The elevator opens on the second floor of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Harry and Victoria Leopold step out. They’re eight minutes late, which is unusual for the couple.
They apologize for their tardy arrival and explain that they got hung up in a meeting with Michael Saunders.
It turns out that the real-estate doyenne, like almost every other high-profile arts patron in town, wants to get involved in Sarasota Arts Discovery.
Over the course of the last few weeks, the grassroots arts advocacy tour, which started as an idea generated by the Leopolds a year ago, has spread throughout the community the old-fashioned way — via word of mouth among friends.
“We’ve had 50 reactions just like that,” says Harry Leopold of Saunders’ enthusiasm. “I’ve never been involved in anything where the response was positive every time. Everybody wants to get involved — and I mean everybody.”
By everybody, Harry means the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Ballet, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Florida Studio Theatre, and Sarasota Orchestra — to name a few.
In short, Sarasota Arts Discovery is a four-day VIP cultural tour of Sarasota, with an optional two-day extension scheduled for the end of February.
It’s being sold to out-of-towners as an invitation from what the program refers to as “arts ambassadors,” or cheerleaders of Sarasota’s close-knit patron community.
“You bring people here and hope they fall in love with Sarasota the way we all fell in love with Sarasota,” says Ruth Lando, director of communications at the Community Foundation.
Rather than just tout Sarasota’s arts scene to friends and family in other states, the tour turns everyday theatergoers into tour guides and gives them a tangible itinerary to pass on to friends.
Last week, more than 100 people turned out for receptions held at the Community Foundation and Saks Fifth Avenue. At last count, more than 200 Sarasotans had agreed to be ambassadors.
“It’s about finding the next generation of arts supporters,” Lando says. “The Virginia Toulmins, the Bea Friedmans, and, quite frankly, the Harry Leopolds.”
So how did the Leopolds become the face of this movement?
Well, first you have to rewind a year, to the day the couple and their two children docked in Tampa Bay aboard a Holland America cruise ship.
“I made a suggestion off the top of my head,” Victoria Leopold says. “I thought, ‘We’re only an hour from home. Someone should talk to these cruise companies about getting Sarasota on the pre- and post-cruise tour packages.’ And then I just sort of dropped the thought.”
“Since I take my wife very seriously, I decided to take it further,” Harry says. “I got together a lot of really good, nice people and we sat around a table discussing what we can do with this idea that will help enrich and protect the arts.”
The tour was born with the input of dozens of local arts leaders and organizations, including the Sarasota County Arts Council and the Community Foundation, which has taken over most of the program’s reigns since the Leopolds approached the institution almost a year ago.
But the Leopolds are reluctant to claim it was their brainchild, instead giving credit to the Community Foundation’s Tom Waters and Jocelyn Stevens, who serve as vice president of charitable planning and manager of donor services, respectively.
“It’s not about us. It has very little to do with us,” Harry says. “It’s about a bunch of people taking their gifts and talents and putting them together.”
One thing is for sure, though: If it weren’t for the Leopolds’ initiative, the tour would not exist.
Up until a month ago, Harry, a 66-year-old retired investment banker, was best known as the self-effacing other half to Victoria, a stunning 44-year-old former fashion designer for Albert Nipon, Oleg Cassini and Randolph Duke.
Since the couple relocated from Philadelphia to Sarasota 11 years ago, they’ve supported almost every performing-arts organization in town, most notably the Sarasota Opera, where the newly remodeled grand atrium is emblazoned with Victoria’s name.
“You can call it shyness,” Harry says. “Other than my tennis buddies and my bridge people, I keep mostly to myself. But in the past four weeks, I’ve had more lunches out than I’ve had in the past 11 years!”
As he says this, Victoria erupts into laughter.
“I’ve been working Victoria’s girlfriends,” Harry confesses. “It’s how we got this whole thing to spread.”
“Women have been coming up to me and calling me to ask, ‘Why is your husband asking me out to lunch?’” Victoria giggles. “Or, better yet, ‘Do you know I saw your husband out to lunch with so-and-so?’”
The couple playfully bats at one another.
“Victoria’s girlfriends held the key,” Harry says.
Victoria says the project has pulled her fiercely private husband out of his shell.
She says there’s even hard evidence of it: a framed photograph of Harry and her dressed as Papageno and Papagena from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” frolicking across the stage at the Sarasota Opera House.
The photo will run this season with Community Foundation ads.
“I can’t look at it,” Harry says, picking the frame up and flipping it face down on the conference table.
Everyone in the room giggles under his breath.
“I had it posted one night on my Facebook page for 30 minutes before I decided to take it down,” Victoria says. “You know how word travels.”
What's on the tour?
Priced at $3,450, the Sarasota Arts Discovery Tour includes tickets to the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s “12 Angry Men,” Sarasota Opera’s “La Bohème,” Sarasota Orchestra’s “Finlandia,” FST’s “Shear Madness” and lodging at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota.
The package also includes golf at the Ritz, a tour of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, the Sarasota School of Architecture, the Ringling Museum of Art, plus dinner in the Rubens Gallery and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Sarasota Ballet in rehearsal.
The optional two-day extension costs an additional $1,200 and includes two more nights at the Ritz, plus tickets to the Ringling College Library Association’s Platinum Dinner featuring guest speaker Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
For more information, visit www.sarasotaartsdiscovery.com.