Why not cupcakes and the fine arts in a museum? To those in the know the art and culinary scenes in the American playground of Florida and particularly in the historic city of St. Petersburg are as enticing as the beach. Both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Morean Arts Center are masters at engaging the imagination of visitors whether through first century Roman iridescent glass or discovering the best cupcake artist in St. Petersburg.
Ever since late 19th century railroad tycoons introduced their gilded age friends to the exotic beauty of Florida, collections of masterworks filled waterfront mansions. Ultimately the owners of a number of these collections endowed some of America’s finest museums in the same cities that attracted 20th century middle class families on summer holiday. Orlando, St. Augustine, Miami, Naples, Sarasota, Tampa and St. Petersburg all host multiple art institutions that rival the most famous on Earth.
With equal gusto and a sub-tropical climate Florida has a justified reputation for superb ingredients from alligator to zucchini. Combine tourism with appetites enhanced by a myriad of outdoor activities in the sunshine state and it’s no wonder both Miami and Tampa/St. Petersburg metro area rank in the top 20 nationwide for restaurants per capita. For an art and food lover it’s doubly pleasant to find both in the same location.
Founded in 1965, St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts combines the classic and the cutting edge in its architecture, collection, events and the MFA Café. The airy and sunlit filled multi-story glass entrance hall seamlessly joins the museum’s original Palladian wing housing its permanent collection with the modern wing’s special galleries, enticing museum store and research facilities. Within the hall is the acclaimed MFA Café with expansive views of Straub Park and the St. Petersburg Yacht Harbor.
Besides a select collection ranging from Claude Monet’s Houses of Parliament: Effects of Fog (1904), 6th century Central American gold work to a tranquil sculpture garden, the museum hosts an array of events covering equally diverse topics. The Coffee Talks with Nan Colton, MFA’s performing-artist-in-residence, exemplifies the museum’s creativity. At a recent Wednesday morning performance Nan took on the persona of Dora Maar, the brilliant, complex confidant and lover to Pablo Picasso. More than a biographical portrayal, Ms. Colton infused her monologue with wit and pathos leaving her audience both entertained and enlightened.
The MFA Café achieves a similar balance. As a culinary tourism professional that has had the misfortune of dining in museums offering too many packaged croissant sandwiches equal to airport take-out, chef Matt Cummings and Olympia Catering & Events demonstrate that neither venue should disappoint. Admission to the museum is not necessary to dine, and after several lunches it’s clear why the MFA Café is a favored option along St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive restaurant row.
Tomato basil bisque was infused with a depth of flavor achieved only by a carefully prepared base – the homemade soups change daily. Blackened mahi-mahi BLT masterfully paired this meaty fish with applewood smoked bacon – the best in surf and turf. The mojo pork wrap is Florida on a plate – southern pulled pork with a Caribbean influence of lime, rice, cilantro and corn. Generous salad plates, thick and crisp house made chips and daily decadent desserts complete the menu. If you’re fortunate enough to have the enthusiastic booster Pauline as your server, you’ll know why visitors to St. Petersburg often become residents.
The venerable Morean Arts Center was founded in 1917 when St. Petersburg was still a sleepy beach town on Florida’s gulf coast. The Morean’s mission has always been to foster and promote local Florida talent as well as provide arts education for the wider population. That outreach includes keeping the public aware that artists are a viable component of a city’s economy.
The main building of the Morean Arts Center is located in St. Petersburg’s now hip and vibrant Grand Central Arts District along Central Avenue starting a half dozen blocks west of Beach Drive. This low-rise historic neighborhood is the St. Petersburg of the 1920s – 1940s with craftsman and art deco commercial and residential structures. Unlike most museums, The Arts Center Association, Inc., aka the Morean, is an umbrella providing sales, studio space and workshops in several locations including the Morean Arts Center, Morean Glass Studio & Hot Shop, Morean Center for Clay and the Chihuly Collection. (Located on Beach Drive, the Chihuly Collection is the Morean’s permanent installation of Dale Chihuly’s innovative glass art and is housed in a dedicated ultra modern gallery.)
Just like glass, culinary creations can reach artistic heights. The Morean Arts Center has sponsored the Annual Great St. Pete Cupcake Contest for the past five years. It’s an opportunity for the city’s baking artists to be judged by both professionals and the general public. That means well over a dozen bakers provided hundreds of imaginatively decorated mini cupcakes for visitors to enjoy and evaluate. As an optional fund-raiser for the Morean, People’s Choice Award votes could be purchased for a dollar per ticket with no limit on the number of votes – or cupcakes consumed.
Art needs no justification. Its presence edifies human existence and in the case of cupcakes, nourishes life as well. Lori Schmidt won the 5th Annual Great St. Pete Cupcake Contest in the Professional Category by the votes of the judges with her beer based Hopcakes, and Jennifer Jacob was the People’s Choice Award champion with her Banana Nutella cupcakes. Yet is should be obvious how this article will conclude; when art and food are involved, it’s the people of St. Petersburg that win.