Arts Capital - June 2011

By Charlie Huisking June 1, 2011

Turning Town Hall Into a No-Spin Zone For 28 years, the Ringling College Library Association has presented an impressive list of distinguished speakers in its Town Hall series.

The roster includes poet Maya Angelou, scientist Jane Goodall, humanitarian Elie Wiesel, journalists Bill Moyers and William Safire and statesmen and political figures like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Mikhail Gorbachev and Rudy Giuliani.

So does Bill O’Reilly belong on that list?

Most members of a capacity audience at the Van Wezel apparently thought so. They applauded in March when the Fox News host’s name was announced, along with the rest of the 2012 speakers. A few people around me groaned, however. And I share their disappointment.

It’s not because O’Reilly works for a right-wing network. Even though I’m a political liberal, I’ve happily attended Town Hall lectures by such conservatives as William F. Buckley, George Will and the aforementioned Safire.

I like to have my views challenged.

But those were thoughtful men of substance and stature. Sure, O’Reilly is a skilled communicator, and his program is the top-rated cable news show. But to me, he’s a bully and a provocateur rather than a serious journalist.

 I was particularly irked by his crusade against Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller, whom he labeled “Tiller the Baby-Killer.” On 29 episodes of his show, O’Reilly demonized Tiller, who was murdered by an anti-abortion activist in Wichita in 2009. I’m not saying O’Reilly’s rants influenced the gunman, but he does contribute to what I think is a dangerously overheated political environment.

That being said, Kristine Nickel, the chairman of the 2012 Town Hall committee, offered a compelling rationale for picking O’Reilly when I spoke with her. First, she says, her committee wanted the line-up to be diverse, and to address topics that subscribers had mentioned most often in surveys: education, economics, international relations and politics.

Those goals were definitely met in the line-up, which begins with former first lady Laura Bush and includes Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics. Tina Brown, the editor of the newly merged Newsweek/The Daily Beast, will speak at the association’s Platinum Dinner.

While those speakers will be addressing different topics, their tone will be similar, Nickel says. In completing the line-up, “We wanted someone to speak to the political process we will all be consumed with next spring. We thought O’Reilly would provide insight into the primaries, be lively and entertaining. The reviews on him from other speaking engagements were excellent. I think Town Hall audiences like listening to different viewpoints.” Nickel says the overall response to the 2012 slate has been extremely positive.

Some of my friends tell me I’m overreacting. They argue that O’Reilly is simply an entertainer. And they point out that he’s not in the Glenn Beck league of rabble-rousing.

Well, that’s a backhanded compliment. But at least I have nine months to decide whether I’ll enter O’Reilly’s “No-Spin Zone” or leave my seats empty as a silent protest.

High Time for New Director Steven High begins his tenure as executive director of the Ringling Museum of Art this month. But he’s already getting to know the movers and shakers in the community. A few weeks ago, High was in town to attend a welcome party at the bayfront condo of museum supporter Tana Sandefur. A host of Ringling board members and community leaders were there, as was Sally McRorie, dean of the college of visual arts, theater and dance at Florida State University, which operates the museum.

Cliff Walters, head of the search committee that selected High, joked that serving on the committee was difficult because each member had a different idea of what qualifications the new leader should have. “One member said we needed to find an executive director who went to Antioch College and Williams College, while another said the candidate must have an MBA,” Walters said. “Another said we had to have someone who had run a multi-faceted institution.”

The punchline, of course, was that High fulfills all of those requirements. The Antioch and Williams grad has an M.B.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University, and comes here from the Telfair Museums in Savannah, a complex made up of three institutions.

The affable High told the audience that it had been difficult to decide to leave Savannah. But staring out the window at the sailboats bobbing in the bay below, he said he knew he was going to be happy in Sarasota.

Music Festival A Summer Highlight Just when you thought the cultural season was winding down, here comes the Sarasota Music Festival.

Fifty-eight top music students will spend the first three weeks in June studying and performing with a renowned faculty of guest artists. The festival opens June 2 and continues through June 18; don’t miss the student recitals June 5, 12 and 17 at Holley Hall. At $10, they’re a bargain. And artistic director Robert Levin’s witty lectures about the festival programs, always a highlight, are scheduled for June 3 and 10 at Holley Hall.

Contemporary Season For the Banyan The Banyan Theater Company’s seasons usually include at least one classic play by such writers as Ibsen or O’Neill. But for its 10th anniversary this summer, the company focuses on contemporary works by living playwrights.

The season opens June 30 with Becky’s New Car, a romantic comedy by Steven Dietz that will be directed by former artistic director Gil Lazier, and will feature Banyan regular Geraldine Librandi in the lead role.

Running from July 21-Aug. 7 is Animals Out of Paper by Rajiv Joseph, whose Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo recently opened on Broadway. Described as uplifting, the play uses the Japanese art of origami as a metaphor for life.

The final play, running Aug. 11-28, is Kiss the Moon, Kiss the Sun, by Canadian playwright Norm Foster. It’s the story of a brain-damaged man who forms an unlikely friendship with a woman facing her own challenges in life.

For more information, go to

Asolo and Ballet Collaborate Did you notice that whimsical backdrop of the New York City skyline in the Sarasota Ballet’s recent production of Balanchine’s Who Cares? It was created by the scene shop of the Asolo Rep, the ballet’s fellow tenant in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts. The representative of the Balanchine Trust, who was in town to help stage the piece, said it was one of the finest backdrops she’d ever seen—a high compliment from someone who has staged Who Cares? all over the world. And the ballet’s executive director, Michael Shelton, relayed that compliment to the Asolo’s producing artistic director, Michael Edwards, during intermission. 

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