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Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010 8 years ago

Our View: Act II should be even better


Let’s start with this: Never have we seen anyone obtain $600,000 in taxpayer cash so quickly and easily.

Slam, bam, thank you, commissioners.

Former Florida Senate President John McKay completed his trifecta Tuesday when the Sarasota County Commission committed to contribute $250,000 of tourist-tax dollars to the second Ringling International Arts Festival next fall.

Give the guy credit. He still has the touch.

We’ve never been much of a supporter of using taxpayers’ money to fund people’s recreational activities. That goes for Little League baseball fields, public swimming pools, tennis courts, golf courses, major league baseball teams and stadiums, as well as the arts and their theaters.

Gasp? Oppose public money for the arts in Sarasota? When French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote of this in the 1850s, he noted that those who favor subsidizing the arts justify it on the premise “that the arts broaden, elevate and poetize the soul of a nation; that they draw it away from material preoccupations, giving it a feeling for the beautiful, and thus react favorably on its manners, its customs, its morals and even on its industry.”

But Bastiat, an opponent of arts subsidies, also said: “How do you determine which endeavor should receive how much money? If you wish to subsidize all that is good and useful, where are you going to stop?”

These questions always remind us of the conversation with the late economist Milton Friedman. When Forbes magazine asked him whether it was right for the Alabama Legislature to give Mercedes Benz $400 million in tax subsidies to build a manufacturing plant in Central Alabama to create hundreds of jobs, Friedman said: Ask the widow on a fixed-income in Mobile, Ala., how she feels about paying taxes for Mercedes Benz’s benefit.

Friedman also said if that $400 million were left in the hands of individual Alabamans, it would have the same effect, perhaps an even greater one, than that of giving it to Mercedes. Individuals would make their own choices on how best to invest or spend that $400 million in ways that would create jobs and benefit the state economy. It’s immoral and wrong to force people to pay what they otherwise would not for others’ benefit. Some call that theft. Bastiat called it plunder.

With that as a backdrop, don’t leap to conclusions yet. We’re not going to say it’s immoral and wrong for the Manatee County and Sarasota County commissions to give $250,000 each in tourist-tax money to the Ringling Festival. The Sarasota City Commission is another story.

Nonetheless, there’s more to this story, and it starts with McKay, when he was Florida’s Senate president.

As a longtime resident of Manatee County and board member of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, McKay worked hard to convince the Legislature that it’s in Florida taxpayers’ interest to provide annual funding to what has been “the state’s” museum since Ringling’s death.

In that vein, McKay was able to transfer governance of the museum to Florida State University and secure stable annual funding, not to mention secure $45 million to restore, renovate and expand the museum.

In a meeting last week with representatives of a half-dozen Sarasota performing-arts organizations, McKay said that when he secured that funding he felt an obligation to Florida taxpayers to generate a return on that investment. And the best way for that, he told the group, would be to create a recurring event, such as the Spoleto Festival, in Charleston, S.C., which draws thousands of tourists annually and contributes about 1,000 full-time jobs a year to Charleston’s economy.

Thus began the Ringling International Arts Festival.

That is the vision: to grow the festival into an annual, multi-day arts extravaganza that spreads events and performances from Anna Maria to Bradenton to Sarasota to Venice and plays to the region’s two economic strengths — tourism and the arts.

A developer, commercial real-estate broker and lawmaker, McKay confesses he knows next to nothing about the arts. But thanks to a business associate, he was introduced two years ago to Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose namesake is the New York City-based Baryshnikov Art Center. A match began. McKay, Dwight Currie, the museum’s associate director of programming, and others talked to Baryshnikov about his and his art center helping launch the Ringling International Arts Festival. It helped, McKay says, that FSU, the Ringling Museum and the Asolo were all related in arts education.

McKay then used his clout again. He secured $1.5 million in startup capital from the state’s Office of Trade, Tourism and Economic Development.

The idea was this: The Ringling Museum would produce and control the festival, which, among other things, meant it would contract with the Baryshnikov Art Center to develop and book performers. Currie says the idea on programming was akin to placing modern art among the masters in the museum — bring in new, different performances to enhance what Sarasota already offers. Expose audiences to new attractions while also tapping the local arts scene.

Here’s where the story gets convoluted.

McKay says the festival intended to have local performing-arts groups such as Sarasota Ballet, the Asolo Repertory Theatre and Sarasota Orchestra perform. In fact, more than once the ballet was asked to participate. At the same time, a local arts patron told us that a senior volunteer for the arts festival said festival organizers didn’t want local arts groups the first year.

When the festival came to life last October, several of the local performing-arts groups felt they were shut out.

Regardless, all of the performances were nearly filled to capacity. Festival organizers judged it a success.

Afterward, Baryshnikov changed his mind, McKay says. Originally, Baryshnikov wanted to put on the festival every two years. But because of its success, he wanted to build on its momentum and put on the second festival in 2010.

