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2023: Changing of the cultural guard

As Sarasota arts stalwarts departed, newcomers arrived and plans were made for state-of-the-art venues.

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There was a changing of the guard in Sarasota's arts community as several longtime cultural champions retired, moved on to new jobs or departed our Earthly plane. In some cases, they've been replaced by dynamic new leadership, but in others the gap cannot be filled.

Among Sarasota's boldface names whose deaths made national headlines in 2023 were artist John Sims and comedian Paul Reubens, better known as Pee-wee Herman. 

John Sims died in December 2022, but it wasn't until the new year that the loss of the artist, former Ringling College of Art & Design faculty member and Black rights activist became widely known.

The year 2023 was also noteworthy for big anniversaries, whether measured by the year or season — 25 for the Sarasota Film Festival, 50 for Florida Studio Theatre and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, and 75 for the Sarasota Orchestra.

It was also a year of breakout artistic achievements. They ranged from KT Curran's local indie film, "Bridge to the Other Side," to the WEDU PBS documentary directed by Shaun Greenspan, "The Sarasota Experience," to the colorful Syd Solomon exhibition curated by Ringling College of Art & Design students.

On the stage, the Peter Rothstein era at Asolo Repertory Theatre arrived with a pair of exciting productions: "Man of La Mancha" at the end of the 2022-23 season and "Crazy For You" at the beginning of the 2023-24 season. 

Another artistic triumph in 2023 was an independent production: Scott Ehrenpreis' one-man show, "Clowns Like Me."

In a year where eye-popping rents downtown forced Art Uptown Gallery and Dabbert Gallery out of business and drove artists and cultural advocates out of town, some people weren't afraid to start anew. 

Define Art Gallery & Studio and Mara Art Studio + Gallery both moved downtown to South Palm Avenue, and Chasen Galleries opened a new emporium dedicated exclusively to glass artworks in The Marc downtown.

There were numerous new arrivals in the performing arts arena. In 2023, Sarasota hosted its first "fringe" festival of quirky performances with the moniker "Squeaky Wheel." Katherine Michelle Tanner turned her Tree Fort Productions in The Crossings at Siesta Key into a nonprofit theater company with a slate of productions for the 2023-24 season.

Kate Flowers and Martin Roosaare formed Sarasota's third dance company. Azara Ballet joined the ranks of the world renowned Sarasota Ballet, who in May 2023 announced a 2024 trip to London, and Sarasota Contemporary Dance, which mounted a creative collaboration with Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in December.

Last but not least, millions were raised and blueprints were drawn for new performance spaces, including a successor to Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall to be designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

If all goes according to plan, the Sarasota Orchestra and the Sarasota Players (formerly The Players) will get new homes in the years to come while Florida Studio Theatre will add an 11-story building to its downtown theater village.

With the help of generous arts patrons and well-funded community foundations, Florida's "Cultural Coast" is poised to reach dizzying new heights, even as performing arts venues elsewhere struggle in the post-pandemic era. 


Remembering John Sims with an installation 

Sarasota artist and former Ringling College of Art & Design professor John Sims died Dec. 11, 2022 at age 54, but it took awhile for news of his death to spread throughout the community.

John Sims in the 2021 multimedia presentation of his “Recolorized Confederate Flag” project at the Historic Asolo Theater.
Courtesy photo

In the months that followed Sims' passing, tributes of all kinds honored the maverick whose life was dedicated to raising awareness about racism through art. 

They ranged from a class of elementary students drawing pictures of Sims to a multicolored portrait by artist Beck Lane to an exhibit at The Ringling Museum. It juxtaposed two pieces of salvaged art: John Chamberlain's "Added Pleasure" and Sims' "From the Chambers," from May to August.

A native of Detroit, Michigan, Sims attended Antioch College, in Ohio, at that time a hotbed of radicalism. After he graduated, Sims spearheaded the creation of the Cross Cultural Field Program and African-American Culture Week, which morphed into the AACW Blues and Gospel Fest. 

Before he died, Sims held a residency at The Ringling Museum in 2020-21. During that time, he completed “(Di)Visions of America," an installation that built on his 20-year project to defuse the power of the Confederate flag. 

By reconfiguring and recoloring the "Stars and Bars" in electrifying installations such as "The Recoloration Reclamation," which appeared at The Ringling in February 2021, Sims used theatrics to unmask everyday racism.

The little indie film that could

Before arriving at the 25th Sarasota Film Festival on March 25, KT Curran's "Bridge to the Other Side" had screened at 11 other film festivals. Even if the March 26 screening at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium wasn't a world premiere, the mood was electric.

Valerie LeBlanc stars in KT Curran's "Bridge to the Other Side," a feature about first responders that won the Local Audience Award at the 25th Sarasota Film Festival.
Courtesy photo

Why? "Bridge to the Other Side" was filmed primarily in the Sarasota area. A feature about first responders with a documentary-style dose of reality, "Bridge" included local landmarks like the Ringling Bridge and familiar faces such as actress Katherine Michelle Tanner. 

