Can Larry Thompson Save Sarasota?

By: Charlie Huisking

When the Sarasota County Arts Council was being reorganized last summer, there was no debate about who should be the group’s new chairman. “The choice was obvious,” says board member Murray Chase. “No other name was even suggested. We all started saying, ‘We want Larry. We want Larry.’” That’s Larry as in Larry Thompson, who […]


asset_upload_file385_30741.jpgWhen the Sarasota County Arts Council was being reorganized last summer, there was no debate about who should be the group’s new chairman.

“The choice was obvious,” says board member Murray Chase. “No other name was even suggested. We all started saying, ‘We want Larry. We want Larry.’”

That’s Larry as in Larry Thompson, who has led the Ringling College of Art and Design to international prominence during his 10 years as president, and who seems to be universally liked and respected in the Sarasota arts community and beyond.

“Larry has not only done a fantastic job at Ringling, but he has so many contacts in government and the arts and business,” says Chase, the executive/artistic director of Venice Theatre. “He has great imagination, he’s a clear and concise thinker, and he’s able to marshal forces behind him.”

Indeed, the Greater Sarasota County Chamber of Commerce just gave its Chairman’s Cup Award to the 62-year-old Thompson for his contributions to the community. A self-described “left-brain guy in a right-brain world,” the affable, energetic Thompson can’t paint, sculpt or draw. But he’s helped to create an educational masterpiece at Ringling, which has reached the top echelon of schools of its kind.

During his decade in charge, the number of academic majors has more than doubled, and four new buildings serve a growing enrollment. Pixar, Dreamworks, Hallmark, Apple and Disney eagerly recruit Ringling graduates, who regularly win national art and design competitions and Student Academy Awards for computer-animated films. In August, U.S. News and World Report magazine named Ringling to its prestigious Best Colleges list. No art school had been included before.

Thompson isn’t about to rest on his leadership laurels at Ringling, which is in the middle of a $70 million capital campaign to further expand its programs and to add new classrooms and a new library on a 46-acre campus that has already been transformed. But Thompson thinks Sarasota has become complacent about its stature as a vibrant arts community. He worries that the city is losing its reputation as a leading cultural center where the arts are recognized as a major economic engine.

While government and corporate leaders pay lip service to the arts, Thompson thinks many don’t truly under-stand how culture separates Sarasota from other communities that are competing for visitors and new businesses. And arts leaders haven’t been passionate enough about telling their story, he says.

“We hear often that Sarasota has the arts institutions other places would die to have,” Thompson says. “Well, now those other places are no longer just dying to have what we have, they are spending the money to create or enhance arts institutions of their own. They understand what arts and culture can do in terms of economic development and tourism. They are trying to wrestle the moniker of ‘Cultural Capital of Florida’ away from Sarasota. A host of other cities, from St. Petersburg to West Palm Beach and Daytona Beach, are really stepping up. So we can’t just stand pat.

“We’ve been fortunate here not to have had to make major investments of tax dollars for the arts,” Thompson adds. “We’ve relied primarily on philanthropy and earned income to create strong institutions, and we’ve assumed those institutions will always be there. But especially in times like this, you can’t assume that. I liken it to beach erosion. You may have great beaches, but if they’re not renourished, they’ll slowly erode away. It’s the same with arts organizations.”

While Thompson says arts groups are grateful to get more than $1 million annually from Sarasota County tourist tax revenue, that money is earmarked only for special programs that draw tourists. “It’s not necessarily helping make the institutions stronger,” he says. “We need to look for other sources of support.”

Last year, Sarasota County appro-priated $31 million for the renovation of Ed Smith Stadium for the Baltimore Orioles. Thompson knows getting even a fraction of that amount in annual arts funding would be a much harder sell, particularly in this economy.

“But it shouldn’t be a hard sell,” he says. “I was in favor of the baseball thing. But frankly, the arts have a much bigger impact on the local economy than baseball will ever have. A recent study [by the organization Americans for the Arts] pegged the economic impact here at $131 million. The arts are one of the most important industries in Sarasota. So why not invest in things that make us stronger, in things that separate us from other beach communities in Florida?”

