We would like to tell you about the art of Key West and offer a list of galleries where you can experience it firsthand. But first, a little history lesson.
Throughout the 1930s, the U.S. was in the throes of the Great Depression. Key West was hit especially hard. All the great industries that had made Key West so very wealthy were gone. Caribbean pirating was over. Salvaging from shipwrecks was no longer legal. Both the sponging and cigar industries had moved on to greener pastures on the mainland. 85% of Key West residents were living on government relief, just barely surviving on grits and grunts. The tiny island needed help.
And it arrived in the form of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, or more specifically, the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. The Overseas Railroad had been wiped out by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, and the WPA sent in huge crews of WW1 veterans to connect all the fragments of the Overseas Highway. By 1938, this system of highways and bridges was complete. The Overseas Highway would enable tourists to drive, uninterrupted, from the Florida mainland to Key West. Fortunately, a bright visionary at the WPA realized that Key West was already so rich in history, teeming with natural beauty, and had such a fabulous climate, that it could be an idyllic spot for tourists from cold northern climes. All it needed was a little sprucing up and promotion.
Cue in the bevy of WPA's extremely talented (but unemployed) artists, craftsmen, and designers. Amazing murals, frescoes, and embellishments quickly appeared in public buildings and spaces throughout the island. A few art pieces even popped up in the private homes of certain politically well-connected Conchs (locals.)WPA designers cranked out stylish brochures, postcards, and magazine ads to brand Key West an Island Paradise, and introduce it to the rest of the nation.
The Key West Art Center
was established at 301 Front Street, just steps away from Mallory Square. Here, skilled painters, sculptors, and crafts masters trained locals, enabling them to crank out quality pieces that they could then sell in the newly created marketplace. The Art Center exists to this day and is operated as a nonprofit business conducting art classes and selling local artworks. So the art bug had bitten Key West, and it thrived and grew from there. Some WPA artists stayed in Key West, and others spread the word about the magical island so full of inspiration acceptance, and opportunity. Soon other artists began to move here from all over the world. Through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the cost of living was so reasonable that starving artists could pursue their dreams without actually starving.
Since the real estate boom began in the 90s, it has become more difficult to move to Key West with only an easel and some paints, but the drive of artists is compelling. We still have a thriving community of artists of a variety of disciplines and many great galleries and studios where you can shop for, or simply enjoy, their output. Of course in such an inspirational artful environment, you can expect to see plenty of seascapes, sunsets, and exotic tropical flora, fauna, and sea creatures. Images of boats, ships, Conch houses, and interesting characters are plentiful as well. You'll see these subjects rendered in the full spectrum of styles and in a variety of media. But also be prepared for nice surprises. Ready?
Let's go gallery hopping:
The Studios of Key West
In the evolving and expanding tradition established by the WPA's Art Center, today we have The Studios of Key West (TSKW)
. This non-profit organization combines education, gallery spaces, live performance venues, and working artists' studios. First established in 2006, TSKW opened in the historic armory building on White St. at Southard. Then, in 2015, they moved to 533 Eaton St., where they occupy a beautifully renovated and re-purposed 1950s Art Deco Masonic Lodge. Hugh's View, a rooftop garden and intimate performance venue with sweeping views of Old Town sits atop the 3-story building. While you're there, be sure to check out TSKW's bookstore, Books and Books
, nestled right at the corner of the building, for art-related books as well as various books of Key West local interest.
The Gallery on Greene
Located in the heart of Key West's Historic Seaport District
, you'll find this amazing space filled to the brim with fascinating and beautiful works. The Gallery on Greene
offers not only its fabulous selection of art but also expert advice and direction. Whether you are a first-time art buyer or a seasoned collector, gallerist Nance Frank and her staff are extremely knowledgeable and will enthusiastically share that knowledge with interested clients.
Check the website, above, to get a feel for the impressive roster of the Gallery's renowned and esteemed artists. Featured alongside Keys artists are Cuban and Cuban Conch standouts. Be sure to watch the video clip
to get a sense of their ambiance and the experience you can expect when you visit the Gallery. And if you are not ready to buy, of course, you are welcome to just take it all in and enjoy the stunning collections on display.
Seasister Island Gallery
Situated at 303 Duval St., in the downtown Key West neighborhood
, Seasister Island Gallery
is new to the island art scene. However, the owner/artist, Rachael Garreau, has lived in Key West for 45 years. A lover of the ocean and music, and their magical powers, she is known on the island as simply Mermaid
. Her vision for the gallery was to create a space that feels like a colorful bohemian home. She frequently stages catered events featuring artists in the gallery while they create.
At Seasister Island Gallery youll find a wide range of art mediums. From sculptures to paintings to photographs, by local and international artists, both well-known and new. Garreau features the work of Key West artists including photographs and paintings by local legend Benjamin (Dink) Bruce, who was a frequent visitor to Cuba where he was inspired to photograph and paint.
The Upper Duval District
is notable for its galleries, bistros, little shops, and more leisurely pace than the rest of the island's main drag.