Curran, a longtime Sarasota resident who wrote and directed the film for her two-year-old nonprofit Wingspan Productions, has been making films with social messages for more than 25 years. 

Therefore, it was not a huge surprise when "Bridge," produced by Jerry Chambless, won the Local Audience Award. The film was also honored by the Narrative Feature Jury for its story about public safety officers pushed to the breaking point. 

The film about a firefighter's widow (Valerie LeBlanc) who joins an emergency response team to try and put her life back together has garnered many awards on the film festival circuit. It was also picked up for streaming by Amazon's PrimeVideo.

Despite the accolades for "Bridge," Curran's not resting on her laurels. With the backing of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and other donors, she's tackling another social ill with "The Fetanyl Project," a film about the ravages of opoid addiction. 

Like "Bridge" and her earlier films "The First Time Club," about teen sex and smoking, and "Surviving Lunch," which dealt with bullying, "The Fetanyl Project" wants to spark discussion and action. 

Curran's goal is nothing less than producing films that "deal with life-altering issues, have high production values and help the world." 

A video love letter to Sarasota 

Tales about a director in love with his leading lady are as old as Hollywood itself. In the case of WEDU PBS documentary "The Sarasota Experience," the lady is Sara Sota and the besotted director is Shaun Greenspan.

The poster advertising the documentary "The Sarasota Experience" resembles a postcard.

In addition to being passionate about his subject, Greenspan is known for doing his homework. He was chosen for his latest assignment by WEDU CEO and President Paul Grove and his team after they screened Greenspan's documentary on the Historic Sarasota County Courthouse.

"The Sarasota Experience" premiered on WEDU on April 20 and has aired a couple of times since then. It is also available to watch anytime on YouTube for free.

WEDU and Greenspan held public screenings of "The Sarasota Experience" at the Sarasota Opera House and at Temple Sinai Sarasota. At both, Greenspan looked a bit like a circus ringmaster with his fluffy mustache as he introduced his film. The kid's got a theatrical flair. 

Actually, Greenspan's not really a kid — he's over 40 — and paid his dues as a deejay and music video and commercial producer in Sarasota and Los Angeles. 

With his eye for beautiful locations and his fancy camera work, Greenspan's experience in the trenches helps make his documentary a joy to watch. 

Citing Damien Chazelle’s 2016 Oscar winner “La La Land” as an influence, Greenspan filmed a parade of performers that began in front of Burns Court Cinema. Their joyful romp through an historic neighborhood is the setpiece of an ebullient ode to Sarasota’s century-old arts community. 

The Rothstein era begins at Asolo Rep

At the premiere of Asolo Repertory Theatre's production of "Man of La Mancha" on May 13, audience members could be seen crying. Were those tears reflections of joy or sorrow? Maybe both.

Mauricio Martínez dreams the impossible dream as the Don Quixote character in "Man of La Mancha," playing at Asolo Rep through June 1.
Cliff Roles

As Mexican actor and singer Mauricio Martínez sang the show's anthem, "The Impossible Dream," it wasn't lost on some people that a changing of the guard was happening at Asolo.

The management team of Michael Donald Edwards and Linda DiGabriele were due to leave at the end of June after a long run. 

Edwards had been Asolo producing artistic director since 2006. DiGabriele was named managing director in 1989, but spent a staggering 50 years with the theater company in one form or another.

Peter Rothstein, who directed "Man of La Mancha," would formally become the Asolo's producing artistic director on July 1, and Ross Egan would succeed DiGabriele as managing director. 

Michael Donald Edwards and Linda DiGabriele ended their long run as producing artistic director and managing director, respectively, at Asolo Repertory Theatre, in June 2023.
Courtesy image

Seemingly impossible dreams had come true on Edwards' watch. By reaching out to donors and subscribers, Edwards elevated the quality of productions and facilities at the largest Actors Equity theater in Florida, pulling it back from the brink of insolvency.

When Covid came to town, Edwards got creative by staging shows on the balcony of the FSU Center for the Performing Arts. While audiences across the country haven't returned to live theater venues in pre-pandemic numbers, the seats are filled at Asolo.

Looking for proof of Asolo's popularity in a town filled with arts venues and performances? Attend the Gershwin-infused "Crazy For You," directed and choreographed by Denis Jones, before it closes on Jan. 4. 

As chorus girls and cowboys sing, tap-dance and swing from the rafters, they are rewarded after each number with thunderous applause that borders on a standing ovation. 

Based on audience reaction and critics' reviews for "Crazy For You," the Rothstein/Egan era is off to a rip-roaring start. 

Let's salute those who did what they could to keep the theater going during dark days. With any luck, Asolo's future drama will be on stage, not in the accountant's office.

A one-man show with a difference

In a town where many take the old Mickey Rooney cry, "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" to heart, Scott Ehrenpreis' one-man show, "Clowns Like Me," was a standout.