Orange County residents have approved a small tax (about $2.50 a household) that created a kind of United Fund for the arts, Thompson says. Other communities have levied special sales taxes and entertainment taxes. “A real-estate transfer tax for the arts might be appropriate here,” he says. “Because if you ask people why they moved to Sarasota, I think a large percentage would say it’s because of the cultural opportunities that add to their quality of life.”

Thompson wants to take the “bedrock of bright and creative people” in the arts community and “expand on that in interesting ways.” He envisions a creative institute that would attract business people from around the country for weeklong sessions.

“Every business will tell you they are clamoring for creative people,” he says. “And creativity can be taught. We could involve resources like Ringling College, the symphony, the museum, the Asolo Rep. We could be known as the creative coast, not just the cultural coast. I’d love it if creative thinking became an ethos of this community, with our leaders taught this creative realm.  So when we’re having battles about this or that, we could say, ‘Let’s use some of the skills we’ve developed and think of other creative solutions instead of just arguing.’”

Thompson’s ability to dream big has certainly paid off at Ringling. Founded by circus impresario John Ringling in 1931, the school had a strong reputation when Thompson arrived in 1999, and he never fails to credit the accomplishments of its longtime president, the late Arland Christ-Janer. But the growth during Thompson’s tenure has been staggering.

Enrollment has increased from under 900 to 1,350. New majors such as advertising design, graphic and interactive communication and digital film have joined traditional programs like illustration and sculpture. The school is regarded as pre-eminent in the field of arts and technology, and its annual Design Summit attracts designers and tech leaders from around the country.

During a recent campus tour, creative sparks were literally flying in the welding area of the sculpture studio. Around the corner, illustrators were working on a poster competition for Sarasota’s La Musica festival. In the computer animation wing, students double-clicked their way through a complicated film project. The hallway outside was lined with posters of Shrek, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Ratatouille and other animated films Ringling grads have worked on in the last 10 years.

Thompson is particularly adept at getting donors excited about the Ringling story. The school raises about $10 million a year, as opposed to $1 million when he arrived, and the endowment has jumped from $4 million to $18 million.

“Larry is a visionary who is willing to take risks,” says Ringling board member Carolyn Johnson, who was on the search committee that picked him. “There was risk in adding the new majors, in purchasing property to expand the campus, in adding the new buildings. But he overcomes people’s reticence to make changes with thorough preparation and patient explanation. He can deliver a message in a fresh, engaging way. He is a collaborator who is able to get you to see the potential that he sees.”

A recent risk was Ringling’s decision to merge with the Sarasota Museum of Art (SMOA), an organization formed to create a modern and contemporary art museum in Sarasota. That museum will be in the former Sarasota High School building on U.S. 41, which will also house studios and classrooms for Ringling students.

When a SMOA board member, Mark Kauffman, approached Thompson about the merger, “The easiest thing would have been to say no,” Thompson says. “It was such a wild idea, and it certainly wasn’t part of our strategic plan. But after some thought, it just made sense. If there was going to be a modern and contemporary art museum in Sarasota, then we should be involved. The fact that we could do it in a wonderful building that we could also use for our purposes made it a no-brainer.”

Thompson is particularly excited about a new Ringling major called “Business of Art & Design.” It’s aimed at people who may not have artistic skills, but who want to work in creative industries. He says he would have been a candidate for such a major, “because I’m passionate about the arts as a layperson. I think I’m able to get other laypeople excited about Ringling because I’m able to be a translator, to work in both worlds.”

Thompson was a math major in college, and earned his law degree from Ohio State University. He practiced law in Columbus for several years before being picked by Ohio State’s president, Ed Jennings, as his special assistant.

“Larry stood out in the crowd because of his sharp mind and his appreciation of what higher education is all about,” says Jennings, who is now retired in Sarasota and, in a turnabout, was recruited by Thompson for the Ringling board, which he now chairs.

Thompson laughingly describes his career path as “a guidance counselor’s nightmare,” because there was no way to plan the course it has taken.

He was the founding director and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. In his four years there, he raised millions, worked with architect I.M. Pei on the design and prepared for the hall’s construction. Just prior to coming to Ringling, Thompson ran the Flint Cultural Center in Michigan.

