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'The coolest place you can't get in'

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  • | 4:00 a.m. March 26, 2014
"I can do anything from sweeping the floors to a lot of public speaking," Bruce Rodgers says.
"I can do anything from sweeping the floors to a lot of public speaking," Bruce Rodgers says.
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There’s a county-owned property just past a public access to Manasota Key Beach. Australian pine trees dance in the balmy breeze on two sides. There’s a two-lane road and bay on one side of the property, and tangled mangroves and the beach on the other.

Five charming, historic wooden-paneled buildings face the water. At separate times, Calusa Indians and nudists once inhabited what is now the well-kept yard of the 8.5-acre property.

No longer a nudist colony, the Hermitage Artist Retreat currently acts as a seaside retreat for mid-career artists of all disciplines from around the nation. This is where ideas are conceived and begin to flourish into what audiences see in galleries, music venues, theaters and bookshelves around the nation. This is how Bruce Rodgers, founding executive director of the Hermitage Artist Retreat, describes the work that takes place here.

“It all begins in a room with an idea and a passion,” Rodgers says.

Occasionally Rodgers takes trips around the nation to see the ideas conceived on this campus in their full fruition. In November, he went to The Metropolitan Opera to see the Nico Muhly-Craig Lucas opera “Two Boys,” which was written in its entirety at The Hermitage.

 On April 3, he’s going to see a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert for a piano concerto by Hermitage composer Bernard Rands, which will be conducted by Hermitage Artist Robert Spano. On the same trip, he’ll see Hermitage playwright Craig Lucas’ play “Ode to Joy” and a handful of other Hermitage artist-related productions and symphonies. He has a lot to do before then.

 Rodgers dons a button-down, slacks and bright orange Nikes (much more clothed than the former inhabitants). From his window on the property, you can see bikini-clad spring breakers enjoying the sand and water. You can feel the salty trade winds coming through the screen door. But even though his cypress-paneled office is steps from the water, he doesn’t get out much. He’s busy fulfilling the retreat’s mission, sweeping floors or acting as the IT guy — he does it all.

Rodgers sips from a Hermitage Artist Retreat coffee mug. He had a late night and an early morning.
Bradley Wester, a visual artist from Rhode Island, just arrived Monday. Rodgers was at the campus till late in the evening at Wester’s dinner — the staff, donors and artists always welcome the incoming artists with a Monday-night feast.

Currently, there are four artists visiting. Wester is joining playwrights Daniel Sklar and Ginna Hoben as well as composer Eve Beglarian. There are around 60 artists that visit the residency program annually. This is the core of what the Hermitage Artist Retreat does.

There’s no application process for the artists. A 10-person committee made up of leaders of the various fields the Hermitage Artist Retreat supports selects the artists who visit.

“It’s the coolest place you can’t get in,” Rodgers says quietly, slightly raising his eyebrows over circular-rimmed glasses. “We wanted to make it special to get invited here.”

Rodgers has been around since before the Hermitage’s inception in 2003, when sculptor Malcolm Roberts stayed as the first artist. You might have seen Roberts’ wave sculpture leading into the Longboat Key Club and Resort property.

Rodgers sat on the steering committee that founded the nonprofit. Back then, he was the associate artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre (then known as Asolo Theatre Co.). And before that, he was working as a playwright. Part of the reason he was invited on the steering committee was because he had been a MacDowell Colony Fellow, the oldest artists’ colony.

Rodgers claims three plays to his penmanship, four if someone’s really counting. One of which brought him to Sarasota in the first place.

It’s called “Lost Electra,” and is about a man obsessed with finding out what happened with Amelia Earhart as a coping method for dealing with the death of his son. Margaret Booker directed his play in Cincinnati in 1990. The following year, when she became artistic director at Asolo Rep, she brought it to that theater. In 1993, Booker offered Rodgers the job of resident playwright and literary manager.

But Rodgers doesn’t write anything other than grants and speeches these days. Today, he’s going to write what he’ll say in a video for the Greenfield Prize Dinner April 12.

The Greenfield Prize is a partnership between the Hermitage Artist Retreat and the Philadelphia-based Greenfield Foundation. Through the partnership, one artist receives a $30,000 prize in the form of a future commission and gets two years and ample time at The Hermitage to create the commission. Every April, a new Greenfield Prize artist receives a commission and the artist from two years prior presents his or her commissioned work.

Nilo Cruz will receive the Greenfield Prize this April. He’s the third playwright to receive the prize.
Composer/pianist Vijay Iyer will present what he created during his commission this April. The Gulf Coast inspired his piece, “Turbulence.”

Rodgers says Iyer came to the Hermitage two 10-day periods during his two-year commission. Each time, he brought his wife and daughter with him. He stayed in what they call the pump house.

Rodgers likes to stay out of artists’ way and just let them work, unless they ask him to view their creation, ask him to dinner or strike up a conversation. He gets to know the artists, and knows the Hermitage is special to them.

Rodgers tells the story about the first Greenfield Prize winner, Craig Lucas. This month, Lucas wrote an article for American Theatre Magazine attributing the Hermitage Artist Retreat with changing his life. Before he came to the Hermitage, his house was in danger of being repossessed, his career bottomed out, he was out of money, and he didn’t have a lot of future prospects. He wasn’t receiving good reviews.

“After his time here everything turned around for him, and he credits us for that,” Rodgers says. During that time, he wrote an opera libretto, two musicals and two plays. Lucas says in the article that at The Hermitage he found the cure of the difficulties of writing.

“It’s incredibly rewarding that we have this kind of impact on peoples’ lives,” Rodgers says.

Vijay Iyer’s ‘Turbulence’
On April 10, pianist Corey Smythe and wind quintet Imani Winds will premiere the Greenfield Prize commission as part of La Musica International Chamber Festival.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, April 10
Where: Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave.
Cost: Tickets $40
Info: Call 366-8450 or visit


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