The film version of Scott Ehrenpreis 2023 one-man show, "Clowns Like Me" will make its Florid premiere Sunday, April 7 at the Sarasota Film Festival.
Courtesy photo

Sure, Ehrenpreis got some help from his father, Joel Ehrenpreis, who recruited Florida Studio Theatre veteran Jason Cannon to write and direct the play. Joel also helped drum up publicity and funding for the courageous project, in which Scott confronts his struggles with OCD, bipolar disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, social anxiety and depression.

Because the play was written in standup style, with audience interactions, Cannon and his star even did a stint at McCurdy's Comedy Theatre Boot Camp to prepare for the show.

“Stand-up is a very different skill set,” Cannon said in an interview. “You break the fourth wall; you open yourself up; you directly address the audience. Scott lacked those skills. As an actor, he didn’t need them! In scripted theater, that’s not the way it’s done. To perform the play I had in mind, he’d have to learn how.”

"Clowns Like Me" connected with its sold-out audiences during its initial run May 18-28 at the Cook Theatre in FSU Center for the Performing Arts and came back for an encore Aug. 3-6. 

The website of the Ehrenpreis family's company, Lifeline Productions, reveals plans to tour "Clowns Like Me" nationally and internationally and to create another production for release in May 2024 to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month. 

Their vision is being backed by local donors and sponsors such as Michael Saunders & Co., the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and Aviva Senior Living, to name just a few.

Hersh takes the helm at the Arts Alliance

The Bible reminds us that pride goes before the fall, but one can't help feeling proud of Sarasota's artistic accomplishments.

Brian Hersh is the president and CEO of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County.
Monica Roman Gagnier

Few are prouder than Brian Hersh, the new president and CEO of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County. Hersh took over on June 1, filling the vacancy left by the retirement of Jim Shirley after 24 years as executive director. 

The biggest problem facing Hersh, whose organization promotes the arts in Sarasota, is reporters who spell his name wrong. Hersh takes it in stride, flashing his big pearly whites as he smiles from ear to ear. 

There's plenty to smile about. Sarasota's arts scene is operating in what economists call a "virtuous circle." As tourists flock to Sarasota for its beautiful beaches and vibrant cultural attractions, a portion of the taxes they pay are earmarked for the arts. This gives cultural groups spending power to develop new productions and exhibitions, which bring in more visitors, and so on.

Sarasota County's tourist development tax of 6% generates more than $42 million a year, of which the arts receive 8%. This year, Sarasota County will provide a record $3.2 million in funding to 35 arts and cultural organizations through grants administered by the Arts Alliance.

At an Oct. 12 presentation at the Sarasota Opera House, Hersh unveiled the results of latest Arts & Economic Prosperity 6 survey, or AEP6. According to the study, the total annual economic impact of the arts in Sarasota County was an eye-popping $342 million in 2022, up 16% from 2015, the last year of the AEP survey. 

During that same period, the total economic impact of nonprofit arts and cultural expenditures nationally declined 8.78% from 2015, reckons AEP6.

While national arts attendance is down between 25% and 33% since the pandemic, it has declined just 6.5% in Sarasota County, according to the Arts Alliance's research.

In an interview earlier this year, Hersh noted that the arts have defined Sarasota's identity for over 100 years. "The Alliance serves as an advocate, a resource and, really, the backbone for our arts community," he said. "We’re also working closely with the Economic Development Corporation, the various chambers, and Visit Sarasota County to ensure crucial stakeholders are a part of the picture."

Ringling students lead a Syd Solomon show

The students in the fall 2023 semester of Tim Jaeger's "Role of the Curator" at Ringling College of Art & Design got something impressive to put on their CV.

Dr. Richard Mones (center) and Ringling College Chief Curator Tim Jaeger (left) are surrounded by Ringling College of Art & Design students who produced “Fluid Impressions,” an exhibition of three dozen Syd Solomon paintings that Mones and his wife, Pamela, lent to the college.
Courtesy image

They organized every detail of "Fluid Impressions," a retrospective of Sarasota painter Syd Solomon that runs through March 25 in the Ringling's Lois and David Stulberg Gallery. 

The three dozen abstract paintings on display in the show were loaned by Dr. Richard and Pamela Mones with the encouragement of Jaeger, whose formal title is Ringling College Director and Chief Curator. 

In addition to Jaeger and the students, Mones attended all the classes except one in the curation course. A retired radiologist, Mones moved to Sarasota in 2014 and began collecting Solomon paintings two years later.

Another participant in the Ringling College show was Mike Solomon, Syd's son, who manages the family's art collection. "He's a working artist himself," Mones said an interview. "He made comments about the show, all of which was really helpful."

Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1917, Solomon took art classes in high school in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. During World War II, he served as a "camoufleur," helping to prepare for the Normandy Invasion, in which he participated. 

That camouflage training carried over into Solomon's paintings in Florida, where he incorporated colorful elements of nature and relied on masking before spraying paint onto the canvas.

Solomon, who died in 2004, played a pivotal role in Sarasota's arts community along with his wife Annie, during their nearly 50 years here. Annie died at the age of 102 in 2020.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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