What do Sarasota’s artist activists look like?
Do they wear bright bandanas tied snug across their heads? Do they have long, flyaway hair and paint chips under their fingernails? Do they knock around in Birkenstock sandals and pedal bicycles to work? Do they live in studio apartments off
Osprey Avenue, where they listen to John Coltrane albums, rifle through Salvador Dali books and nosh on Chinese takeout? Do they meet up for black tea at Sarasota Olive Oil Company and hatch plans to bolster Sarasota’s hipster art scene?
Yes and no.
According to Sarasota County Arts Council Executive Director Russ Crumley: “They are a group of mostly young people who are inclusive and collaborative, like the YPG (Young Professionals Group) for the arts, but not really. If that makes any sense.”
Well, yes and no.
In short, Crumley is correct. Sarasota’s new art activists are like a Young Artists Group, or a kind of YAG named eMerge (with a lower case e and an upper case M.) They’re not an organization — not yet, at least, and they’re not focused solely on adding young people to their roster.
They’re a small advocacy group of creative professionals, who just last weekend held a rally in downtown Sarasota in collaboration with the Arts Council’s “Arts Tonight!” awareness campaign.
If you were anywhere near Burns Square around 9 p.m. Saturday night, you would have seen eMerge organizers dressed in matching white T-shirts playing host to a number of guest speakers, including Crumley, artist Virginia Hoffman, Ringling College of Art and Design President Larry Thompson and YPG founding fathers Eric Massey and Matt Orr.
“We’re actually taking on issues and running with ideas — we’re not just sitting around talking,” says eMerge organizer Molly Demeulenaere. “Personally, I want to live in a town where artists are everywhere and relevant. I want my kids to grow up here and want to stay.”
Cut through the hype and eMerge is an ad hoc committee of six key players: Demeulenaere, a 32-year-old former ballroom dancer who is now the director of marketing at G.WIZ Science Museum and the owner of an event production company; 29-year-old Michael Chokr, whose family owns and operates Diamond Vault, a landmark Sarasota jewelry store; Timothy Raines, an abstract painter from Austin, Texas, and his wife, Michelle, a marketing executive; Hoffman; and 30-something business consultant Dorothy Carlin.
“We’re all creative in one sense or another,” says Demeulenaere.
In a city that is not exactly hurting for more arts organizations, eMerge’s message stands out: Empower Sarasota’s creative class and keep artists from moving away. Even better? Lure new artists into town.
“The artist community is pretty fragmented right now,” says Demeulenaere. “People tend to think of arts organizations as a whole and what they don’t think about are the people who sit in the orchestra or the actors behind the scenes. These people are the life and breath of Sarasota. They need places to live, work and create.”
In the weeks leading up to Saturday night’s arts rally, Demeulenaere and crew held three mixers, inviting artists to air their grievances about issues such as affordable housing and accessibility to studio and galley space.
Led by Tim Jaeger, artist and gallery director at Canvas Café, the crowd jotted down ideas on yellow Post-it notes and voiced concerns over local budget shortfalls and depleted public-art funds. They said they wanted more opportunities to exhibit work and better spaces in which to create work. They said they wanted the ability to partner with non-profits and collaborate on better festivals that blur the boundaries between visual, performing and literary arts.
On a blank sheet of paper, during a meeting last month, the group scratched out this mission in fine-point Sharpie: “eMerge Sarasota seeks to connect with all arts enthusiasts to develop a recognized creative class through shared resources and opportunities.”
The group has already begun combing Sarasota County for empty warehouses that can be converted into affordable studios and performing arts spaces. Organizers are itching to create a space similar to Studio 620 in downtown St. Petersburg.
The 3,300-square-foot arts hub opened in 2004 as a venue to showcase visual and performing artists. Now in its fifth season, Studio 620 has a six-person staff and more than 400 members.
“There are a multitude of opportunities out there,” says Crumley, who worked as a consultant on Studio 620’s original launch. “I think what eMerge is trying to do is start building spaces and creating opportunities so artists don’t just flee to St. Pete or some other city, but stay in Sarasota because it’s where things are happening. It’s about creating a consciousness that gets artists saying, ‘Hey, why not live in this town?’”
Keep the change
eMerge ended its rally Saturday night by doling out what organizers are calling “creative currency.” In an effort to illustrate artists’ enormous impact on Sarasota’s economy, eMerge is urging “creatives” to bring $100 to SunTrust bank’s downtown location, ask the teller to convert the money into single dollar coins and spend it as you would normally.
“It’s a tangible way of showing people that we exist and that we exist in huge numbers,” says eMerge organizer Molly Demeulenaere. For more on eMerge visit www.emergesarasota.com.