Signs of recovery
When the Sarasota cultural season started last fall, bad news dominated the talk in lobbies and box-office lines.
Florida State University had recently announced that because of state budget cuts, it might be forced to curtail its support of the Ringling Museum of Art and the FSU/Asolo Conservatory.
The musicians of the Sarasota Orchestra were performing without a contract, after failing to reach an agreement with management. Speculation was rampant that the musicians might vote to strike. And management announced it was putting the orchestra-sponsored Sarasota Music Festival on hiatus because of budget concerns.
Despite rave reviews for new artistic director Iain Webb, the Sarasota Ballet was saddled with a huge deficit, and rumors were spreading that the company might have to disband. The Sarasota Film Festival was also dealing with a large deficit, along with the resignations of several disgruntled board members.
But now, even though the economic downturn is still causing concern, the mood at most arts organizations has improved remarkably. That was most apparent recently in the Ringling’s Rubens gallery, where museum and FSU/Asolo Conservatory supporters gave a roaring welcome to new FSU president Eric Barron.
“I love the museum and the conservatory. They are absolute gems,” Barron said. “I’ve been in this job for only 10 weeks, and this is already my second trip down here. That should tell you how important these institutions are to me, and to FSU.”
FSU is no longer hinting that the museum and conservatory might have to become self-sufficient. “You will hear no mixed messages from me,” Barron said. “We value the museum and conservatory, and want to help them become even better.”
One museum supporter told me that “the change in attitude from several months ago is amazing. There’s a real feeling that FSU appreciates the museum, and that we’re all in this together.” Supporters of the conservatory feel similarly encouraged.
The museum’s profile increased dramatically in October, thanks to the inaugural Ringling International Arts Festival. A partnership with the Baryshnikov Center in New York, the festival was so successful that organizers decided to make it an annual, rather than a biennial event.
Look for a renewed focus on modern works at the Ringling, which has just filled a key vacancy by hiring Matthew McLendon as curator of modern and contemporary art. Under his direction, rarely seen pieces from the Ringling collection by Alexander Calder, Frank Stella, Vassily Kandinsky and others will now be on display in the Searing Galleries. And a dramatic Skyspace by James Turrell will be installed on the property later this year.
The musicians and management of the Sarasota Orchestra agreed to a new contract in December, and almost immediately seemed to put the rancor and the name-calling of the previous few months behind them. Led by the innovative Leif Bjaland, the orchestra continued its drive to reach new and younger audiences by doing more multimedia performances that involved film clips, narration and other techniques. Bjaland’s dramatic “Journeys to Genius” programs have been particularly popular.
Not everyone is thrilled with the unorthodox approach. “Do they really need to show film clips of Rome while they’re playing The Pines of Rome?” one older audience member grumbled after one Masterworks concert. “That’s distracting.”
The Sarasota Music Festival went on after all in June, thanks to a $250,000 grant from the Kaiserman Foundation. But that was a one-time gift, so the future of the venerable festival remains uncertain, particularly if attendance keeps slipping.
For a supposed corpse, the Sarasota Ballet was stepping lively this season, dancing to a new level of excellence. Iain Webb called on his many contacts in the international ballet world to present works by top choreographers, with some pieces performed by renowned guest artists. Many of his colleagues waived their royalty fees because they knew the company was struggling.
But while things looked dire in the fall, the company expects to end the current fiscal year in the black, or nearly so. Many credit new executive director Michael Shelton, who said bluntly that the company had suffered from “dysfunctional management and board leadership” in the past. “We never had effective grants and development programs,” Shelton said. “Now we’re being run like a business.”
Rising from the Ashes
Even a volcano couldn’t dim the excitement at the Sarasota Film Festival this year. Yes, director John Landis was stranded in London and couldn’t accept his career achievement award in person. But Landis was funny and insightful in a video appearance via Skype at the Sarasota Opera House.
The conversation series with visiting actors is always a highlight of this festival, and this year’s sessions with Kevin Kline and Patricia Clarkson were particularly fascinating. Kline played tourist afterward, slipping off to explore the Historic Asolo Theater. And when he discovered that FSU/Asolo Conservatory students were rehearsing a play there, he happily shared some career advice with the excited young actors.
Congratulations to Tom Hall and Holly Herrick for again programming a heady mix of foreign and domestic features, documentaries and shorts. Reflecting the austere times and reduced budget, this was a less glitzy festival, with the focus on the films rather than the parties, and that’s a welcome trend.
It was a great year for theater on local stages. My favorite shows were Bridge and Tunnel and Ruined at Florida Studio Theatre, and The Life of Galileo at the Asolo Rep. Artistic director Michael Edwards took a risk with that provocative and demanding show, but I’m thrilled that it became a hot ticket.
But the Asolo’s biggest hit was Managing Maxine, and its popularity confounds me. I found that ode to late-in-life love cloying and condescending, though it was great to see the marvelous Sharon Spelman back on stage.
Of course, the theater season isn’t quite over. FST’s summer schedule continues with Carolyn Michel in the one-woman show Family Secrets, from June 30 through July 25. The A.R. Gurney comedy Sylvia, about a man’s relationship with his new dog, runs from July 28-Aug. 22.
The Banyan Theater’s schedule is somewhat heavier in nature. Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen, continues through July 11, followed by The Drawer Boy (July 15-Aug. 1), a drama about the complex ties that link a pair of World War II veterans.
The Banyan season closes with Side Man (Aug. 5-22), a Tony Award-winning drama about the troubled family of a jazz musician. This production is a kind of FSU/Asolo Conservatory reunion. Former acting teacher Jim Wise will direct, and graduates Dan Bright and Juan Javier Cardenas are in the cast.
Charlie Huisking just won a statewide first-place award for “Best Arts Writing” from the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists for “Leading Man” in our November issue.