Since 1970, Arts Advocates/Fine Arts Society of Sarasota has been acquiring works of art by artists who have lived and worked in Florida. The collection contains more than 60 pieces and represents a wide range of media and styles dating from the 1930s to the present.
In 2021, the collection was enhanced by a donation of five Highwaymen paintings. The Highwaymen were a group of 26 black artists, including one woman, who were mostly self-taught and painted in Florida from the 1950s on for several decades. Because they were not invited to show their work in galleries, they sold their work from their cars along US 1 and AIA.
Until 2021, the collection had been displayed exclusively at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. In 2021, we opened our first exhibit space – the Arts Advocates Gallery, where 25 paintings and a sculpture >are on display for the public to enjoy. The balance of the artwork is still on display at the Van Wezel.
From the 1930s through the 1970s, Sarasota was a thriving art colony, recognized nationally for the celebrated painters and sculptors who had homes and studios in the area. These energetic artists came from across the United States and had a significant impact on the local art scene, representing major styles and trends of twentieth century art.
Jerry Farnsworth and Helen Sawyer of Greenwich Village and Cape Cod are considered the acknowledged founders of the Sarasota art colony. They were instrumental in attracting other artists to the area, and their enthusiastic personalities were a strong influence on encouraging collaborations socially.
Ben Stahl was one of the best-known members of the Sarasota art colony. He founded the Famous Artists School, one of the first correspondence art schools in the United States, and for 30 years his illustrations appeared as covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Stahl painted a series of 15 paintings in the 1950s, commissioned by the Catholic Press, modeled after the 14 Stations of the Cross with a 15th titled “Resurrection,” because he wanted the series to end positively. In 1965, he opened the Museum of the Cross in Sarasota, which was a major tourist attraction that brought people from around the world. Each painting was a monumental 6 foot x 9 foot canvas. They were stolen one night in November 1966. It was the second largest art theft of the decade, with the value assessed at over $1.5 million dollars at that time. The paintings have never been recovered.
Abstract artist Syd Solomon moved to Sarasota in 1946 with his wife Annie. His was the first work by a contemporary artist to be displayed at the Ringling Museum of Art. In the 1960s Solomon's reputation reached a high point and he was being shown at many of the finest museums in the world. This popularity made him an influential personality in both his Hamptons and Sarasota communities. He helped bring many well-established artists to Florida after he started his Institute of Fine Art at New College. Solomon taught at many institutions throughout his life including the Famous Artists School, the Sarasota School of Art, and the Pittsburgh Art Institute.
Even though the colony scene dissipated in the 1970s, some of these artists are represented in the Arts Advocates collection.
In 2021, Arts Advocates members Richard and Cecilia Conder donated five Highwaymen paintings to our collection. The Highwaymen were a group of 26 African-American landscape artists, mostly self-taught from the Fort Pierce, Florida area, active from the mid-1950s into the 1980s. They painted on inexpensive Upson board or Masonite and made frames from crown molding. Because of the racial climate at the time, no galleries would accept their work. As a result, they sold their art door-to-door or from the trunks of their cars, often still wet, along Florida’s eastern coastal roads.
Their renown grew internationally during the early 2000s, and the members have been recognized for their contributions to mid-twentieth century Florida culture and history.
We have quite a variety of sculptures in our collection, with works by Frank Eliscu, Dorothy Gillespie, Sophie Johnstone, and Fred Nagel. Born in the early twentieth century, many studied at the Art Students League and lived in New York City. The collection includes “Great Blue Heron” by Eliscu, who worked on the Jefferson Memorial, the Heisman Trophy, and the five-story frieze that decorates the glass panes above the doors to the Library of Congress. “Song of the Rain Dance” is an abstract of colorful metal ribbons by Gillespie. Johnstone and Nagel represented the human form, hollow spaces, music, and dance.
In 2019, WEDU PBS, which airs on Florida’s West Coast, highlighted Arts Advocates/Fine Arts Society of Sarasota, focusing on the ways in which our organization presents and preserves works by local artists and fosters the growth of young artists in Sarasota.
"Arts Plus" is produced throughout the United States via local PBS stations. This Sarasota program was one of only four segments from all the national programs to be shown on all PBS stations as a top production and interesting subject matter. View the program here: WEDU PBS Arts Plus video - Arts Advocates/Fine Arts Society of Sarasota
Thanks to Arts Advocates members Roberta "Bobbie" Hamilton, Vern Weitz, Cindy Woodling, Elizabeth Rose, Diana Colson and the Van Wezel's Janet Arena for their leadership and participation in the development of this program.
Hilton Leech was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1906 and passed away in 1969.
He studied with George Luks, Archile Gorky and George Pearse Ennis at the Grand Central Art School; Art Students League, NYC.
Hilton held membership and held office in many prestigious organizations: Florida Artists Group, 1952, 1953, president; Palm Beach Art League; Florida Federation of Art; American Watercolor Society; Philadelphia Watercolor Club; Salmagundi Club; Allied Artists; Knickerbocker Artists; Sarasota Art Association; Casein Painters Society; Ringling Art School; Art League of Manatee County; Atlanta Art Association.
The Fine Arts Society of Sarasota, Inc. is a “501(c)(3) Nonprofit Tax-Exempt Organization licensed in 1969 – a charity for Education/School Systems services.”
The organization promotes, encourages, supports and generally furthers the best interests of the arts in Florida and in particular, recognizes, honors and perpetuates the fine arts, creative products and works of Florida artists.
A copy of the official registration and financial information may be obtained from the division of consumer services at www.800helpfla.com or by calling toll-free 1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352) within the state. Registration does not imply endorsement, approval or recommendation by the state.