By Katherine Harris
I grew up in Florida, but I never thought I’d live here. I’d lived abroad, in New York and other places, but several decades ago I remembered something my father told me: “The one city you’d love in Florida is Sarasota, because of the arts.”
I’d always enjoyed the visual arts and theater, and I knew it takes a truly special place to embrace the arts as a defining characteristic. So all those years later, I took my father’s advice and moved to Sarasota.
Soon after, I joined the board of the Ringling Museum. At that time, the state really had no idea what a gem they had in the museum or even that John Ringling had left it to the state of Florida. They were threatening to cut its funding drastically. A new fundraiser for the museum, the Ungala Gala, had been losing money, and the board asked me to chair it for the next year. They wanted us to keep the ticket price at the same low level and attendance the same—but raise $100,000.
Our committee came up with a plan. We went to our friends, bankers, realtors, favorite restaurants—everyone we could. It turned out that businesses had no idea the Ringling needed help—they had never been asked to support it. And we discovered that people loved and cherished this museum as the cornerstone of our cultural arena. They rose up to give—and once they had given even a little, they felt a sense of ownership and ongoing interest.
Then we designed a beautiful program book for the Ungala, full of stories about the museum, its history and the collection. I asked the governor and secretary of state to write introductions for the book about how valuable and unique the museum was—which of course, also served to open their eyes to what a treasure it was. The Ungala was a raging financial success, and we printed 1,000 extra copies of that book and gave them to every state legislator.
I have received much more from the arts than I ever contributed. My work on behalf of the Ringling Museum not only opened the door to a fulfilling career in public service; but, most important, I met my future husband, Anders Ebbeson, on a blind date at the Sarasota Opera’s opening night, which featured Verdi’s “Forzo del Destino.” Indeed, it was the “Force of Destiny.”
And so, the arts, which deepened my love for our community, also led me to the love of my life—a truth I shall always treasure.
Katherine Harris, former Secretary of the State of Florida and U.S. Representative, lives in Sarasota and supports a wide range of causes.