Best Of 2015

Best! Show!! Ever!!!
circuscats.com

If you’re an animal lover who just doesn’t cotton to cats, skip to the next entry. Now, to all the cat devotees still reading: If you didn’t see the Acrocats’ first-ever Orlando appearance at the Venue in March, you missed the greatest stage performance in the whole history of everything. Samantha Martin’s troupe of rescued felines can walk tightropes, balance on balls and play musical instruments – and occasionally they even do so on command! Did we mention the percussion-playing chicken named Cluck Norris? ’Nuff said.

Best Ladies’ Room

Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park, 407-646-2526, cfam.rollins.edu

In April, the Cornell Fine Arts Museum opened Women and Abstraction, a major survey of abstract and minimalist art made by female artists from the late 1940s to the present. For CFAM curator Amy Galpin, it was a passion project long in the making; for the rest of the community, it was simply jaw-dropping. Works by giants like Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe and Helen Frankenthaler joined lesser-knowns like Hayal Pozanti and Shinique Smith – 80 years’ worth of abstract art so powerful it gave viewers chills. Under the leadership of Galpin and director Ena Heller, and with this show coming on the heels of CFAM’s formidable Kara Walker exhibition, Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), it definitely felt like the Year of the Woman at CFAM.

Best Reward  for Loyalty
Despite its beloved status among Orlando wordsmiths prior to its recent finale, Speakeasy at Will’s Pub – like any recurring event – had very hit-or-miss attendance. People who missed the Aug. 19, 2014, edition of Speakeasy, however, were shown exactly why it pays to make the effort to get out of the house. He’s got a new Comedy Central show and a big reputation these days, but back then Hannibal Buress was in town for a two-man show at UCF when he dropped in, signed up and tested out some new material to a handful of surprised – and later smug – regulars.
Best Annual Tradition
Orlando Museum of Art, 2416 N. Mills Ave., 407-896-4231, omart.org

Are we acting somewhat prematurely in naming this event, in just its second year, Best Annual Tradition? Well, in a word, yes, but we’re hoping a warm reception will ensure its return every summer for years to come. Both years, the Florida Prize show has made us feel like this is a city we want to live in. We are so proud to see our flagship institution embracing contemporary art (not to mention becoming a player on the national stage with shows like January’s Maya Lin: A History of Water) that we might be bragging to our New York and L.A. friends just a little bit. Florida has a lot to offer in the way of vibrant new art, and the Florida Prize puts the best of it in front of lucky Orlandoans – while also putting a hefty cash prize in front of one of the artists every year. (PS: Please keep it up or we’re taking back this award.)

Best Shrine to Black Lives  That Mattered
511 W. South St., 407-245-7535, wellsbuiltmuseumofafricanamericanhistoryandculture.org

Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bo Diddley and countless other legends rocked the South Street Casino in its day, but they wouldn’t have been welcomed at any of the hotels in town – so when Dr. William Wells built the nightclub, he went ahead and built a hotel right next door. Now his hotel is a museum of astounding treasures tracing the African-American history of Orlando. Tour the museum – including the re-created hip 1930s-era hotel guest room – and imagine Dr. Wells bringing Ray Charles a drink while he was getting down on the piano in the lobby.

Best Underground Support System for Artists
819 E. Washington St., 407-423-3060, thefalconbar.com

The casual nature of the Falcon’s ultra-cool themed art shows (frequently dedicated to pop gods like Tim Burton and Bill Murray) allows amateur artists to flex new skills and lesser-known talents to run wild in a safe space. Many artists we got to know through these short shows are now nationally recognized, like Sea of Bees and Jaime Margary. The best part is to find out who’s next, you just have to dip into the art bar on any given night when you might be doubly treated to focused showcases of equally budding bands.

Best Place to Find Art Elements
This year, it’s the dumpsters of Winter Park, where the mass demolition of beautiful old houses has created an extravaganza of soulful junk to pick through. Anywhere there’s a residential builder’s sign, it usually means good pickings for fine architectural details on their way to the landfill. Best recent find: some exquisite carved oak desk drawers from an old built-in cabinet that was ripped out and discarded. Nothing like American craftsmanship to stimulate an artist’s imagination.
Best Dinner With an Artist
Art & History Museums – Maitland, 231 W. Packwood Ave., Maitland, 407-539-2181, artandhistory.org

If you’ve ever fantasized about being able to ask your favorite artist all about their inspirations and processes, this annual spring fundraising dinner at the Maitland Art Center is probably the closest you’ll get. Most of them aren’t famous (yet!), but the handful of artists who host tables at Participation are unfailingly gracious, funny, warm and interesting. Each table is decorated with a different artist’s work, and during dinner they discuss how and why those pieces were inspired. Before and after dinner, guest can wander the museum’s beautiful grounds observing art in action all around them – it’s a midsummer (well, spring) night’s dream.

Best Way to Read in a Moving Car
9-10 a.m. Thursdays on WPRK 91.5-FM, functionallyliterate.org

If you’re a passenger, there’s a good chance reading in the car will give you motion sickness; if you’re behind the wheel – well, just don’t do that. So what’s a bibliophile avid for the new-new to do on the morning drive? Tune in to WPRK Thursday mornings to hear Jared Silvia, Ryan Rivas and authors from Orlando and elsewhere in “a celebration of literary culture and community in Orlando, FL and beyond” that serves as an extension of the Functionally Literate reading series. If you can’t catch the airwaves version, hear archived episodes on the website – in podcast form, it’s purely portable for the active reader on the go!

Best Secret Weapon  for Visiting Artists
flyinghorse.cah.ucf.edu

UCF’s prestigious fine-art print studio Flying Horse Editions has had, even for them, an unusually high-profile year in the national art press. First Luis Gispert, in the New York Times T Magazine, credited an idea that struck him while at Flying Horse as the inspiration behind his new series, Aqua Regia. Then modern master Will Cotton decided he wanted to experiment with lithography, something he hadn’t done since art school, and when he heard about Flying Horse’s facilities – including their giant litho stone – he came down to Orlando at director Theo Lotz’s invitation for a residency. A piece he made in the Flying Horse studio, in fact, became the cover of the Summer 2015 issue of ArtNews. It’s never been a local secret that FHE attracts international art stars to spend time in Orlando; now the rest of the world knows, too.