“Education was a big part of our mission in Flint, and education has been the thread that runs through everything I’ve done in life,” Thompson says. “I’m passionate about it.”

Ironically, Thompson says he never considered himself particularly creative until several years ago, when his wife, Pat, told him he was one of the most creative people she’d ever known. “That’s when it dawned on me that creativity is a much broader concept than people think it is,” he says.

Married for 25 years, the Thompsons met when Pat was a secretary in the Columbus law firm where Larry was employed. “Several of us in the office were working our way through college at the time, and having trouble with calculus,” Pat says. “So, being a math major, Larry offered to tutor us.” Laughing, Pat adds, “That was the last time studying math has been useful in my life.”

The couple has two children. Hunter, a Pine View graduate, is taking a year off to work on a water project in Botswana, Africa. Sarah is a New College senior studying Spanish literature. Thompson’s son from a previous marriage, Eric, is in a Ph.D. program at the University of Florida.

Pat Thompson says that in addition to her husband’s intelligence and dedication, his “genuine interest in people” has been a key reason for his success.

“He feeds off the energy of people, and loves being around them,” she says. “Even when he’s exhausted, he can walk into a crowded party and snap to attention, become almost a different person.”

The Thompsons make particularly dramatic entrances at Ringling’s annual Evening at the Avant-Garde costume gala. Once, he popped out of a sarcophagus as King Tut. Another time, he was Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man, trailed by students with instruments. And, appropriately for a guy regarded by some as a hero who rode in on a white steed, he and Pat once dressed as Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and he arrived riding a horse.

Thompson, whose warm smile and thinning, never-quite-in-place hair give him a rumpled charisma, is also known for his energetic, if unchoreographed, dancing style. “There’s a lot of Elvis in him,” says board member Johnson. “I love to dance, and it was an occupational hazard during my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years,” Thompson says.

He will have to be nimble on his feet as he leads the Arts Council, which recently has struggled to find its proper role. The organization has had four executive directors in the past five years and has seen a drop in memberships and donations. Some arts organizations had viewed the Arts Council as a competitor rather than an ally, and kept it at arm’s length. But now, the reorganized board is made up of prominent arts leaders like Thompson.

“Before, the arts organizations were saying, ‘Well, we have the Arts Council over there, let them do it,’” Thompson says. “So I think it’s great that they are actively involved now, taking responsibility. There was a feeling that the old structure wasn’t working, and we couldn’t just re-paint the house. We needed some remodeling.”

Though it’s too early to know exactly what path the council will follow, it will likely focus on advocacy rather than producing its own programs.

Thompson has already been meeting regularly with elected officials and tourism and business leaders.

“We need to be intimately engaged,” he says. “Whenever discussions are held about major issues that impact the community, the arts need to be at the table.”

Whatever the course, Thompson is the right leader at the right time, says Russ Crumley, the Arts Council’s former executive director, who pushed for the reassessment of the council’s role.

“Larry has been able to rally others to his vision of how the arts benefit the economy,” Crumley says. “He can demonstrate that if you create the right institutions and fund them appropriately, they can be engines that create multiple opportunities and sustainable jobs.”

Though some at Ringling may worry about Thompson spreading himself too thin with his extra responsibilities, the Ringling board fully supports the active role he plays in the community, says incoming board chair Isabel Norton.

“He takes on a lot, but he does exceedingly well at whatever he’s involved with,” she says.  “Some people can do what leaves the rest of us breathless, and Larry is one of those people.”

A favorite story of Fiore Custode, a revered Ringling illustration teacher, perfectly captures Thompson’s open, collaborative personality and speaks to the dramatic changes he’s made at Ringling.

“Larry is always interested in what other people are thinking, and he has an open-door policy,” a grinning Custode says. “Soon after he got here, we were walking around campus, and he said, ‘Fiore, you’ve been here a long time. What does Ringling need more than anything else?’

“I told him, ‘Higher raises.’ But he must have thought I said ‘high-rises,’ because without hesitation, he went out and built three of them.” z

Charlie Huisking wrote "Leading Man" in the November issue.