The Arts Explosion

By staff November 1, 2004

In one of E.M. Forster's novels, two culture-loving English sisters live for their occasional trips to London to hear the symphony; and for months afterwards, they blissfully recall every magical note and movement. Imagine how thrilled they would have been to know that in the years to come, people could enjoy almost any work of art whenever they wanted to, whether at home or one of the many live performances now staged even in small towns and cities.

I thought about those sisters this month, when I read executive editor Kay Kipling's preview of Sarasota's jam-packed arts and entertainment season. A critic who spends hundreds of hours in darkened theaters and well-lit galleries every year, Kay sifted through scores of shows, exhibitions and special events, talking to artistic directors and curators both here and out of town to pick the best of the coming season. Thanks to her research, I'm already planning my own cultural calendar. Along with old favorites, like this month's Cine-World Festival, I've penciled in the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe's version of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, VLT Stage II's Anton in Show Business, the Duane Hanson sculpture show at the Ringling next spring, and-OK, I'll admit it-those full-frontal guys in The Full Monty, at the Van Wezel in January.

These are boom times for the arts; in the last decade, spending by nonprofit arts groups grew by about 45 percent, and event-related spending by audiences rose to $80 billion a year, according to a study by Washington, D.C.'s Americans for the Arts. And despite 9-11 and recent economic uncertainty, philanthropic support keeps rising, too.

Once viewed as the first frill to trim from state and city budgets, the arts have gained respect among many officials, who have come to realize that a thriving cultural scene attracts tourists and well-heeled newcomers and can even rescue blighted areas. Witness Miami's new $411 million Performing Arts Center, which won't open until 2006 but has already boosted redevelopment and real estate values in what was a declining and sometimes dangerous part of downtown. And now that so many cities are courting the "creative class," those hip young high-tech workers and entrepreneurs who have ignited the economies of cities like Austin, even stodgy old business leaders are urging their communities to invest in the cutting-edge cultural events and offerings such bright young people want.

Optimism is certainly running high in Sarasota's arts world, as Ilene Denton reports in her story about the coming building boom in cultural facilities. In all, she scouted out some $300 million in planned projects. They range from FST's canny plan to make the most of its ever-more-valuable downtown site by building a high-rise that will include space for four-yes, four-new theaters, to Florida West Coast Symphony's expansive vision of a big new concert hall just down the street from the Van Wezel. Grand plans don't always turn into real buildings, of course, so we asked a panel of art-smart editors and insiders which seemed most likely to succeed; you can read their candid assessments in Ilene's "Edifice Complex," beginning on page 90.

Though not every project seemed realistic, our panel agreed that if anything, our arts community may not be thinking big enough, as the population growth we'll see over the next decade could easily outdate many facilities, including the 1,700-seat Van Wezel. And they worry that too many groups are focusing narrowly on their own aspirations rather than considering what the growing community most needs and will support. Another observation? For a community that styles itself a cultural capital, we're deplorably short on new and challenging programming. Perhaps spooked by the Asolo's near demise several years ago, too many arts groups are trotting out the same tired material year after year, our experts complained; and while in the short term that may bring in the old faithfuls, it's a poor way to attract new audiences or energy.

Speaking of new challenges, for this annual arts issue, we threw out a few to our contributors. We asked Chris Browne (Hagar the Horrible, Raising Duncan) to venture into the latest literary genre, the graphic narrative, which combines the art of cartooning with sophisticated, often edgy storytelling. We love his angst-tinged tale of a hurricane evacuation (page 108); look for more of these from Chris in future issues. And Evelyn Waugh meets Carl Hiassen in novelist Robert Plunket's wicked sendup of Sarasota society, a (somewhat) fictional work called "The Rich Face West."

We're proud to report that we recently won some artistic recognition ourselves. At the annual Florida Magazine Association, SARASOTA and our affiliated magazines won 15 awards. Among those recognized in our Sarasota office: writers Susan Burns (she won two!), Ilene Denton (a gold for her "Not for Profit" column in Sarasota Business) and Robert Plunket (for Mr. Chatterbox, of course.) Photographers Brad McCourtney and Andrea Hillebrand (a gold for her tender image of a woman and a horse on the cover of our February issue) also scored. And creative director Jeanette Bakowski took home two silvers, including for best magazine design. April's 25th anniversary issue captured the bronze for best special issue, and-drumroll, please-SARASOTA won the big one-a first-place "Charlie" in the category of Best Overall Magazine. That one belongs to all our gifted staff and contributors, and to you, our readers, whose interest and support allow us to practice this art that we love.

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