Florida Keys News
Friday, February 22, 2013
Island chain offers arts, culture, literature
Florida Keys have more than 'T-shirts and beer'

The Florida Keys are more than sunshine and saltwater, frozen drinks and four-day cruises.

The island chain has always beckoned to a legendary roster of writers, painters, performers and artists, and still calls endlessly to others who appreciate those endeavors.

Artist Mario Sanchez, playwright Tennessee Williams and author Ernest Hemingway never heard the term "cultural tourism," and certainly weren't aware that they were giving birth to a new industry while they lived and worked at the intersection of the Atlantic and Gulf.

But the arts have become more than a passion in the Florida Keys. They're an industry -- a cultural tourism industry, which has been steadily gaining momentum in Monroe County.

"It's really difficult for people to get their heads around the arts as an important industry, but it's our culture and history that we're selling and it's what turns tourists into visitors," said Nance Frank, a Key West native who opened Gallery on Greene in 1996. "We don't want tourists, we want visitors. They attend local theater performances. They ride bikes around town, recycle. They listen to live music, eat at local restaurants and take home part of Key West's soul when they buy a piece of artwork."

Cultural tourism is a clean, green and profitable industry, Frank said, estimating that the visual arts industry has increased from $6 million a year 20 years ago to $30 million a year.

Nationally, Frank said, art collectors buy an average of four pieces from a particular artist.

"My average is 20 pieces per collector," she said. "And we're not just talking about rich people. I have some people who come back every year and buy a $200 piece, but it represents their best memories of Key West and it now hangs in their home somewhere else. It's the best return on an investment."

Visual arts are also a form of free advertising. Every time someone sees one of Peter Vey's palm tree paintings hanging in a house in Minnesota, their thoughts return to the island chain.

"The TDC can't buy that kind of advertising," she said, comparing it to the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, when the government commissioned artists to depict the Florida Keys on postcards to encourage the burgeoning tourism industry.

The Monroe County Tourist Development Council also recognizes the importance of the arts, and established a Cultural Umbrella as an advisory committee to help determine which cultural events receive funding from local bed tax revenues collected from hotel guests.

The Florida Keys Council of the Arts handles the administrative tasks of the Cultural Umbrella, while the TDC spends money each year to promote the arts and culture of the Keys.

"I think the TDC does a great job. Of course, as an arts administrator, I'd always like to see more, but I like seeing more emphasis on promoting arts and culture rather than T-shirts and beer," said Liz Young, executive director of the Florida Keys Council of the Arts.

She echoed Frank's assessment that the arts helped save the Florida Keys from the Great Depression.

"We've always had great quality art, including performance, visual and literary," Young said. "There's really something for everyone."

Islamorada is enjoying an artistic renaissance with the success of its Morada Way Arts District. The district offers gallery strolls, workshops, lectures, art openings and performances.

In Key West, the curtain rises at Red Barn Theater, Fringe Theater and Waterfront Playhouse, where local thespians perform timeless classics or lighthearted, original works.

Residents and visitors have embraced the risqué elegance of local burlesque shows. A black-and-white ensemble of symphony musicians draws sold-out crowds, while equally talented musicians fiddle and strum their way into the hearts and feet of revelers at the Smokin' Tuna Saloon during the annual Songwriters' Festival. The individual notes of acoustic guitars twang over the island each afternoon while local troubadours sing of sunny days, hot nights and cold drinks. Each weekend brings a book-signing, art opening or gallery walk.

"And The Studios of Key West is a great incubator and they do a wonderful job with their presentations and offerings of arts to the community," Young said of the nonprofit artists' colony on White Street.

The Tropic Cinema shows independent films in four theaters while hosting local speakers, political forums and visiting film directors. Museums invite the curious to peruse the offerings of art, history, architecture, ancient treasure and timeless literature.

Less formally, resident and visiting artists create street scenes from a sidewalk easel, while others sell handmade jewelry at the nightly sunset celebration.

Galleries and their offerings season the town like peppercorns in a savory sauce while artists, writers, dancers, singers and musicians continue to heed their island's call -- and steadily contribute to an industry borne of art and passion.

mmiles@keysnews.com

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