Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 10, 2009

Polk County, Florida: Art and the Common Touch

The Arts as a Cultural Industry

As is the case in many fields of human endeavour, art, artists, and the cultural industries in which they work are often misconstrued. It is often assumed that the “artistic sphere” is a place apart, not entirely accessible to the general public, a nebulous occupation, not a real job. Or when discussing the “value” of the arts, there may be just a hint of the hierarchical, the class society, élitism.

However …

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, cultural industries worldwide are estimated to account for seven per cent of the world’s gross domestic product.

In China, the rise of what is known as “cultural industries” is seen as the next step along a path from a developing nation to a world power.

Cultural Heritage Tourism, a coalition of national organizations and agencies with an interest in cultural heritage tourism in the United States, develops the theme in even more detail in a recent newsletter.

In an editorial in the newsletter, Randy Cohen, Vice President of Policy and Research of Americans for the Arts, (a non-profit organization for advancing the arts in America and associate member of Cultural Heritage Tourism), points out that “nearly 100,000 nonprofit arts and culture organizations that populate the nation’s cities and towns are making their communities more desirable places to live and work.”

We all know that a community that is dynamic from an economic point of view has a greater chance of focusing on quality (versus quantity) of life issues. But therein also lies the chicken and egg conundrum. And once it is clearly understood that the arts are a cultural industry, and not just window dressing, then they become more fully integrated into the long-term thinking of a community.

A recent study by Americans for the Arts also reveals that in the United States, the non-profit arts and culture industries generate $166.2 billion each year in economic activity. This translates into 5.7 million full-time jobs in the cultural industries; and it should also be emphasized that because the majority of cultural industries are local initiatives, the revenue created is generated locally and remains in local coffers.

Now this is a personal assessment, but it seems to me that history has shown that where the arts flourish, so do such social values as freedom of expression and the essential democratic principles that we often take for granted. And it goes without saying that communities in which cultural industries are a priority are more prosperous, not only in financial terms but also in conceptual terms. Innovation, long-term planning, and social cohesion are also both process and product in the arts-rich community.

Vision and perspective in Central Florida

But, let me focus your attention on Polk County in central Florida where historically the three primary industries have been citrus, cattle, and phosphate mining, the latter used in producing fertilizers for the agricultural industry. As the area of Florida with the second-largest farm acreage, Polk County continues to be a highly productive area in agricultural terms.

And, may I point out the synergistic or even metaphoric inter-relationship of the terms “agriculture” and “culture.” Both terms connote rational thought, wise decision-making, and the affect; sustainable, results-oriented planning; and the cultivation and refinement of primary resources (including individuals). If you nurture the land, you nurture those who live on it. Climate and politics (i.e. political will and political decision-making in the latter case) of course play a huge role — even in paradise there can be problems — and the age-old challenge of maintaining a balance is always the biggest issue. From what I saw, however, it would appear to me that Polk County is quite well “centered” in this regard.

Lakeland: an arts hub

In Central Florida arts is both leitmotif and frame of reference. In addition, as I have suggested above, it is a significant part of the economic engine of the region. It goes without saying that one of Florida’s prime industries is the travel and tourism industry; but how that industry is sustained and perpetuated is the stuff of an MBA course. As a matter of fact, a thesis and research material for a Business Studies degree can be found here in Polk County.

In part, the catalyst for Polk County’s economic engine is resource-sharing and mutual-reciprocal promotion. This is accomplished through Polk Partners, an association of cities, chambers of commerce, travel suppliers and attractions of all kinds, and a municipal leadership that is not asleep at the switch. I have encountered this kind of collective vision elsewhere recently, especially in Northeast England (where it’s called One Northeast, and in Estonia, a post-Soviet nation that has embraced 21st-century marketing strategies and concepts.

Philanthropists, patrons, and public participation

The city of Lakeland is in many ways the point of departure for the traveller exploring Polk County, but also in terms of its being the geographical centre of the region. This is a city where intelligent urban design emphasizes the integration of real people power (giving its citizens a sense of ownership of their own space), and the cohesive elements of the social fabric, which is not solely about corporate growth and corporate wealth. Because of this inherent mutuality, Lakeland has become the home to major corporations such as the supermarket giant Publix as well as other public and private philanthropists. This is, after all, the United States of America where the “free market economy” is still embedded in the collective psyche. But, it would appear that an enlightened meeting of minds between the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors has occurred.

