The end of September can be the deadest time of the year in Sarasota, when the only thing that’s brewing might be a tropical storm in the simmering Gulf. But this year something else was in the air.
At the Sarasota Orchestra, a near-full house listened to four young performers depict “Portraits in Passion.” The program included videos about the musician’s lives and a work called Oh, Lois, based on the Superman comics.
After the show, a flock of 20-somethings mobbed two cute young video bloggers, Virginia Hughes and Matthew Holler. The couple has been doing videos on YouTube about attending the concert, which they reported to be “awesome,” “amazing” and “really cool,” and just as they had promised in the video called “Choosing Our Outfits,” Virginia was wearing her leopard-print dress and Matt had ironed his white shirt.
The week before, a sold-out audience applauded hot young composer and guitarist Andrew McKenna Lee, presented by New College New Music. Meanwhile, tickets for October’s Ringling International Arts Festival were flying out of the box office—75 percent had already been sold. The festival is part of the museum’s new “Art of our Times” initiative, which includes performances by five contemporary dance companies; a permanent installation of a James Turrell skyspace, which sculpts natural and LED light; and a season ender exploring the cultural influence of hip hop.
Meanwhile, Key Chorale—with an energetic young director and a decidedly younger average age—was rehearsing a regional premiere of Annelies, based on the diaries of Anne Frank.
And that’s just a sliver of the fresh work that’s headed our way, from Sarasota Opera’s The Crucible, first in its “American Classics” series, to the countywide “Festival of the First,” featuring dozens of new productions.
Wait—doesn’t anybody know that to succeed in Sarasota, you have to do tried-and-true works that appeal to conservative seniors? And in an economy like this, shouldn’t arts groups play it safe?
Apparently not—on both counts. Arts leaders agree there’s a fresh new breeze blowing through our arts scene, and they cite several reasons. First, we really do have more young people now, whether you define that as retiring boomers or Gen Xers, and groups are successfully attracting them in new ways, from multi-media concerts to viral marketing. (But before we give all the credit to young people, can I just say that we’ve always underestimated our seniors’ interest in new works? They fill the seats for even the most unorthodox films at Burns Court Cinema, and guess what—they dominated the audience at last year’s edgy Ringling International Arts Festival.)
Arts groups have also experimented with unconventional locales—a Key Chorale performance at Payne Park, dancers in the aisles at Whole Foods—and lowered some ticket prices. “You can now see some fine professional performances for as little as $15,” points out Key Chorale’s Richard Storm.
In addition, some new and younger artistic directors have arrived in town. They haven’t suffered through years of hearing, “We tried that and it didn’t work,” or “Our audience won’t get that.” They want to share their passion for new works, to make them part of Sarasota’s cultural life.
As Dwight Currie of the Historic Asolo Theater says, “Every time we say, ‘We would love to do that show, but you know our community’…that’s like saying, ‘I don’t want to live here.’”
As for the economy, says Gordon Greenfield, marketing director of Sarasota Orchestra, “It’s speeding the need for change—the safe solution is not to do nothing new.” People are more likely to part with their entertainment dollars for something “different and dynamic,” he insists. “Times like these demand innovation and experimentation. That can be challenging, but it’s exciting, too.”
Storm agrees. “People are more open to things, and the level of quality has never been higher,” he says. “It’s a fascinating time to be in the arts in Sarasota.”