After 13 years as the executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, Jim Shirley has announced he will retire at the end of December 2022.
Shirley assumed leadership in 2009 of what was then called the Arts Council, founded in 1986 to serve as the umbrella organization for all arts and culture institutions in the county. The mission of the Alliance includes being the chief advocate for all facets of the arts in the community, including arts education for all children in our schools. The Alliance also administers the Tourist Development Tax Arts Grant program for Sarasota County, in addition to other granting programs supporting arts organizations and individual artists throughout the region. These programs have resulted in more than $45 million in funding for the cultural community in Sarasota County.
Although Shirley has been a widely known public figure in and around the arts community here, his career before heading up the Alliance was very different. he was involved in both pharmaceuticals and medical equipment sales here and in Atlanta. His work with nonprofits in Sarasota began when he volunteered on a capital campaign to raise funds for the Olympic pool at the then-YMCA’s Selby Aquatic Center. He went on to work with Sailor Circus (then under the umbrella of the Police Athletic League) before joining the Alliance.
We asked Shirley a few “exit interview” questions about the Alliance’s past, present and future, as well as his own personal plans. (Hint: He likes to fish.)
Why retirement now?
"Well, I’m 74, and my wife, Barbara, also just retired in June. [She has been a public school principal in Sarasota County for many years.] Also, the Alliance as an organization is looking toward a new strategic plan, for the next five to 10 years. It seemed to me time to step out and let a new leader take charge."
What have been some of the best and worst times for the Alliance?
"When I started as executive director, over about four years there had been three directors, so no really solid leadership, and it was in some pretty tough financial shape. I don’t have a background in the arts, but I do have a background in management. So when Larry Thompson [Ringling College president and longtime Alliance board member] called me and asked if I might take over, I said I’d do that. The people who had been in that position didn’t really know many people in the community; you have to have that to get things done.
"For the first two years, we restructured the board so that everybody on it needed to be the CEO or executive director of an arts group. In hindsight that was a good move, but it also meant they didn’t have much time for volunteering. After that, we changed the board again so that a portion was from arts and cultural organizations, but we also had others from the business world to get more management help.
"One thing I’m proud of is that I think we’ve helped solidify thinking that we need an organization like the Alliance to be present at all times, not just onstage. There are a lot of politicians who don’t go to the arts. I wanted us to be the voice at all levels, and that included our school systems, our libraries. It’s also satisfying to me how we worked with small and emerging organizations to give them counsel and advice. We also were able to show business leaders, through our arts and economic prosperity studies, the impact the arts have here--$300 million a year."
What are the challenges for the Alliance’s future?
"The ongoing struggle is you have to help people understand when they ask, 'Why donate?' We don’t sell tickets or products; one of our major sources of income is our members. And that’s what gives us more impact when I talk to [governmental] leaders; they understand they need to pay attention to those voters.
"The pandemic has obviously had a major effect on the arts community, but they’ve done a fabulous job of coming back. Still, there will continue to be new habits and new ways of doing business.
And what are your personal plans?
"Barbara and I sold the home we’ve had on Siesta Key for 30 years and bought a condo, so we can take trips more easily whenever we want to. But I seriously don’t think we will disappear. We will still want to be involved with projects that interest us here."