While in Lakeland and Polk County in general, I noticed several fundamental principles and collective behaviour patterns that were, in my view, why the region is enjoying exponential cultural growth. They include:

a recognition of the importance of and an emphasis on arts education; a heritage movement that does not thrown the baby out with the bathwater; an awareness of spatial relationships especially with regards to the physical landscape; the kind of competitiveness that encourages growth from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down; public spaces as arts venues; communication with and reaching out to artists and arts organizations beyond the state boundaries; the development (by way of long-range thinking and resolute budgetary decision-making) of volunteerism; the belief in that 1970s ethos that “Small is beautiful” and that “Bigger is not better; better is better”; a respect for the intelligence of the leisure traveller; a renewed sense of time management that is integral to the qualitative aspects of the visitor’s experience in the region, as opposed to the hypersensory, fast food-for-the-mind travel experiences found elsewhere; a keen awareness of the changing demographics and values of the global society; and last but not least the respect for self-expression on all levels.

Quality time in Polk County

(a) Arts Ensemble International and Buddy Sears

For me, the greatest aesthetic in a destination is human discourse. It doesn’t always have to be heavy-duty philosophizing; grassroots chats on the spur of the moment can often be as revealing about a destination as any full-service planned tour. My chat with Buddy Sears was not planned; we just decided we had something to say to each other. This was an experience that was repeated elsewhere in Polk County.

headphonesymbol50To listen to our chat, click here.

To visit Arts Ensemble International, click here.

(b) Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Child of the Sun”

Like many amateur architecture aficionados, I know that when I visit a Frank Lloyd Wright “site,” I am in for a sensory experience that challenges my mind. Wright was of course a genius at highlighting and juxtaposing spatial relationships. I’m still not sure how he does it, but the way he makes geometry and landscape interact is remarkable. When you visit the Wright-designed Florida Southern College, be sure to give yourself permission to interact with his architecture by just going with the flow. Note especially how the esplanades are totally functional (the sun in Florida can be oppressive at times) in that they unify the entire site while providing much needed shade. But notice also the serene sense of flow they engender; as if you are being “channeled” throughout the campus through aqueduct-like structures.

(c) Polk Museum of Art

If you want to celebrate creativity in your community, you have to “make room” for it. The Polk Museum of Art is the kind of exhibit space that is flexible, elegant, spacious, and designed in such a way that the art being exhibited is front and centre, and enhanced by the venue.

As a showcase for Central Florida, the Polk Museum of Art is remarkable in terms of its exhibits — its “Ancient Art of the Americas” collection is one of the best of its size that I have seen — but it is also remarkable in terms of its history and mission.

This private, not-for-profit museum has a Board of Trustees of local citizens whose dedication to the arts is impressive, especially in terms of making the museum accessible through a low entrance fee structure. Its educational programs (it has a student gallery, teacher in-service training, and is affiliated with the Harrison Center for the Visual and Performing Arts) and its commitment to collecting the work of contemporary Florida artists are further evidence of an awareness of the role of art in human society.

To visit the Polk Museum of Art, click here.

(d) Harrison School for the Arts

In my opinion, there is no better example of vision than a community that supports its young people through diverse educational opportunities. And this of course includes the arts.

To visit the Harrison Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, click here.

(e) Polk Theatre

There are not as many of these kinds of grand film theatres and performing arts spaces left as perhaps we would wish. The Polk Theatre (you will understand what I mean when you take a virtual tour through its website) is a living archive, an art form in itself (note the Art Deco), and the kind of theatre in which magic is still possible.

To visit the Polk Theatre, click here.

(f) The Lakeland Center

It bears repeating; arts is serious stuff and requires a serious commitment in terms of financial support as well as facilities. And as a cornerstone of the travel and tourism industry, facilities of all shapes and sizes allow you to host individual artists as well as major touring companies — like the Moscow Ballet. You can do that here.

The Lakeland Center is a world class multi-use facility that can obviously fulfill the needs of the MICE market (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Events), one of the most important in the travel and tourism industry worldwide. With its ample exhibition and meeting space, an arena and its impressive Youkey Theatre, the Center is perhaps the best example of the economic success of Polk County in attracting major “shows” whether they be trade shows or live theatre.

