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Arts groups bristle at city's gift

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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 25, 2009
  • Sarasota
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When former Florida Sen. John McKay appeared before the City Commission last week asking for $100,000 to hold a second Ringling International Art Festival, commissioners unanimously approved the request without any reservations being raised.

“I’m looking at this as an economic-development opportunity,” said Mayor Dick Clapp.

Some in Sarasota’s arts community looked differently at the $100,000 award.

“It’s a slap in the face to all of us,” said Richard Russell, Sarasota Opera’s director of marketing. “We’ve been here for 50 years, and we don’t get a penny.”

The Ringling International Arts Festival is a partnership between the state-owned John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and the New York-based Baryshnikov Arts Center. Its inaugural event was held in October, and, by most accounts, it was an overwhelming success. Organizers had hoped to sell about 8,000 tickets to its 40 performances of music, dance and theater. Instead, about 11,000 tickets were sold.

A $1.5 million state grant helped fund the event, but McKay, a Ringling Museum board member, is now seeking funding from local governments.

Local arts organizations have also been seeking funds, but have been coming up empty.

“We requested money in the past, but we stopped,” said Russell. “We were always turned down.”
Brenda Terris, Season of Sculpture executive director, said she was also surprised at the money given to the Ringling International Arts Festival.

“I was floored,” she said. “If there’s money available for arts from the city, please tell Season of Sculpture how do get it, because we need it.”

Commissioner Suzanne Atwell is not surprised by the concerns from the local arts community.

“I understand that. (The concerns) are fair,” she said. “We see (the Ringling International Arts Festival) as a long-range economic stimulus.”

Both Russell and Terris say their organizations also benefit the city economically.

The opera sells more than 40,000 tickets during its season, according to Russell. One-third of its audience comes from outside the county, including from 48 states and 12 foreign countries.

Season of Sculpture counted more than 250,000 people who walked by its exhibit last season, 30% of whom were from outside the county.

Russell said he wishes the city would provide support to local organizations instead of one that is partially owned by the state and partially run in New York.

“If they’re going to fund the arts, they should look closer to home,” he said.


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