It is no surprise to locals, but American Style Magazine made it official when it released its 2012 readers' poll of the top arts cities in the nation: for its size, you can't beat Sarasota.
Sarasota, ranked No. 5 in 2010 and 2011, vaulted to No. 1 on this year's annual list of the 25 best arts destinations with populations of 100,000 or less with more than 27 percent of the total votes for the category.
"We all know here how great a town Sarasota is for the arts, and that when you look at it in terms of variety and quality, not many places can compare," said Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County. "I'm just glad to see we're finally getting that recognition."
Bradenton was second, up from No. 10 last year, and St. Petersburg again took the No. 1 spot for mid-size cities, cementing the Gulf Coast's reputation as an arts hot spot.
American Style Magazine is a quarterly consumer publication with a circulation of 125,000, focused on high-end craft artists and collectors. This is the 15th year of its annual "best arts cities" readers poll.
Special mention was given in the article, which appears in American Style's Summer 2012 issue, to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art's "Art after 4" series, and to the St. Armands Circle "first Wednesday" arts events.
A number of collaborative efforts over the past year by Visit Sarasota County (formerly the Sarasota Visitor and Conventions Bureau), local arts organizations and private philanthropists – notably a large special advertising supplement in US Airways magazine's November 2011 issue – have brought increased recognition to the area's arts and cultural assets.
Because the American Style list is based on reader polling, Virginia Haley of Visit Sarasota County believes social networking by local arts advocates was key.
"We played off of what we saw with the US Air project, where everyone worked together," Haley said.
Another factor, Haley believes, is a change in advertising her organization made 18 months ago to target arts lovers.
"Instead of one generic ad, we now have specific ads just for the cultural audience," she said. "That has really paid off."
The ranking is bound to draw curious visitors to the area — just as the "No. 1 beach" label has done for Siesta Key — but local arts advocates are more interested in seeing it result in Sarasota's next wave of arts philanthropists.
Shirley said a privately funded cultural ad campaign aimed at potential future Gulf Coast residents will be launched in the coming weeks. The targets are wealthy arts enthusiasts in markets like New York and Chicago, hoping they will eventually take up residence here and bring their passion for the arts — and their donations — with them.
"Sarasota all of a sudden goes on their radar," Shirley said. "The hope is they will bring money and attract other people with money."