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After 50 years, The Fine Arts Society of Sarasota makes big changes

The organization is celebrating its 50th anniversary by looking backward and forward.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. February 27, 2019
The Fine Arts Society of Sarasota President Vern Weitz assumed her position in 2017. Photo by Niki Kottmann
The Fine Arts Society of Sarasota President Vern Weitz assumed her position in 2017. Photo by Niki Kottmann
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Hundreds of Sarasotans and tourists alike pass through the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall nearly every day in season. But how many of them stop and appreciate the framed artwork hanging on the walls of this refuge for art of the stage?

And how many who take a moment to enjoy said artwork know where it came from?

That 51-piece collection belongs to The Fine Arts Society of Sarasota.

“I was a history of fine arts major in college, so it was a perfect fit for me,” President Vern Weitz says of the organization. “It took my imagination and ran with it.”

This year, the society is celebrating 50 years of fulfilling its mission: to support and stimulate the arts in Sarasota County, and Weitz has several ideas for how to do even more in the years to come.

The Fine Arts Society of Sarasota formed in 1969 under this mission, and in 1970 it purchased its first piece of art, “Descending Yellows” by Hilton Leech, a Connecticut artist who moved to Sarasota in 1931 to be one of the first teachers at Ringling School of Art (now Ringling College of Art and Design). Weitz says that purchase was a milestone because it started the collection that would later become the backbone of the organization.

Every year after that, the group bought a new piece (or someone donated one), thus expanding the collection.

Today, members of the society are arts enthusiasts of all kinds — from fans of orchestral music to contemporary painting to musical theater and everything in between. 

Those who pay dues (and their occasional guests) are invited to attend monthly meetings at Bird Key Yacht Club between October and May, all of which feature a guest speaker from the local arts scene. Upcoming lecturers include Curator of Asian Art at Ringling Museum Rhiannon Paget and Bradley Battersby, head of the film department at Ringling College of Art and Design.

These meetings are not only an educational opportunity, they’re a chance for members to check in on the progress of several committees and see how they’re serving the community.

The society’s biggest public programs are monthly tours (the first Tuesday of each month) of its permanent collection at the Van Wezel, a scholarship program for young artists and a grant program for local arts organizations. Now through the end of May, the society is also hosting free public art tours every first Tuesday of the month in celebration of its five decades of fulfilling its mission.

But what Weitz finds most exciting is the way the society has switched things up since she took over as president in 2017.

Just about a month after assuming the position, Weitz says she and her board went on a day-long retreat at Community Foundation of Sarasota County that set them on a new path. They all filled out a survey to find out what the organization could be doing differently. That was followed by four meetings over the summer that included not only board members but some general members to help brainstorm.

“I’m personally proud of how we responded to a significant change,” Weitz says. “We went from a group that had done things pretty much the same way for a while … and we realized we should change up the pace — the group came together and came up with these exciting ways of doing the same work.”

One of those new concepts was a salon series often held in the homes of various members. That series kicked off in 2018, and it’s since become one of the most popular events for members. It’s also served as a rejuvenating force for those who were exhausted planning and implementing the group’s former Creators & Collectors studio tour series.

“(Now) You feel that pulse and excitement at our meetings that I don’t think I felt in the years past,” Weitz says. 

One new endeavor she’s looking forward to is the society’s sponsorship of a movie, “The Price of Everything,” that will screen during the Sarasota Film Festival, which she says is an example of how the current board of directors is open-minded and thrilled by new ideas. 

In addition to the salons, members can sign up for various educational events throughout the season, such as an upcoming Sarasota Contemporary Dance rehearsal and talk.

When she looks to the future, Weitz sees more of these types of events internally, but she also sees a refocused emphasis on giving grants to local arts organizations. The society has awarded more than $1 million to local students through its scholarship program, but she notes that such scholarships rarely end up benefiting the local arts scene because many students leave Sarasota for arts school and choose to start their careers elsewhere.

“We really need to think about keeping some of the money in Sarasota County,” Weitz says. “Based on some of the funding that is not available in the state of Florida anymore for the arts ... that’s created a hardship for many arts groups, so we’re reanalyzing the distribution of funding.”

The society’s new strategic planning committee and governance committee were formed largely for this reason, and as they become more structured, Weitz’s enthusiasm grows.

“It’s almost been serendipitous,” she says. “It forces us to look at how we can do things smarter with more of an impact.”

Correction: The 2/28 print version of this story stated the incorrect year that  Vern Weitz became president.


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