That put McKay on the fund-raising trail. And in November, he pitched the Sarasota City Commission. It voted unanimously to give the festival $100,000 in cash. And that ignited a mini-eruption among local arts groups. Richard Russell, marketing director for Sarasota Opera, called the city’s funding “a slap in the face” to all of Sarasota’s arts organizations.

“We’ve been here for 50 years, and we don’t get a penny,” he said.

He wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

To bridge divides, McKay and Currie met last week with arts groups and explained their vision for the festival and expressed that they do want local performing-arts groups to participate in the festival. Currie talked of a festival similar to Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA and its complementary festival, “Piccolo Spoleto,” which runs concurrent with the main Spoleto Festival. It features performances of every stripe and style, many of which are geared for children and are either free or modestly priced.

That made sense to the arts groups. But the bugaboo was the money — who gets it.

The arts groups, all of which are struggling financially, bristle at local tax dollars funding a new venture while they gasp. But after an hour of dialogue and suggestions on how to handle the money from Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, Virginia Haley, executive director of the Sarasota County Convention and Visitor Bureau, and Mark Famiglio, president of the Sarasota Film Festival, there appeared to be consensus that one of the fairest ways to parcel out the tax dollars would be for marketing. In promoting the Ringling Festival, the local arts groups could piggyback on those efforts and promote their own shows.

Another hiccup: the date of the festival. An October date requires an early start to most arts groups’ seasons, costing them money they don’t have to bring in their performers. So it appears the festival may be moved to November.

When the Sarasota County Commission voted to appropriate the $250,000 in tourist-tax dollars to the festival, at Patterson’s urging a few conditions were attached, including one that the Ringling festival organizers take steps to include local arts groups. How that plays out, like the next festival’s planning, is sure to be a work in progress.

But it’s positive progress. When McKay, Currie and the arts representatives met, there appeared to be unanimous approval and support for the concept and vision of the Ringling International Arts Festival. As attendee Gil Waters said, “It’s a no-brainer.” Indeed, including businesses, arts groups, chambers of commerce, governments and the public alike should do what Waters advocated nearly two decades ago and do what McKay envisions — create an international festival that draws tourists from all over the world, capitalizes on Greater Sarasota’s arts legacy and provides an economic return on investment to Florida and Sarasota and Manatee taxpayers.

And there’s the biggest challenge: the return on investment.

Many Sarasotans who have sat on non-profit arts boards have witnessed how these organizations struggle mightily to make ends meet. They all rely on donations and contributions (the arts executives like to call them “investments”) to survive. And in some instances, the operators of these groups lose sight that they are indeed businesses and must operate as such. Fiscal accountability is essential.

To that end, we’ll note that McKay has said the Ringling International Arts Festival has a plan to be self-sufficient. We hope that comes to fruition, as does his vision for the festival.

As Waters said, this is a “no-brainer.” There’s a vision and a plan to capitalize on our community strength. To the businesses that benefit from the arts, to the local governments providing funds and to the arts groups producing performances, taxpayers are owed this much: Their precious resources should not be squandered. On with the show …

The following is from the Web site of Piccolo Spoleto:

The combination of historic Charleston’s old European charm and the world-class Spoleto Festival USA together produce a unique and impacting synergy for all who come to the city-by-the-sea to experience this magnificent international multi-arts festival.

But what really adds the ingredient of magic to the mix is Piccolo Spoleto, which provides access to the festival for every person, especially children.

Focusing primarily on artists of the Southeast region, Piccolo Spoleto is the perfect complement to the international scope of its parent festival and its 700 events in 17 days and transforms Charleston into an exhilarating celebration of performing, literary and visual arts.

Piccolo Spoleto’s traditional program offerings include visual arts exhibits, classical music, jazz, dance, theater, poetry readings, children’s activities, choral music, ethnic cultural presentations, crafts and film.

Under the direction of Ellen Dressler Moryl, Piccolo Spoleto was designed and launched in 1979 by the city of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs together with a group of volunteers from the Charleston arts community. These arts professionals devoted their time and energy to help produce the various series and presentations which comprised the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.

Their individual artistic taste and judgment manifested into the comprehensive festival program which for the last 30 years has been produced and presented by the city of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs.

Piccolo’s mission is to provide access to the Spoleto Festival experience for everyone, regardless of economic, social or physical circumstances and to provide the opportunity for excellent local and regional artists, writers and performances to be presented in Piccolo’s “local venue.”

Piccolo Spoleto offers something wonderful for everyone — from classical to contemporary, from traditional to cutting edge. One of the unique aspects of Piccolo Spoleto is accessibility to the Spoleto Festival experience. Half of Piccolo’s events are admission-free; the rest are offered at modest ticket prices.

The Piccolo Spoleto Festival is produced and directed by the city of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs and is funded in part by grants from the city of Charleston; Charleston County; South Carolina Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

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