The recently opened Jag Gallery
, at 1075 Duval St C-23, offers a fresh, hip vibe in a little corner of Duval Square Shopping Center (at the end closest to Simonton Street). Showcasing some well-established Key West artists alongside newer, cutting-edge talents, the gallery strikes just the right balance. Jag offers frequently changing shows, primarily featuring paintings and sculptures which trend toward mainly contemporary styles.
Cocco & Salem Gallery
Also in the Upper Duval area, you'll find one of what we think of as boutique galleries. Smallish spaces show a carefully curated selection of artworks. These galleries are smallish spaces that show a carefully curated selection of artworks. Cocco and Salem Gallery
, at 1111 Duval St, is just this sort of place. Featuring contemporary works, by a dozen or so select artists, this little gallery is a quiet delight. You'll find overtly referenced tropical themes, while some of the art merely suggests island influences. Some art pieces are abstract, pure fantasy, or even whimsy. Check out the artists' work in the link above to get an idea of what you can expect to find when you visit.
Gingerbread Square Gallery
One of Key West's oldest galleries, the Gingerbread Square Gallery
at 1207 Duval Street was established in 1974. It is the enduring anchor of the Upper Duval arts district. The Conch house style of the building sets it apart from other galleries and creates an interesting environment for viewing the paintings and sculptures.
The work itself ranges from figurative and near photo-realism to impressionist and abstract. Essentially, there is something here for just about every taste. The select assortment of artists represented by Gingerbread Square Gallery includes established and internationally recognized artists as well as others who are part of the close-knit island arts community.
Key West Pottery
Next door to Gingerbread Square, you'll find something totally different and intriguing in its own right.
Key West Pottery
located at 1203 Duval St., is a unique, fun studio plus gallery which originated in 2009. Offering utilitarian as well as fine art pottery pieces, the owners and staff make and decorate every item by hand. Quirky designs and colorful tropical and tribal motifs predominate the collections here. Sizes and price points run the gamut from large, sculptural accent pieces to charming little gifts for folks back home. Owner artists Adam Russell and Kelly Lever set about their endeavor here to create a beautiful product in a fun environment, and we think you'll agree they have succeeded.
As we head down to the White Street Gallery District, our first stop will be the little studio that started it off. Opened by artist Helen Harrison and her husband Ben in 1986, Harrison Gallery
, situated at 825 White St., is still going strong, and better than ever. Helen's distinctive sculptural works, incorporating natural organic elements with high-tech enhancements and finishes, may be found in numerous public spaces and private homes all over Key West. And this sweet little gallery features her pieces as well as works by other sculptors who work in wood and other natural materials.
On Harrisons roster are also several painters and even jewelry designers who share her perspectives and attitude. Helen was a founding member of Walk on White
a monthly art walk along the White St. corridor. On the nights of these walks, Harrison Gallery opens its outback studio as well as the little storefront gallery to its visitors. During the winter, when the tropical weather is ideal, these walks become a festive social event among local art lovers and visitors alike.
Stone Soup Gallery and Frame Shop
Right down the block at 802 White St., is another staple of the town's art scene. Stone Soup Gallery
is a friendly little full-service framing shop that doubles as a gallery offering up exciting paintings and prints by a range of Key West artists. Local and tropical themes abound, and exciting color palettes catch the eye at every turn. This is a spot to find the perfect artistic memento of your visit to our island or a striking gift for a loved one back home.
Shade Ceramics and Shutter Photography
Moving on to the 1100 block of White Street, there are a variety of shops and businesses to check out. Nestled among them is Shade Ceramics and Shutter Photography
, at 1102 White St. This gallery uniquely pairs charming ceramics and photography. Potter Mark Klammer works daily to produce his functional and aesthetic ceramic pieces, and Sarah Carleton's breath-taking photos are on display. Mark's pieces tend to employ subtle colors and understated design elements to render mugs, platters, bowls, and vessels to be enjoyed and used. Sarah's photographs feature natural subjects. Dynamic shots of birds are prominent, as well as ocean waves and sunsets, all frozen in time in eerily soothing images. Stop in Monday-Saturday, 11-5 to meet these fascinating artists and enjoy their captivating work.
May We Recommend...
Whether you are a novice to the Key West arts scene or a seasoned repeat connoisseur, you may really enjoy Max Irwin's Art Walk Key West
. A life artist, Max was born and raised in Key West in the 1990s when it was still a sleepy counter-culture island, filled with creatives. He took a year of his secondary education in Mallorca, Spain, and went on to the American University of Paris to study communication, art, and music. He also lived and worked in Berlin, Germany as an artist and tour guide.
Maxs Art Walk Key West tour brings a unique local/international perspective to the Key West art scene. Join this leisurely and informative walking tour of various museums, galleries, and studios around Old Town, and learn about the past and present of art in Key West. This tour will equip you with a good basic background in Key West island arts. The Key West Art Walk will prepare you to explore the fascinating artists of the past and present on your own.