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Festival for All Seasons

The Arts and Cultural Alliance, library system and Sarasota County Schools collaborate to revive two long-dormant arts events with a reimagined InspireSarasota!

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  • | 6:00 a.m. April 29, 2015
Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, strives to bring back a large and inclusive arts and cultural festival to downtown Sarasota.
Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, strives to bring back a large and inclusive arts and cultural festival to downtown Sarasota.
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Five Points Park is known as downtown Sarasota’s base for public festivities such as a weekly farmers market and numerous arts events. And it will now host a reinvented arts festival geared toward youth and adults: InspireSarasota!
Created from a joint collaboration between the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, the Sarasota County Library System and Sarasota County Schools, this festival, held May 2, is the latest  iteration of the YouthArts Fest.

The YouthArts Fest was created in 2011 to showcase the arts education via the music and performing ensembles from schools. The goal was to remind the Sarasota County community of the importance of arts education.

Now the festival has been given a new name and a new mission, to not only advocate for arts education but to serve as the reincarnation of two festivals: Arts Day and the Reading Festival.

“When I joined the Arts Council in 2010,” says Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance, “one of the things that I looked at was that somewhere along the way we needed to foster a public celebration of arts and culture. At the time we had no money to do that.”

Funding was the main reason the two arts and cultural festivals disappeared, Shirley said. Arts Day, started in 1990, featured performances from all of the major art organizations in town every January. According to Shirley it stopped after 2008 due to a lack of leadership and interest. The Reading Festival, started in 1998, was a book fair and summit that brought book-lovers to the campus of New College of Florida. The Reading Festival ended after 2007.

InspireSarasota! seeks to fill the arts and culture void produced by those losses by building on the foundation of YouthArts Fest.

“My goal all along was that if we could build a strong enough foundation in the community through the schools, the libraries and families, then we’re going to have a foundation for a big public festival for the arts and to bring it back,” Shirley says.

This year is a transition year for the festival, so the core of this year’s lineup remains performances from school ensembles. Slated performers hail from Pine View School, the Sarasota Academy of the Arts, Booker Middle School, Southside Elementary, Alta Vista Elementary, Sarasota Middle School, McIntosh Middle School, Booker High School, Island Village Montessori, the Sarasota Ballet School and the Sarasota Youth Opera Chorus,  among others. Attendees can traverse between the three outdoor stages in the park and the Geldbardt Auditorium in the Selby Library.

Shirley envisions the one-day festival growing each year with more adult and literary offerings, and he hopes to make it a week-long cultural event each November.

“We’re going to work on building this into a big public festival celebrating arts and culture in our region,” Shirley says.
“We see it as something down the road that will involve our local community and areas outside of Sarasota. We’ll be bigger next year, and in five years this will be a major, major event in our community.”

Inspirational Festivities
This first year of InspireSarasota! is a transition from the youth-oriented programming of YouthArts Fest to an expanded lineup of arts and culture entertainment for all ages. This fusion is embodied in the work of performer, author and musician Bill Harley. Headlining this year’s festival, the two-time Grammy Award winner writes music and stories for both children and parents.

“I’m a singer and storyteller who performs for families,” says Harley. “And by that I don’t mean adults bring their kids and adults text and look at their watches.”

Harley’s music and stories speak to the universal themes of family, childhood and relationships. And with albums such as “Wash Your Hands,” “Down in the Backpack,” “50 Ways to Fool Your Mother” and books such as “Bear’s All Night Party,” “Dirty Joe the Pirate” and “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year,” Harley connects both children and adults to the magic of everyday life.

Harley will be performing at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. May 2 as well as signing books at 12:30 p.m. at the festival. For a complete schedule, visit


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