Walt Disney hasn’t been the only artistic visionary to discover the captivating natural beauty of Central Florida. As far back as the 1930s, artists and creative idealists have made the area their home. This curious collection of artists and art lovers have left lasting contributions for future generations to explore and enjoy.
A visit to a local museum may not be your first goal when visiting Orlando, but these Central Florida art institutions are worthy of a spot on your Central Florida bucket list. Not only do they promote and exhibit world-class art collections, these destinations are in themselves beautiful, peaceful retreats.
Step onto the grounds of the Maitland Art Center, and you might think you’ve been magically transported to a Mayan temple in Mexico. The unique carvings and design of the main building and surrounding structures are exquisite models of “Mayan Revival” architecture, and one of only a few remaining examples of fantasy architecture in the Southeast.
Founded as the Research Studio in 1937 by J. Andre Smith, Maitland Art Center originally served as an art colony, hosting some of the most prominent artists of the 20th century, including Milton Avery, Ralston Crawford and Doris Lee. Smith himself was a renowned artist and architect. Known mainly for his detailed etchings, he also designed the military’s Distinguished Service Cross during his army commission in World War I. In retirement, he moved to Central Florida and established the Research Studio.
Throughout the years, Maitland Art Center has developed and exhibited several significant collections, including the artworks of its founder as well as the works of local contemporary artists. But the center itself, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a work of art as well. Smith not only designed, but also sculpted and hand-carved from concrete many of the Mayan and Aztec-inspired motifs found throughout the grounds. The center’s tranquil setting includes an outdoor chapel, which Smith created for his mother, and a courtyard shaded by giant oaks draped in Spanish moss.
Today, the art center functions much as it did when it was built almost 75 years ago –– as a haven for artists to create art. A carving in the main gallery speaks to that purpose: “The artist’s job is to explore, to announce new visions and open new doors.”
The tradition of Smith’s art colony continues into the present, as the center offers intimate gallery exhibitions, community art classes, workshops, lectures, tours and critiques. In addition, an Artists-in-Action program provides non-residential studio space to established or emerging artists.
In 2010, the Maitland Art Center became part of the Art & History Museums of Maitland, which also includes the Waterhouse Residence Museum, the Telephone Museum, the Maitland Historical Museum and other nearby historical and cultural destinations. 231 West Backwood Avenue, Maitland, 407-539-2181, www.artand-history.org
Sculptor Albin Polasek, like his contemporary Andre Smith, left an impressive artistic legacy in Central Florida. Born in Moravia (now the Czech Republic), Polasek immigrated to the United States as a young man. He supported himself as a woodcarver while beginning his formal art training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He spent much of his career as the head of the sculpture department at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago.
As an artist, Polasek is celebrated for the beauty of movement in his figurative works. He believed that movement in a sculpted piece illustrated the difference between something full of life and an inanimate object. Polasek’s views on art can be found written on placards throughout the sculpture gardens. Says one: “Sculpture should be as rhythmical as poetry or music.”
By the age of 70, Polasek was widely recognized as one of America’s leading sculptors of the time. He retired to Winter Park and designed his home, now the site of the museum. Within months, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. Always a prolific artist, Polasek continued his work, and created an additional 18 major works after the stroke, using only his right hand.
After his death in 1965, Polasek’s home and gardens were eventually opened to the public as a museum. Today, a permanent collection of his works can be seen throughout the museum and in the surrounding sculpture gardens on the placid shores of Lake Osceola. Changing exhibits also feature works by local, national and international artists. 633 Osceola Avenue, Winter Park, 407-647-6294, www.polasek.org
The Mennello Museum of American Art is a quaint, unpretentious venue that showcases the works of traditional, as well as contemporary, American artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Dale Chihuly. However, the centerpiece of the museum’s permanent collection is the outstanding collective works of Earl Cunningham.
Born in Maine, Cunningham had a varied and colorful career as a tinker, seaman and chicken farmer. Eventually, he settled in St. Augustine, where he opened a curio shop and painted scenes of places he remembered from his travels along the Atlantic coast. His unique vision, primitive style and use of vivid colors caught the eye of art collector and advocate Marilyn Mennello. She befriended the gruff, self-taught artist and, over many years, Mennello and her husband Michael acquired nearly all of Cunningham’s artistic work.
After Cunningham’s death in 1977, Marilyn worked tirelessly to promote his art work, traveling to various museums around the country. His work is now found in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, among other museums.
When the Mennellos approached Orlando city leaders about donating several pieces to the city, the mayor and the city commissioners accepted. The cid leaders also designated a site in Loch Haven Park as the future home of the Mennello Museum of American Art.
When the museum opened in 1998, it featured Cunningham’s paintings as well as other pieces of folk art. Today, its scope has broadened to encompass all forms of American art by local, regional and nationally recognized artists. The museum grounds, on the banks of Lake Formosa, provide a serene, natural environment for the large sculpture garden. 900 East Princeton Street, Orlando, 407-246-4278, www.mennellomuseum.com
Beautiful historic Rollins College is the setting of one of the most distinguished art collections in Florida. Overlooking Lake Virginia, the impressive Cornell Fine Arts Museum houses a diverse collection of more than 6,000 American and European works, ranging from the Baroque period to avant-garde contemporary.
The college began collecting fine art in earnest during the 1930s when it received a donation of early Italian Renaissance paintings. The permanent collection has grown through acquisitions, as well as gifts from Rollins alumni, to include paintings, prints and sculpture by such renowned artists as Albert Bierstadt, Henri Matisse, Thomas Moran and Pablo Picasso.
A generous contribution by alumni George Cornell and his wife, Harriet, allowed the museum to renovate and expand its gallery space several years ago. The sophisticated Spanish-Mediterranean style building opened in 2006 with six new display galleries, an educational gallery and a print study room.
The sleek, clean lines of the museum’s interior are themselves a perfect blank canvas on which to display installations ranging from classic to cutting-edge. Shows have covered a broad spectrum, from the rock and roll images of photojournalist Janet Macoska to the visionary works of modern masters Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns to the models and animations of leading contemporary architects. Recently, the gallery also hosted Towards Impressionism: Landscape Painting from Corot to Monet. Created in partnership with the Musée des Beaux Arts in Reims, France, it marked the first time that an exhibit from the Reims museum has traveled to the United States. Incredible opportunities to intimately view works of this caliber are one reason why Cornell Fine Arts Museum has once again received accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, the highest national recognition for the industry, which is granted to only 3 percent of the nation’s museums.
The museum stays connected with the community by offering a year-round program of lectures by visiting scholars and artists, as well as films, tours and educational classes for adults and children. 1000 Holt Avenue, Rollins College campus, Winter Park, 407-646-2526, www.rollins.edu/cfam