Arts Capital

By Charlie Huisking November 1, 2009

Backstage Pass  

A bit unexpectedly, I’ve joined the snowbird contingent, having spent the summer in Indiana, where the cultural offerings are modest but the temperatures were, thankfully, rarely over 82 degrees.

I’m excited to be back in Sarasota just as the arts season is beginning to percolate. In this new column, I’ll expound on what’s happening onstage and in the concert hall, and I’ll share some behind-the-scenes gossip, too.

I’ve found people are still buzzing about one of the most stunning events of the summer—the abrupt resignation on Aug. 7 of Ringling Museum of Art director John Wetenhall. During his eight-year tenure, Wetenhall presided over a transformation of the Ringling campus: A visitor’s center, new gallery spaces and an education/conservation building were added, and the endowment grew to $55 million.

Wetenhall, who was well-liked by staff and advisory board members, gave no reason for his resignation. But his relationship with officials at Florida State University, which operates the museum, had apparently disintegrated. I’m told he rarely made the trip to Tallahassee to cultivate goodwill. He was also irked by a restructuring that had him reporting to Sally McRorie, the dean of the College of Visual Arts, Theater and Dance.

Previously, Wetenhall had reported to provost Larry Abele, as all the FSU deans do.

“John wasn’t wild about that,” board member John McKay told the St. Petersburg Times. “He felt his stature was lowered.” McKay said Wetenhall also wasn’t initially enthusiastic about the academic programs FSU is adding at the museum.

Ironically, I hear only good things about McRorie from Ringling and Asolo Repertory Theatre officials who have worked with her during the recent budget crisis. Fairly or not, many local arts leaders who have dealt with Abele feel he’d be happy if Sarasota fell into the Gulf of Mexico.



Marshall Rousseau, who was named Ringling’s interim director after Wetenhall’s departure, says his first task was calming the “rattled” staff and board members and assuring them that, “We’re going forward on the course John set for us.”

Rousseau, 75, has an unusual background. Until the 1980s, his career was in retail. He worked in marketing at Neiman-Marcus and in 1973 started the Robinson’s chain in Florida. Then he switched to his first love, the arts, serving as president of the Florida Orchestra and, for 11 years, as executive director of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.

A Ringling trustee for seven years, Rousseau says he was intrigued by the challenge of leading the museum during a difficult time. He expects to fill in for about a year until a permanent director is picked. He isn’t planning any radical changes. “But I’m sure I’ll be introducing some new and different ways of doing things,” he says.

Rousseau likes to cite museum scholar John Cotton Dana’s comparison of museums to multi-faceted department stores. “The goal is the same,” he says. “We want to get people in the doors, and we want them to have a great experience while they are here. When I was at the Dali, I unconsciously applied things I’d learned at department stores, and it made me more successful. Our attendance went from 60,000 to 225,000 while I was there, and the museum store doubled its business.”



Fans of the Sarasota Music Festival are still shocked and bewildered by the Sarasota Orchestra’s decision to put the renowned chamber music event “on hiatus” in 2010. Supporters wonder why a public appeal for funds wasn’t made first, especially since the announcement cited a relatively modest $30,000 box-office shortfall in 2009.

Some think orchestra management has long been looking for a way to drop the festival. It sure seems to me that the decision to suspend it in 2010 was made even before the 2009 festival was held. My evidence? Last spring, the orchestra didn’t apply for a Tourist Tax grant for the 2010 festival. In past years, such grants were almost automatic for the highly respected festival.

The event did need tweaking. The festival used to sell out the Van Wezel for many concerts, but now struggles to fill the smaller Sarasota Opera House. I was away this year, but one observer I respect says it has gotten stale. My friend admires artistic director Robert Levin, but feels some longtime faculty artists “are no longer meeting the standards of an important festival like this.” But he agrees with me that losing the festival would be a severe blow to Sarasota’s cultural reputation.

I’ve heard reports that a local foundation has offered to rescue the festival. But nobody is commenting about how promising those discussions are.



If you think choral directors are grave-looking, pretentious types, then you haven’t met Joe Caulkins.

The artistic director of Key Chorale is gregarious and affable, and his comments from the podium during concerts are filled with witty asides. His major hobby isn’t poring over old manuscripts but climbing mountains around the world. He travels to France in the summer so he can be closer to the Alps.

