Arts Capital

By Charlie Huisking January 1, 2009

Festival Funding Sparks Debate

I was unfortunately out of town for the inaugural Ringling International Arts Festival  in October. But judging from press coverage and accounts of friends who were excited by the diverse programs, the event was an enormous success.

More than 90 percent of the 12,000 available tickets were sold for this collaboration between the Ringling Museum and the Baryshnikov Arts Center of New York, which imported performers from around the world. It’s no wonder organizers have decided to bring it back this year, rather than on a biennial basis.

But I do understand why some local arts leaders raised concerns about the funding for the festival. And I’m pleased that a creative compromise was reached to allay most of those reservations.

Former state Sen.  John McKay, the festival’s major backer, had requested $250,000 from Sarasota County for the event. The money was to have come from a $1 million county Tourist Tax arts fund. But some arts leaders objected, because that fund was supposed to be reserved for projects that would focus on local arts organizations. Others were upset that the festival was going to get the money without having to go through an extensive grant application process, as the local groups do.

But under the compromise approved by the Sarasota County Commission,  the festival will get only $125,000 from the tourist tax arts fund, with another $125,000 coming from the Sarasota County Convention and Visitors Bureau promotional fund.

The motion also prevents the festival from applying for additional tourist tax money in the future. Festival organizers also had to provide extensive budgetary information, as well as a letter from the Baryshnikov Center affirming its  long-term commitment.

Kudos to Bruce Rodgers, a member of the county’s festival steering committee, and CVB president Virginia Haley for coming up with the compromise.

Some festival backers have expressed the hope that the event can grow to rival Spoleto, the renowned arts festival in Charleston, S.C. A laudable goal. But frankly, Sarasota doesn’t need a Spoleto as much as did Charleston, which doesn’t have the level of local arts groups that Sarasota does.

I’m eager to attend the second Ringling Festival, and I hope it has a long life. The local arts leaders I talk to wish it well, too. But they want to remind government and tourism leaders that it’s the local organizations that make Sarasota the culturally vital year-round destination that it is.

Art Imitates Life

Sarasota residents Ann Z. Leventhal and her husband, Jon O. Newman, are taking 50 friends and neighbors to an upcoming performance of Managing Maxine, the Asolo Repertory Theatre show about two vivacious seniors who begin dating after the deaths of their spouses.

Leventhal and Newman are theater fans. But the main reason they’re organizing the outing is that they were the real-life inspiration for this comedy about the challenges and rewards of love in the golden years. Like Maxine, the 73-year-old Leventhal is an outgoing, exuberant writer (her fiction and nonfiction works include the novel Life-Lines).

Like Arthur, Maxine’s love interest in the play, the 77-year-old Newman is a gregarious and sophisticated federal judge. They married on New Year’s Day in 2007.

Leventhal and Newman divide their time between Sarasota and the Northeast, where Newman serves as senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (the same court where new U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor once served; the couple is good friends with Sotomayor). At a family dinner in New York a few years ago, Leventhal’s daughter-in-law brought playwright Janece Shaffer along as a guest. She was immediately

captivated by the couple.

“I had this idea that being in love in your 70s was mainly about companionship,” Shaffer says. “But Ann and Jon were such an interesting and vital couple, and were so clearly passionate about their love for one another. I thought right away that it would be great to write a play about people like this.”

Managing Maxine premiered at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 2008, with Leventhal and Newman in attendance. “I thought it was a hilarious show,” says Newman, though he stresses that his wife isn’t as brash as Maxine is.

“It’s a real upper,” Leventhal says. “And it has emotional truth. It raises serious issues in a humorous way.”

“It respects these people,” Newman adds. “You laugh a lot, but the characters are not made to look foolish.”

Not all of the events in the play are based on Newman’s and Leventhal’s story. But many situations are similar, such as having to deal with the not always enthusiastic reactions of children from previous marriages. Leventhal was married for 48 years before her husband died in 2001. Newman was married for 51 years to his wife, who died in 2005.

Later that year, Leventhal wrote Newman a note asking that he let her know if he’d like to have dinner some time. Though Leventhal and Newman were in the same social circles, he says he wasn’t sure who Leventhal was when he got the note. Leventhal says she included her phone number and e-mail address, “so he could say no without having to speak to me if he wasn’t interested.”

But Newman agreed to the dinner, which lasted seven hours and sparked this stage-worthy romance. You only have to spend a few minutes with the couple in their University Park home to sense the warmth and affection that playwright Shaffer found so appealing.

“But in the play, things take much longer to develop than was the case for us,” Leventhal says, smiling. “People our age don’t have a lot of time. The long courtship is for the young.”

For more information about Managing Maxine, access

Theater Company Has Plenty to Celebrate

The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is finally enjoying offstage stability as well as onstage success.

Founded 10 years ago by artistic director Nate Jacobs, the troupe has often earned critical praise for musical and dramatic works that celebrate the black experience. But the company always struggled financially, never had a solid management structure and bounced from venue to venue. Last year, things looked so bleak that Jacobs wondered if it was time to give up on his dream.

But now, energized by the contributions of interim executive director Christine Jennings and board president Howard Millman, the company is on a roll. Subscriptions have more than doubled this season, which opened in January with a rousing production of The Motown ’60s Revue. The troupe expects to sell out most performances at Art Center Sarasota, its home since last year.  A sold-out benefit at Michael’s on East last fall attracted many new donors.

Jennings, the well-known former bank president and congressional candidate, agreed to become interim executive director last summer if she could bring along her good friend, Michael Shelton, to help her. The pair “did an amazing job of basically rebuilding the organization, identifying strengths and weaknesses and creating a new management structure,” Jacobs says. “They really put us on firm footing.”

