The Ringling

Image: Jenny Acheson

On a hot September day, my husband and I ventured to The Ringling to see the Fabric of India exhibit. I’d heard about the exhibit—on loan from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and described as one of the best textile collections in a museum anywhere—but kept letting the days slide by without seeing it. But it was free state museum day in Florida, just the little push that I needed.

Susan Burns

Image: Lori Sax

I wasn’t disappointed. The exhibit was an assemblage of the intricate, labor-intensive, lavish textiles and fashions of India spanning 500 years and displayed in the context of the history of technology, culture and colonialism. After a mesmerizing hour, I left the world of India, and joined my husband on a bench in the James Turrell Skyspace. For a while, we were the only people in this quiet space. Then a woman came in, looked up at the open sky and began to sing an aria, and the space filled with music.

I’m not sure I could have had those experiences 10 years ago. The Skyspace hadn’t been built yet then, and The Ringling’s exhibits have become more diverse and challenging—and more likely to interest me than its collection of largely Baroque paintings, no matter how impressive.

I couldn’t think of a better person to talk to about our expanding arts scene than playwright Bruce Rodgers, who is retiring from The Hermitage Artist Retreat next month after 15 years as a founder and the executive director. He agrees that the arts scene has broadened and deepened, with an even higher quality of work being made and shown here. “Those things are reflective of the growth in population and resources,” he says.

Rodgers rattled off some of the changes. Sarasota has four Equity theaters—including Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, which has won a passionate following for its work focusing on black cultural experiences. “For a community this size and with a small percentage of minorities to have an Equity black theater with its own theater paid off is extraordinary. Communities far smaller don’t have that,” he says.

Our theater world now includes Dog Days Theatre, which brings together FSU/Asolo Conservatory students and grads with seasoned professionals during the summer, and Urbanite, whose contemporary plays on difficult topics—just about always regional premieres—draw packed houses. We can listen to contemporary music through New Music New College or ensembleNewSRQ. Art Center Sarasota challenges visitors with multicultural shows. A young organization, Suncoast Black Artists Collaborative, is bringing in African-American artists and exhibits. We have multiple dance companies, including Sarasota Ballet, which has earned glowing reviews in The New York Times. Sarasota Opera broke new ground with its 28-year commitment to producing all the works of Giuseppe Verdi.

And the list of festivals devoted to the arts keeps growing—including an event devoted entirely to ephemeral chalk art.

The Hermitage brings well-known artists from all over the world to create music, plays, poetry and art and to provide free performances that stretch our experience of what it means to be alive at this moment. And because their work is created right here in Sarasota, every piece leaves with our city’s DNA, says Rodgers.

Our region has long been a significant player in the arts world, but new organizations and work have added to our reputation—and growth. None of this would happen without the remarkable support cultural initiatives enjoy here. All of us, Rodgers says, should be proud of this support. “The arts bring us into a deeper understanding of our common humanity,” he says. “I can’t think of anything more important.”

To help you expand your discovery of Sarasota arts, we asked arts editor Kay Kipling to pick the most exciting shows, exhibitions and performers of the coming season. You can read her “Hot Tickets” here.

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