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The Sarasota Art Association was established in 1926 as the first arts organization in Sarasota. Founder Marcia Rader, Art Supervisor of the Sarasota School System, was the driving force behind the initial meetings of local art supporters who formed the association. In the early years, the group met monthly and sponsored exhibits in rented facilities. 

In 1941, the Association incorporated as a not-for-profit organization. At that time, the stated mission was “to promote the educational and cultural advantages of Sarasota in the field of contemporary art." Many renowned local artists like Jerry Farnsworth, Elden Rowland, Syd Solomon and Hilton Leech were instrumental in establishing the center as the focal point for Sarasota's visual arts.

The City of Sarasota provided the Art Association, with a lease of land near the downtown area and in 1948, after the war, the association broke ground for its present building which was designed in the then-popular style of the Sarasota School of Architecture. The building opened in 1949 with only one gallery which is now known as Gallery 3. 

The Atrium (Gallery 4) or “Patio Gallery” as it was called was later erected with donations from members and was enclosed in 1961. Several more additions were made to the building adding on the front two galleries, the classroom and the back kitchen and class area.

  The association's philosophy during the 1960’s, stated that “while the gallery is important to display the works of local artists, one-man shows and traveling exhibitions, there is a social aspect of the association that bears heavy fruit. It is a meeting place for all who are interested in the many phases of art; it is a place to make friends and see what is going on in Sarasota…This philosophy is still the inherent mission of Art Center Sarasota today.

The 1950's and 60's were a time of great social involvement of the community in the visual arts. The Art Association would hold their famous Beaux Arts Ball each year. A thousand guests would participate in a grand themed costume party at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium. Today, the Art Center has brought back some of the excitement of the balls by creating the iconcept event in 2009. Local artists create "fashion" from unconventional materials for a grand runway show.

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