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South Florida Non-Profit Puts 21st-Century Spin On Old-Fashioned Art 'Salons'

Welcome to the salon.

Not the kind that gives you the cut and color. Nor the type held in the early 1900s in the Paris apartment of Gertrude Stein, where the work of notable visitors like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway was lavished with effusive praise – or lashed with searing criticism.

And if 'art salon' evokes images of men and women in white powdered wigs, sitting on high-backed gilt chairs sipping tea out of Limoges china (with extended pinky fingers, of course), well...

"It's certainly not THAT," says William Riddle, the Executive Director of Venetian Arts Society, with a laugh. “The point of this is to make it relevant to today’s society.”

The Venetian Arts Society started hosting art salons in South Florida about nine years ago. Modeled on the sophisticated European cultural gatherings of old, the events feature international and local artists from theater, opera, visual and educational institutions worldwide.

They differ from most concerts in that attendees have an opportunity to interact with the artists. The performances are generally book-ended by a wine and cheese reception at the start and champagne and dessert at the conclusion.

Each salon has a theme, and Riddle tries to get in as many disciplines as possible at each gathering. For example, one gathering held over the summer was titled “The Art of Heaven and Earth.” It included an exhibit featuring the works of Colombia-born artist John Henry Maldonadoand a performance by mother-daughter harp duo Esther and AnnaLisa Underhay.

Credit Venetian Arts Society
William Riddle, Founder and Executive Director of Venetian Arts Society

As a youngster, Riddle –"Willie" to his friends (and considering his openness and warmth when talking to strangers, that seems to be just about everybody) – was first introduced to the art salon concept in the home of world-famous pianist Lili Kraus, the grandmother of one of his friends.

“She would have maybe 20 to 30 people in her music room. And she would play or have some students play,” Riddle recalls. At one such salon, Van Cliburn showed up (Kraus would eventually serve as a judge for the Van Cliburn piano competition.)

The experience stayed with Riddle through the years – during his upbringing in his North Carolina family’s restaurant business, then while pursuing his own performing arts career as an opera singer. Riddle quit show business due to what he calls “vocal limitations”; also, the extensive touring got to him after a while.

He eventually settled in South Florida and built a successful interior design and construction business. But the art salons gained such a following that before long, he was able to devote all his time to them.

Riddle is proud of the fact that over 50 countries are represented within the membership of Venetian Arts Society. “That was one of the reasons for starting the organization,” he says. “To help unify the community through the international language of the arts.”

For more information about Venetian Arts Society and upcoming art salons, please visit venetianartssociety.org

Christine DiMattei is WLRN's Morning Edition anchor and also reports on Arts & Culture.
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