Jennings was approached after a brainstorming session “when it was suggested we needed a high-profile manager, someone like Christine Jennings,” Jacobs says, laughing. “I never could have dreamed we could actually get Christine, but it was the right time for her, and she believed in us.”

Jacobs is also grateful for the contributions of Millman, who joined the board soon after retiring as the Asolo Rep’s producing artistic director. “This is Howard’s new baby,” Jacobs says. “He calls me all the time with suggestions. He’s as excited as a kid at Christmas.”

Jennings says she was eager to be involved because of her respect for Millman and because she knew how beloved the troupe was in Sarasota. “But I underestimated just how much love and support there was out there,” she says. “We’ve gotten back on track much more quickly than I expected. The support has been wonderful.”

It was Millman who gave Jacobs the idea for the troupe’s next production, The Magnificent Mills Brothers, which opens on March 17 and runs through April 4. “I was only vaguely familiar with The Mills Brothers, so Howard sent me some clips of their music,” says Jacobs, who went on to write the show. “They really had an amazing career that went from the ’30s to the ̓60s and beyond. This show walks you through their career and features their most popular hits, from Glow Worm to Paper Doll and You Always Hurt the One You Love.” For more information, visit 

Take it from the Top

Candid comments from the Hermitage Artist Retreat’s Bruce Rodgers.Why the Hermitage for Sarasota? In the ’50s and ’60s, Sarasota was all about individual artists. Then we had a rise in the number of arts organizations but a decrease in individual artists. That stimulated Syd Adler to help the Arts Council repair these historic cottages on Manasota Key so artists could come here to create and share. We’ve hosted more than 50 artists and 60 more are on our calendar—we’re booking into 2012.  You’re a playwright, but you started out as a classical musician and after music school joined the United States Military Band at West Point. Why? All the music schools were putting out students who didn’t want to go to Vietnam. Twenty-three people were competing for the spot I got; I always say I was auditioning for my life.

It was a terrific gig—lots of free time, no KP, no military B.S. All you did was rehearse and play with excellent musicians. We went to Washington to play for Nixon’s second inauguration. People were spitting at the bus all along the way.Big influences? I had fabulous parents and a fabulous relationship with them. My dad was brilliant but as a child of the Depression, never able to realize his brilliance, and my mother had a great ability to relate to people. I got good brain cells from my dad and my mom’s smile.Any disastrous theatrical moments? I went to see a production of my play, The Gravity of Honey, at a small theater in New Jersey.  

The actor who played the 70-year-old priest took me aside and told me that the night before they played three scenes out of order.  He laughed and said nobody noticed. He figured I’d think that it was hilarious.What’s the best part of writing a play? Rehearsals. You’re in a room with the director, designers, actors—all these experts working together to make your play better than you ever dreamed it could be. It’s more exciting than opening night.Any guilty artistic pleasures? Gretchen Serrie [former executive director of Sarasota Orchestra] and I got hooked on the first year of Survivor. And I like American Idol.What are you working on now? A possible pilot for an HBO series. I don’t want to say a lot about it, because I don’t want to give away my ideas, but it’s a drama set in Ybor City in the 1920s. That was a volatile, exiting time, with Prohibition, immigration, unions introducing mechanization—and there was no place like Ybor City in America.—Pam Daniel 

Top Five

Our editors pick the month’s hottest tickets.


If you haven’t been out to Ed Smith Stadium to cheer on our new team, the Baltimore Orioles, all we can say is hurry, hurry, hurry. Spring training season starts March 3 and continues through April 3; call (888) 329-3365 for ticket info. You can also head to Bradenton to see the Pittsburgh Pirates; call 748-4610.Tours

The season of tours continues with the Creators and Collectors edition. Visit artists’ studios, a Galleria at Ringling College and downtown’s State of the Arts Gallery, March 12 and 13. To benefit the Fine Arts Society of Sarasota; call 330-0680 or head to for more details.


Pianist extraordinaire Lang Lang joins the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra (some of the world’s finest musicians, all under the age of 27). Two concerts, March 26 (a Sarasota Concert Association offering) and March 30. Both are at Van Wezel; call 953-3368 (Van Wezel) or 955-0040 (Concert Association).

Music and More

Here’s an all-American evening: The Sarasota Orchestra’s Ellis Island: The Dream of America, offering vintage photos from the Ellis Island archives with music by Peter Boyer and actors reciting from the journals of immigrants. Plus you can listen to Stella Sung’s Rockwell Reflections while gazing at paintings onscreen from that quintessential American painter, Norman Rockwell. March 19 at Van Wezel; call 953-3434.


For theatergoers who like to observe how a piece is translated from the mind of the playwright to a stage with live actors, the Asolo Rep’s Unplugged: Theatre in the Raw should prove intriguing. Table readings March 14, 16 and 17; staged readings March 26 and 27 and again April 2 and 3.

Call 351-8000. 

Art Seen

Painter Susan J. Klein was born in Ohio and lived many years there, but since moving to Sarasota in 1990, she’s taken her brush to evocatively Florida scenes, especially Myakka River State Park, where she frequently sets up her easel. “Nothing makes me feel so alive, so safe, as to be immersed in nature,” she says. Klein has also been an artist-in-residence at both the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park. This month you can see her work on the Fine Arts Society of Sarasota’s Creators and Collectors tour, March 12 and 13, and also in a Wild Myakka exhibit and sale March 14 at the park, where a portion of the proceeds goes to support her beloved Myakka.

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