest soloists to delight the crowds, who are further captivated when Scottish-born Conductor Stewart Robertson engages in pre-concert discussions about the music to be heard at a performance. The music is live, intimate and highly stimulating.

A Driving Force

As a matter of image, a local art scene should appear spontaneous and effortless. From a practical standpoint, however, cultural services need nurturing to thrive. A driving force for arts in this area is the Cultural Council of Indian River County, whose mission statement is "To nurture a cooperative environment in which cultural & educational organizations and individuals may thrive and thereby enrich the quality of life in Indian River County for residents and visitors".

Executive Director Kelly works with a 23 member board of directors that always includes an acting county commissioner. The group firmly believes that, while promoting art for art's sake is a noble undertaking, a well-developed cultural environment creates a good economic environment. The high-tech businesses that all communities are trying to attract look to the educational and cultural resources of an area in deciding whether their employees will be happy and productive in a new home.

Scholarship programs encourage students to develop their skills. The Council provides a single source for information on cultural activities in the area. Even subtle things, like the Public Arts program that displays art shows throughout the year in public facilities such as the county courthouse, bring art into our daily lives.

Our lives are, indeed, richer for the experience.

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