An Art History

Northeast Florida’s rich creative record


“There’s nothing to do in Jacksonville.”

That’s a phrase you hear a lot around here. I probably said it more than a few times as a surly teenager.

Jacksonville’s never been known as an arts mecca. But when I look back at the experiences I had growing up here, Northeast Florida had a lot to offer. Museums, traveling exhibits, concerts, theater, dance — there’s a lot to remember. I’m sure I’m not alone.

I can’t count how many times I crawled over the giant teeth at the Jacksonville Children’s Museum (later the Jacksonville Museum of Arts & Sciences, now the Museum of Science & History). Those experiences whet my young appetite for interactive museums.

My parents took my sister and me to performances of “The Nutcracker” ballet. When I first went to the Alhambra, I was so preoccupied and fascinated by the dinner portion of dinner theater that I can’t remember what show I saw. I was similarly stunned by the splendor of the newly refurbished Florida Theatre during my first visit.

I took piano lessons from the sweet but strict little old Ms. Kammer in my neighborhood and dance classes at a studio in Arlington. Later I fought for first-chair clarinet in the Landon Junior High School band. Go Lions!

My classes took field trips to the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, where I learned to appreciate both the art and the structure that housed it.

I stood in line for what seemed like hours to see the traveling “Ramses II: The Pharaoh and His Time” exhibit at the newly renovated train station turned into Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center. It was an impressive spectacle. Jacksonville was one of just eight stops on a tour of Canada and the United States. Barnett Bank underwrote most of the cost, which was more than $3.5 million, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

When people started tossing around the phrase “independent film” in the ’80s, you could catch a lot of those films here. As a teenager, I spent numerous weekends at Pablo 9 Theater in Jacksonville Beach, where you could see screen gems no one else had. I saw so many British movies — like one of my faves, “Letter to Brezhnev” — that I learned to understand thick Cockney accents without subtitles.

I frequented the former Jacksonville Art Museum (now home to an events business called The Museum) for a series of art films. My favorite was experimental composer and musician Laurie Anderson’s 1986 concert film “Home of the Brave,” which launched my father’s unlikely infatuation with a cutting-edge performance artist.

I attended concerts from John Denver to Pat Benatar to Van Halen to Duran Duran at the Memorial Coliseum. I developed a love for “alternative” music through many nights at Einstein A Go-Go and 7:30 Club. I cherish the memory of the 1985 R.E.M. show at Jacksonville University’s Swisher Gymnasium where a nervous — or obstinate — Michael Stipe rarely looked at the audience.

My participation in “Oklahoma!” as part of the annual High School Summer Musical staged each year at the Jacksonville Civic Auditorium (now the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts) cemented my love of singing. Although I was shy about performing in front of others then, anyone who’s worked or sung karaoke with me knows I’m over that now.

The 1986 production of “Noises Off” at Theatre Jacksonville remains my seminal childhood theater experience. The high-energy performances are still seared in my mind.

Though I was already a fan of the movie, a local production of “The Rocky Horror Show” at the theater in 5 Points showed me what real audience participation could be.

Family vacations to Washington, D.C., and New York City included trips to Smithsonian museums and the Museum of Modern Art that are now part of the Reagan clan lore we recall often.

My arts upbringing in Jacksonville led me to seek out cultural experiences when I moved away. In Minneapolis I frequented Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Guthrie Theater (where I saw Patrick Stewart and Mercedes Ruehl in a killer production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). I was psyched to catch a preview of “Mamma Mia!” in Minneapolis before it opened on Broadway.

I hope to continue that arts education for my daughter. She’s attended the Jacksonville Symphony’s production of “Green Eggs and Ham” and “The Wizard of Oz” production at the T-U Center. She’s a semi-regular at the Hands On Children’s Museum, MOSH and Art Walk. Last week during Pet Walk, she recounted the last few Project Atrium exhibitions she’s seen at MOCA. Those experiences and more to come will shape her love of arts throughout her life.

These days, as our cover model and Northeast Florida arts guru Steve Williams says, you can go to an arts event almost every night of the week. You could say that Jacksonville has come a long way. It has. But it’s important to remember that we have a proud arts history to build on.

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