The viability of contemporary and cutting edge art in Sarasota has long been a topic of discussion, with some unsure of the existing appetite outside of the prolific theater circuit, but with the imminent arrival of the Sarasota Museum of Art from Ringling College of Art and Design, five years of successful programming from the Ringling Museum’s Art of Our Time series and now, in this past year, the arrival of a new community arts space dedicated to underserved populations in experimental art, Sarasota’s cutting edge looks razor-sharp.

Gajin Fujita, American, born 1972. Sky High, 2007. Gold leaf, arcylic, spray paint, paint marker, Mean Streak on Wood panel, 16 x 48 inches. Museum purchase, 2011, SN11296. Courtesy of The Ringling.

PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

Dwight Currie, curator of performance at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, identifies two moments as turning points for contemporary art within the institution—the first Ringling International Arts Festival in 2009, which reintroduced performance to the grounds for the first time since the 1960s and was the institution’s first foray into the work of living artists, and the arrival of the Turrell Skyspace, a massive contemporary art installation that literally changed the building itself. “These were two huge investments and statements about a commitment to contemporary art and the work of living artists,” says Currie, and indicated a growing interest from an institution known for Old Masters. With this shift in focus came the creation of a new position at the museum, a person responsible for overseeing this novel direction, and Matthew McLendon arrived as curator of modern and contemporary art. Joining forces with Currie, now there were two, and the Art of Our Time series was born, kicking off in 2011 with Beyond Bling: Voices of Hip-Hop in Art, bringing performance from Rennie Harris Puremovement, the Banksy documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop and more, in conjunction with a major gallery exhibition. It was raw and “in your face,” says Currie, but also a huge success, despite appearing in the off-season. “This was the beginning,” he says.

Gajin Fujita, American, born 1972. Sky High, 2007. Gold leaf, arcylic, spray paint, paint marker, Mean Streak on Wood panel, 16 x 48 inches. Museum purchase, 2011, SN11296. Courtesy of The Ringling.

The strength of the Art of Our Time series, according to McLendon, is its ability to serve and then present emerging and mid-career artists, two groups traditionally ignored by museums operating from a historical mindset, as well as those artists whose work cannot easily be confined by genre. “Museums are based on an 18th-century notion of taxonomy,” says McLendon. “And they don’t know what to do with [these artists].”

Take R. Luke DuBois, whom McLendon refers to as the poster child for these artists. As a composer, filmmaker, printmaker and computer programmer exploring unconventional portraiture and notions of time and space, the work is hard to categorize and thus harder to present in a space like a museum, with its traditions and distinctions, but remains no less meaningful as art. “What happens when you’re an artist like that is you tend to fall through the cracks,” says McLendon, with no one sure where or how to display the work. Working as a team, a curator of performance and curator of modern and contemporary art, Currie and McLendon find a way and DuBois enjoyed his own exhibition in January 2014. “Because we’re not constrained by decades of tradition,” says McLendon, “we’re able to start with a tabula rasa and write our own script.”

The script has been wide-ranging thus far. Take last year’s Re:Purposed exhibit, featuring artists creating from discarded materials and seeing Jill Sigman take over a gallery in the Searing Wing for Hut #10, the 10th entry in an international installation series taking Sigman around the globe to create temporary living and gathering spaces from local detritus. Each piece retains the character of the environment that spawned it while allowing society a look at not just the volume but the peculiar character of those things discarded by the community. On the opposite end, Art of Our Time affords opportunity for more internal explorations, as in Trenton Doyle Hancock’s more recent exhibition, What the Bringback Brought, where audiences took a glimpse into the creative process and evolution of an emerging artist experimenting with a new medium in film. Again and again, the Sarasota audience returns, “not only supportive, but eager,” says McLendon.

At the same time, while McLendon and Currie introduce contemporary art to the institution of the Ringling, young organizers within Sarasota are creating their own space dedicated entirely to contemporary and experimental art, opening the Nothing Arts Center this past May. Formed by a group comprising mostly New College alumni and housed within a warehouse building off Goodrich Avenue and Myrtle, the space regularly plays host to offbeat productions, esoteric performance art and genre-defying musical endeavors with descriptors such as “droning bubble-chant noise pop,” assembling a following amongst both artists and enthusiasts within its Boho-industrial interior. As night falls and Nothing awakens, the great corrugated sliding door recedes into the rafters, unveiling through its gaping maw an eclectic explosion of artistic energy. Not the first time that New College alumni have tried to forge a new creative space within Sarasota, previous attempts such as the Sea Hive Arts Center rose and shuttered due to poor attendance, but Nothing team members Julie Ohanian and James Carillo remain confident that the notion’s current instantiation, with its heady mix of art, politics and art as politics, will succeed where others floundered. “Their goals weren’t nearly as ambitious,” says Carillo, describing Sea Hive as some sort of “proto-Nothing,” a valiant effort to learn from and improve upon. “[Sea Hive] was singularly focused,” agrees Ohanian, “which the new space is not.”

Far from it, the singular guiding principle at Nothing seems to be as political as it is artistic, what Carillo and Ohanian refer to as “radical inclusion,” creating a gallery where all are welcome, and, being an expression of individual self, so is their art. As an upstart arts center, unorthodox performers, noise-punks and budding experimental dance choreographers will also find an appreciative space to reach their audiences, but the organizers at Nothing place far less importance on the supposed quality of the art—seemingly forgoing judgment entirely—than on the identity of the artist. Nothing is a space for everyone, but particularly those whose art has yet to be elevated by society. “Any marginalized group of people,” says Carillo. The only thing not allowed is intolerance, whether it be racism, sexism, trans-misogyny or ageism, they say. “We try to be a space free of oppression,” Ohanian concluded.

The revolution comes from within, and the structure of the organization itself is designed so as to discourage the possibility of concentration of power or focus—anything that could intentionally or inadvertently silence contributing voices—with a horizontal structure consisting of distinct ‘working groups,’ where team members tackle specific aspects before rotating out to another group. For example, Ohanian and Carillo are in the communications working group, so they field the press. It’s a delicate balance to maintain, with the SpaceCraft working group disbanding after growing too big for its britches, but the benefit, according to Ohanian, extends beyond the political and into the functional. “We want everyone to be able to fulfill all tasks,” she says, with Carillo adding, “You can’t have one person doing one job and being hyper-focused.”

But in the absence of strict curatorial control, what could have manifested as anarchy comes forth in a permeating sense of pure excitement at the existence of art, with a genuine enthusiasm and appreciation filling in any gaps in assessment or polish, seemingly promising to grow. Heavy on music and performance art, the group is working to incorporate more visual art shows, as well as expand its ‘zine library, a crowdsourced collection of literature on everything from do-it-yourself and herbalism to sexual assault awareness and survivor support, and Carillo wants to introduce an educational aspect by working with nearby Booker High School. “[Nothing] is about exposure and growing in some non-capitalistic way,” says Carillo, “about coming together and finding new ideas.”

It’s a welcome addition according to McLendon, saying, “The more alternative spaces, the better for Sarasota.” Because despite the aesthetic and institutional differences, these two endeavors do meet at a common ground in the individual artist and the role of the gallery, he says. “It all comes down to the artist. You’re there to support and enable the artist, to empower.”