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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019 6 months ago

Bruce Rodgers makes graceful retreat

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After 15 years, Hermitage Artist Retreat's executive director stepping down
by: Klint Lowry Arts + Entertainment Editor

Everyone dreams about getting away from it all — surprisingly, even Bruce Rodgers. What’s surprising about that? For most, the dream is to chuck the workday world to go live by the beach and become an artist. Rodgers is leaving a place artists go to get away from it all.

As 2019 comes to a close, so will Rodgers’ run as the executive director of the Hermitage Artist Retreat, a position he’s held since it opened in 2004. In those 15 years, he took it from a collection of once-abandoned structures off Manasota Key’s Blind Pass Beach to a creative wellspring from which art enters the world and enriches the community with a steady infusion of world-class talent.

In his element

“I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished here,” Rodgers says. “I’ve had the privilege of a lifetime to create and establish an organization in the community that hadn’t existed before.”

He says it with equal parts conviction and serenity — he is a man who is appealingly at ease.

Certainly, the Hermitage Artist Retreat has a lot of Rodgers in it. His connection to it goes back to 2001, when it was little more than a dream of then-Sarasota County Arts Council Executive Director Patricia Caswell, today the retreat’s program director.

Rodgers, an accomplished playwright, was with the Asolo Repertory Theatre when he agreed to be on the steering committee for the proposed artist retreat, to contribute an artist’s perspective. He had also done some consulting and written a book about how to instill creativity in the workplace.

When the retreat became a reality and needed an executive director, Rodgers says he realized “this would be an opportunity for me to kind of have my own show.”

One of the most elemental factors to having a successful retreat, Rodgers believes, is its physical environment. In that regard, Hermitage Artist Retreat is naturally gifted. The term “Old Florida” is often used to describe the section of Manasota Key in which it resides. It’s like a land that time decided was too nice to mess with.

Then there is the lovingly restored cluster of structures that make up the retreat and are the reason the property is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The oldest, the Hermitage House, dates back to 1907.

Rodgers, seated in the living room at the Hermitage House, believes one of the keys to running a successful artist retreat is a relaxed comfortable atmosphere. (Klint Lowry)

Three years ago, the retreat began working on a landscaping project to, as Rodgers puts it, “make sure that the natural world interacts in a positive way with the manmade.” Today, the grounds are museum-quality Old Florida. It’s a quiet setting. Not just quiet; it’s still, and it breeds stillness.

The abundance of tranquility is also in part the result of how the retreat operates. The goal is to accommodate the artists, Rodgers says. “It’s about creating an environment where they feel like there are no obstacles between them and their work. Our job is to facilitate that, remove obstacles, make it an inspiring environment and give them the freedom to do the work that they need to do.”

 

Small size, large stature

Hermitage Artist Retreat was developed based on three interwoven principles, Rodgers says. The first: Keep it small.

The retreat can only host five or six artists at a time. Rodgers wouldn’t increase it even if he could. There are advantages to being small, he says. It ensures an intimate environment. The artists interact with one another but don’t get the cliques and factions and other drama that can form at larger retreats.

Being small also allows the kind of individualized accommodation the artists appreciate. An important element of that is giving the artists the flexibility not only in how they spend their time but also in when.

“We learned early on that a mid-career artist is not going to be able to step away from their lives for six weeks,” Rodgers says. At Hermitage, artists can split their six weeks however they want over two years, a valuable option when your target clientele is established artists.

That leads to Rodgers’ second principle: to create a reputation for Hermitage being “the coolest place you can’t get into.”

What makes something valuable? That’s simple, Rodgers says. Make it hard to get or, in or in the retreat’s case, hard to get into.

“We eliminated the application process right at the beginning,” Rodgers says. Hermitage residencies are by invitation only, awarded based on nominations by members of a national Curatorial Council. “They’e all eminent folks,” Rodgers says. “They’re prominent people in their field, and their job is to know who’s doing the work in their field.”

One of Bruce Rodgers' favorite keepsakes is the "love letter," an anonymous thank-you note from someone who stayed at the retreat. he note was found taped under a desk. (Courtesy photo)

This process bestows prestige on the residencies. The vetting process also considers whether an artist would benefit from and be a good fit for a residency at the Hermitage Artist Retreat. Old Florida isn’t for everyone.

The council also plays a part in Rodgers’ third principle: You’re known by the company you keep. When people see all these respected names attached to Hermitage Artist Retreat, it serves as an endorsement.

Rodgers is a strong believer in the value of relationships. In a sense, the retreat began on something of a partnership when Caswell struck a $1 per year lease deal with the county, which owns the land the retreat is on.

“The county commissioners said, ‘What are you going to do for us?’” Rodgers recalls.

The deal has proven to be one of the retreat’s most important assets. Every artist who accepts a residency is required to participate in some kind of local event — a performance or exhibition or presentation or lecture.

“We really have partnered with every cultural organization in the community and also brought artists to every institution of higher learning in the community” Rodgers said.

The retreat also hosts events, such as its popular sunset beach presentations.

“The community brings the beach chairs and their wine and cheese, we do an hour before sunset, and it’s just the most civilized hour of the week,” Rodgers says.

Hermitage Artist Retreat's sunset beach presentations attract hundreds of viewers for what Rodgers calls "the most civilized hour of the week." (Courtesy photo)

It’s incredibly satisfying to be responsible for bringing these things to the community, but Rodgers admits such cultural largesse has a practical side.

“We have an organization that, unlike every other cultural institution in the community, has no ticket price, no admission price, no earned income,” he says. How do you ask a community for support unless you’re holding up your end of the community partnership without offering something of value in return?

 

A refreshing change

Sometimes the hardest part of the creative process is to know when the work is done, when it’s time to move on to the next project.The Hermitage Artist Retreat will always be a work in progress, but Rodgers is feeling no hesitation about stepping away.

“It is really the right time for the organization, and it’s the right time for me,” he says. Rodgers is the only director Hermitage Artist Retreat has ever had.

His successor, Andy Sandberg, is ready to step in, and it will be a time to take a fresh look at things. It’s important for an organization to do that now and then, Rodgers says.

It’s good for people, too. Rodgers has some writing projects that have been calling his name, and he’s looking forward to doing some traveling. Mostly, though, he’s simply excited about the open possibilities that come with a new chapter.

And you never really leave it all behind, he says. The best parts come with you — the experience, the memories, the friends and the satisfaction of knowing how much art is out there that is traceable to the Hermitage Artist Retreat.

Besides, he says, he’s pretty sure no one will mind if he decides to stop in for a visit.

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