During Key Chorale’s 25th anniversary season, Caulkins wants to demonstrate that the chorus is as versatile, adventurous and fun-loving as he is. The opening concert, Nov. 22 at the Sarasota Opera House, is titled “Bach to Bach.” In Caulkins’ words, it contrasts “the sublime and transcendent work of Johann Sebastian Bach with the zany and hilarious work of P.D. Q. Bach.” P.D. Q., of course, is the fictional Baroque composer and long-lost Bach relative created by Peter Schickele. His greatest hits include the Knock-Knock Cantata and Fanfare for the Common Cold.

As for the real Bach, selections from such masterworks as The St. John Passion, The B-Minor Mass and the Christmas Oratorio will be sung by Key Chorale's 100-voice choir.

Later in the season, the chorale will perform the Unboxed Series, concerts presenting “Unusual Music in Unusual Spaces.” “We choral directors are aware of a lot of wonderful choral work being written now,” Caulkins says. “But we’re all too chicken to program it, because it may not attract huge crowds. This series gives me that chance.”

Held in such intimate venues as the Payne Park Auditorium and the Historic Asolo Theater, the series will be devoted to music “that’s captivating and will offer the thrill of discovery,” Caulkins says. “But it’s not going to scare people.”

A huge time commitment isn’t required, either. “Seventy-five minutes, no intermission,” Caulkins says. “You’ll be out in time for dinner.” For more information, go to

Ringling Redo Many changes and improvements to the Ringling Museum grounds were completed during director John Wetenhall’s tenure; what happens next with his departure?



Top Five

Our editors pick the month’s hottest tickets.


The Sarasota Ballet’s production of Giselle, staged by Margaret Barbieri from Sir Peter Wright’s choreography, gets some star power with the addition of internationally known dancers Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, Nov. 27-29 at the Sarasota Opera House. 351-8000.


Stephen King, one of the most acclaimed writers of horror, mystery and suspense in the world, lives part-time right here in Sarasota, but sightings can be rare. King followers will have their chance to hear him talk about his latest, long-awaited book, Under the Dome, at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at Van Wezel. 953-3368.


Actor Ed Asner, no stranger to political activism himself, tackles the role of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Dore Schary’s one-man play FDR, onstage for four performances only Nov. 19-21 at the Historic Asolo Theater. 360-7399.


We’ll be cheering on Sarasota Magazine’s own Mr. Chatterbox, who makes a guest appearance as a supernumerary of sorts when the Sarasota Opera continues its fall production of Verdi’s La Traviata with performances Nov. 1, 3, 5, 8 and 11 at the Sarasota Opera House. 366-8450.


It wouldn’t be November here without the Sarasota Film Society’s annual Cine-World Film Festival, which offers a staggering line-up of foreign and independent films at both downtown Sarasota’s Burns Court Cinema and the society’s Lakewood Ranch Cinemas. Nov. 6-12; call 955-FILM or 364-8662.



Take it from the Top

Candid comments Asolo Rep's Michael Donald Edwards. 

What do you expect from the coming season? I’m looking forward to countering the national trends, having people line up, desperate to see everything we do. We’re opening with a big splashy, dance musical, and I’d love for people to be excited to see it and to talk about it. That would be a great beginning—for us and the community.

If budget were no concern… I would do an entire season of plays about religion, politics and sexuality.

How do you relax? I have a little 1950s bungalow in Indian Beach that’s turned into an oasis. There’s a garden front and back. I feel I’ve reconnected to the natural world. I’m a very urban being. But I was born in Australia, around farming and nature. Sarasota is a resort town, but it has an urban heart. Which is kind of like me.

What about Sarasota has been the biggest adjustment? I’ve always lived where there are thriving gay communities. The gay community is here, but you don’t feel it. I’d love to see that happen. I think it would be good for everyone.

Outside of Asolo Rep, your favorite Sarasota arts experience? I’ve had a good one at all of them. I loved the Don Carlos at the opera—it was musically very strong; it looked great. I really surrendered to that experience.

What theatrical character do you most resemble? Friends in New York tell me, if Dame Edna were a man, that would be me.

What’s your guilty pleasure? At the moment, it’s So You Think You Can Dance. It’s like vaudeville again—people want to watch entertainers.

What are you proudest about? The community is constantly telling me how much they value the theater. That’s the joy of being in a place where you’re not just one of many theaters. No one really thinks of a theater in New York; just of the shows. But here, people identify with the institution.—Hannah Wallace



Untitled by Nancy Hellebrand

For Sarasota photographer Nancy Hellebrand, her task in shooting trees, her current focus, is to “ease into abstraction while never losing the original subject matter.” Hellebrand uses Photoshop to combine images in order to create landscapes not seen in nature, to reach “something not visible, but palpable.” Her works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others; you can see her art up close in her next show at Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art in January. Shown: Untitled #969-967, Trees 2008.

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