- July 26, 2017
On any given afternoon, the Circus Arts Conservatory Arena swarms with activity.
The doors of the familiar blue and white dome are propped open as students practice their craft. But the students aren’t the only ones hard at work. Industrial fans speckle the 20,000 square foot home to Sailor Circus and Circus Sarasota, one marked with a cheeky sticker.
“I’m a circus fan,” it says.
It’s enough to make a passer-by chuckle, but, for CAC leaders, the fans are the manifestation of an ongoing need.
“The arena has to be one of the last standing buildings that doesn’t have air conditioning in Florida,” Managing Director of CAC Jennifer Mitchell said.
The organization has been working to raise $4 million since 2014 for renovations to the aging structure.
“The floors need to be done. We need renovated bathrooms and renovated seating,” Mitchell said. “When you go into school gymnasiums, you’ll see retractable seating to make more space for you. We have one entire side of the arena that will not retract.”
“We want to grow. We want to take it to the next level.”
As of now, CAC has secured $2.5 million, including $1 million from the state of Florida. However, if it doesn’t raise another $1.5 million by June 2018, the organization will have to return its matching million-dollar state grant.
“We want to grow,” Communications Director Jane Bennett said. “We want to take it to the next level.”
But for Bennett and Mitchell, CAC’s capital campaign is about more than just a building. It’s about a legacy.
“The challenge that we have with the current arena is we can’t get any farther expanding any of the programs within it without the renovation happening,” Bennett said.
The Circus Arts Conservatory is a relatively new face for Sarasota’s circus tradition. What were once separate entities, Circus Sarasota, a group of professional circus artists who perform under the big top at Nathan Benderson Park, and Sailor Circus, an after-school athletic program, merged under the umbrella of Circus Arts Conservatory in 2011.
“The opportunity came for us to take over Sailor Circus,” Mitchell said. “We jumped at it because we believe first of all in collaboration and second of all that the circus arts are very powerful and we really wanted to really impact children of all ages.”
The organization has since diversified its programming to include educational outreach, teaching science and math in 35 Sarasota schools, taken its talent to national stages and organized a summer camp that has more than quadrupled in size.
“When we took over Sailor Circus we piloted a summer camp program and it had 90 students,” Mitchell said. “This past year we had over 700. That’s the kind of growth we’re seeing and interest.”
It’s a trend that contradicts a national narrative. As national acts, like Ringling Brother’s Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, take their last bow, Circus Arts Conservatory is facing a more welcome challenge — accounting for its mounting popularity.
Mitchell said the organization’s growth is indicative of its ability to engage Sarasota’s youth with a love of circus arts.
“The spectrum of who it impacts is very large,” she said. “It can be all the way from your at-risk student to the one who is thriving.”
It’s a reality Mitchell feels many don’t associate with CAC.
“The kids that are involved every day in programming are learning skills just as valuable as other programs and building their life management skills,” she said.
She remembers a student who the school district had classified as homeless.
“He took three buses to come to circus,” she said. “When he graduated he said circus literally saved my life.”
That, she said, is the power of circus.
“It’s not just about building, necessary, it’s not just about air conditioning,” Mitchell said. “It’s about these kids. By supporting their program or this campaign we are going to help young people build and become successful leaders.”