The entertainment events at the Center are also world class; an evening with a bunch of Australian Lads called The Ten Tenors (on a world tour) showed the facility off to its best advantage. (Their tribute to Pavarotti brought down the house. You will get a sense of how they can work a room by clicking here. )

To visit the Lakeland Center, click here.

(g) Lake Wales Arts Center

There are arts centres that have been “reformatted” from existing heritage structures that in themselves have a “performance factor” or elements that blend art and innovative arts spaces. I had not expected to find a Mission-style arts centre in Central Florida, but there it was.

And as a venue especially appropriate to classical and contemporary music, the current season includes: its Chamber Choir of the Bach Festival of Central Florida; well-known flutist Donna Wissinger; The Barber of Seville; The Lake Wales Chorale & Youth Chorale; jazz and classical “Flute of Fire” José Valentino, Strata.; and a 50s “all-girl” musical called The Taffetas.

To visit the Lake Wales Arts Center, click here.

(h) Lake Wales Museum & Cultural Center

“Local initiatives” probably sums up what Polk County is all about. And the local initiatives do not all have to have a grand plan; they can be quirky and curious, like The Depot.

To visit the Lake Wales Museum & Cultural Center (The Depot), click here.

(i) J. Seward Johnson

As part of its regeneration of the downtown area (around Lake Mirror, Lakeland has embarked on the acquisition of 25 statues by this well-known sculptor. (See J. Seward Johnson.) Initially, I sensed a bit of the Norman Rockwell in his work, but then they got curiouser and curiouser. As public art, I am sure they are important discussion starters.

(j) Fantasy of Flight: The Art of Aviation Design … and Rob Lock

Initially, I found this popular aviation museum a bit too razzmatazz for my tastes, but all good stuff has to be marketed. However, putting that aspect aside, I just wandered by myself throughout this evocative display of aviation history and design, and understood once again why flight is an artistic experience. It has something to do with the passage of time and the proverbial desire to “slip the surly bonds of Earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”

And then I chatted with Rob Lock, barnstormer for hire, who in a few brief words summed it up well.

headphonesymbol50To listen to our chat, click here.

To visit Fantasy of Flight, click here.

(k) Bok Sanctuary

This historic nature preserve, gardens (designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.), heritage home, and its significance as an indigenous Floridian “ecosite” is well-known in the state and popular with visitors. It is especially remarkable for its land use policies and the preservation programs that it embodies. With its elegant Bok Sanctuary Tower and Carillon and extensive gardens it is an ideal place to just wander for an hour or two and reconnect with your muses.

To visit Bok Sanctuary, click here.

(l) Chalet Suzanne

The culinary arts and the art of the hospitality industry is what this heritage property is all about. The food is creative and at the same time, down-to-earth, although I should point out that Suzanne’s soups were chosen by the Apollo 15 and 16 astronauts to accompany them to the moon. And if you are an antiques buff (Polk County is an antique destination in itself), you may have difficulty concentrating on the food while you gaze at Suzanne’s eclectic collection.

To visit the Chalet Suzanne, click here.

(m) Terrace Hotel and the Terrace Grill

At this heritage property, you will also dine well in an ambiance that only time and respect for the past can provide.

To visit the Terrace Hotel, click here.

(n) Other recommended culinary arts dining experiences

Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille (I was almost prepared to sell my soul for the Chocolate Bread Pudding.)

La Belle Torre in the Historic Lake Wales district.

(o) Hyatt Place Lakeland

We stayed at this hotel in the centre of Lakeland and appreciated especially the comfort, the inclusive pricing with no hidden charges, the complimentary WI-FI (indispensable these days!), the understated style, and the sensible options that guests can choose. See Hyatt Place Lakeland.

(p) Imagine Vacation Homes

Central Florida has become a popular destination for those who prefer the self-catered vacation home experience which, by the way can be very affordable.

To visit Imagine Vacation Homes, click here.


The Central Florida Visitors and Convention Bureau

Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce

Polk Partners

Images and imagery of Polk County

To view a slideshow of a selection of images from Polk County, click here.



  1. […] Polk County, Florida: Art and the Common Touch […]

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