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Meet Sarasota's new arts czar

Brian Hersh holds the power of the purse for local cultural organizations.

Brian Hersh is the president and CEO of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County.
Brian Hersh is the president and CEO of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County.
Monica Roman Gagnier
  • Arts + Culture
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Back during the Great Recession, country music singer John Rich (half of the duo Big & Rich) struck a chord with Americans with his song "Shuttin' Detroit Down."

While Rich's ditty decried bailouts for bankers, in the end the car industry got them too. The auto industry received nearly $80 billion from the government, of which $70 billion was repaid. 

The White House even named Wall Street insider Steven Rattner the "car czar" to fix what was ailing Detroit.

But what is a discussion of the auto industry doing in the Arts & Entertainment section of a Sarasota area newspaper?

Good question. Answer: What autos are to Detroit, the arts are to Sarasota. We even have an arts czar, although most people on the street don't know it.

His name is Brian Hersh and his title is CEO and President of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County. In June, Hersh succeeded Jim Shirley, who retired after 24 years as executive director of the organization formerly known as the Arts Council.

Before joining the Arts Alliance, Hersh spent more than 20 years in nonprofit arts administration, including posts at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City and Asolo Repertory Theatre. Immediately before coming on board at the Arts Alliance, Hersh led Sarasota County Public Schools' strategic approach to arts education. 

Even though he's not a household name, the unassuming Hersh, who studied percussion in college, is a good guy to know in Sarasota's arts world. That's because the organization he leads holds the purse strings for arts funding that comes from local taxes. 

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. For a small nonprofit, getting a grant of $10,000 can literally keep the lights on.

In an interview at the Arts Alliance's offices around the corner from the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Hersh notes that despite his title and role in Sarasota's arts scene, he's a facilitator and a collaborator, not a dictator (my word, not his). A drummer at heart, Hersh is used to keeping the beat, stepping up to fill the empty spaces and improvising when necessary.

The analogy between Detroit during the Great Recession and Sarasota right now isn't perfect because there isn't much to fix in the city's arts scene. The area weathered the storm of the pandemic with innovative approaches, like when the Asolo Repertory Theatre used its outdoor terrace as a stage during 2021. Donors dug deep and ticket holders often didn't request refunds for canceled performances.

While regional theaters have suffered post-pandemic audience declines averaging 30% and are scaling back production and even closing down in some parts of the country, performing arts is in full bloom in Sarasota. Tourists are coming to the area in greater numbers than ever. In March, Sarasota Bradenton International Airport set a record for arrivals. 

Some regional theaters forced to retrench had previously embarked on expensive expansion. Indeed, pricey projects are on the drawing board in Sarasota as the city explores the potential for replacing the Van Wezel with a state-of-the-art performance space designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and the Sarasota Orchestra plans to develop a climate change-proof facility on the outskirts of the city in the Celery Fields.

How those projects are financed and managed and whether they attract patrons will determine the health of the city's performing arts in the future. But that's a story for another day.

Right now, all is well in Sarasota performing arts, especially compared to its regional competitors. It's the city's fragmented visual arts scene that's trying to find its footing amid rising rents downtown and the migration of art sales from formal galleries to pop-up events and artists' open studios.

Hersh is well aware of the disparity in attention and funding between the performing arts and the visual arts, the city's public art plan notwithstanding. Maybe that's why he chose to have his picture taken at the new Palmer Modern gallery in the up-and-coming Limelight District instead of the nearby Van Wezel, the Historic Asolo Theater or even the Sarasota Opera House. 

There's a subtlety in the way Hersh works that isn't immediately apparent. Sure, he's a nice guy, but he's also strategic. What's more, he fine-tunes his talking points based on feedback from his audience, whether it be one person or dozens. 

Maybe all CEOs should train to be musicians. You won't get disagreement on that sentiment from Hersh, who was a champion of arts education in his roles at Sarasota County Public Schools. 

Is there a better place for a kid who's an aspiring artist or acrobat to grow up?  Name one!

There is also plenty of enthusiasm for the arts in Sarasota at the other end of the age spectrum. Like many other arts executives, Hersh is aware that most of the seats at Sarasota's arts venues are filled by people with grey hair. That makes sense because they have the time and money to attend concerts and other performances.

Suffice it to say, as a busy family man who is married to Lauren Hersh, a philanthropy advisor at Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Hersh understands that it's difficult to see the latest show at Florida Studio Theatre if you've got to get the kids to soccer practice and get dinner on the table. At certain times in their lives, people have more time for the arts than at others, he says.

Asked about local efforts to sponsor events for young people, Hersh demurs. He's not willing to show all his cards yet, especially in a job that he only started in June.

Maybe Hersh isn't a czar after all. Perhaps he's more like the ruler of a happy kingdom in a fairy tale. You can't blame Hersh if he almost sounds smug when he proudly proclaims, "We're Florida's Cultural Coast. We punch above our weight."

It's a given that the tourists and retirees flock to Sarasota County for its pristine beaches filled with fine white sand. After spending time at the beach or on the water, snowbirds shop, eat and go out at night for entertainment.

Back in the old days, they went to the circus. John Ringling moved the winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1927, just as the Florida land boom was turning to bust. 

When Ringling died a decade later, he bequeathed his estate, including his Cà d'Zan mansion, an art museum, art library and gardens, to the state of Florida. "Ringling was Disney before Disney" is something you hear around town about his far-reaching legacy to Sarasota.

In "Shuttin' Detroit Down," Rich criticized the Wall Street engineers who developed the dangerous synthetic financial instruments and shady loans that created the housing crisis. His big beef was that they didn't make anything tangible.

Well pardon me if I don't shed a tear.They're selling make believe and we don't buy that here.

But as the striking actors and writers in Hollywood know, "selling make believe" is the business of the arts, and plenty gets sold in Sarasota. But it's not just about consumer gratification or escaping reality, Hersh says. 

He believes that the arts have the power to heal and that the Alliance can help administer the cure. 

Hersh takes a holistic approach. He sees his job as helping the arts keep the community healthy as well as working to improve the wellbeing of the city's artists. 

One of his goals that Hersh is willing to talk about is his desire to bring more arts performances to public spaces, so they are accessible to all, not just to ticket holders.

"Arts are an elixir," he says, echoing the wisdom understood by everyone from Sarasota's circus magnate godfather to plein air painters plying their trade at the downtown farmers market. 


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