The Social Detective

By staff January 1, 2008

Don’t you just love awards? I once got a Raven Award for worst suspense book cover of the year, even though I had nothing to do with it. It took me hours to recover. Of course, it wasn’t as bad as getting a most dysfunctional actress or worst-dressed celebrity award on national TV. One might have some responsibility for that.

In Sarasota we don’t have any “Nastiest” or “Most Lowdown” awards because we’re all so nice, although in a few cases we really should. We do, however, have a lot of leadership awards. If you didn’t happen to receive an award for anything good you might have done lately, you can strive for next year, or be on a panel to award one. And even if you don’t win, you can always celebrate the winners.

This fall, when the Sarasota County Arts Council held its annual Awards Celebration and chose four of my favorite people for Leadership Awards, I was so excited I had my hair done. It was that big a deal. Practically the whole world gathered in the Mertz Theatre on a Monday evening, where the towering set of A Tale of Two Cities brooded in the background. The Celtic Society came out playing the bagpipes, and at first I thought we were in for a funeral, too. But no, bagpipes don’t mean that in Sarasota.

The culture vultures were everywhere. You couldn’t turn around without banging into a few. Sally Faron from La Musica. Ann Logan from the Ballet. All the opera, symphony, and choral people. (I so wish I could sing.) Linda DiGabriele and Michael Edwards from the Asolo, and the whole Arts Council crowd were there. Scores of them. “You can’t be an artist in Sarasota if you’re not a member of the Arts Council,” said the artist sitting next to me. Even Daughters of the American Revolution’s Mary Ann Mcfate and Carolyn Van Helden came to get an award.

Sponsor and Northern Trust President Phil Delaney said the audience was a veritable “who’s who of the art world and represents how the public sector works to sponsor the private.” Tourism Development Cultural/Arts Grants came in at $1,098,553 this year.

Sarasota Magazine publisher Jeff Lawenda explained the circle of commitment to the arts sort of like this. Each arts entity is a partner that enhances Sarasota and benefits the whole community. The Tourism Development grants help individual organizations, but they also promote Sarasota as an arts mecca, bringing tourists to hotels, where they pay bed taxes. It sounded a little seamy, but apparently those bed taxes provide the Arts Council with the revenue we need to pay for the culture we crave.

“Arts are big business in Sarasota, but people don’t give them the respect they deserve as a single industry,” Martine Collier told me at lunch one day. She’s the new executive director of the Arts Council and she gave me the figures.

“According to a 2004 impact study, nonprofit arts are a $122.9 million industry that generates nearly 3,000 full time jobs, and $14.6 million in local and state government revenue in Sarasota County. Art organizations spend $68.6 million annually and leverage an additional $54.3 million in spending by audiences for hotels, restaurants, retail stores, etc,” Martine said. And that was four years ago.

Film, theater, music in myriad forms, the visual arts, circuses, heritage and historical societies, and botanical gardens all operate independently and struggle for the revenue to keep going, “but the Arts Council functions as kind of an umbrella to them, almost as the Chamber of Commerce does for business,” Martine added.

It’s an Arts Council panel that decides how to cut that big pie of tourist development revenue into the grants that are given every year. This year Bill Herman was panel chair, and he said it was no easy task to go through the boxes of grant applications and study every one. The Arts Council also awards Opportunity, Preservation and Artist grants with proceeds from the arts license plates you see around town. Terry Romine, who is a vice president, told us to get out and buy a lot more of them.

Booker Middle School poetry instructor Joanna Hapner brought her seventh- and eighth-grade students, the Dragonfly Café Poets, to read their poems. No clapping allowed, she said, just finger snapping to your heartbeat, which isn’t so easy. The gifted young voices proved why arts education is so important in our schools.

Later, Bill Herman read out the names of the arts organizations that had received grants this year. Twenty-five very important people crowded the stage to wave and be applauded. I have a Homeland Security kind of mind and worried that anyone could have taken out the whole arts scene with one small grenade, but luckily no one wanted to. Then Terry Romine handed out Opportunity Grants. Several recipients didn’t show up to take their checks, so he pocketed them and promised to take wife Susan out for a great dinner. No one believed him, though.

Finally, the moment I was waiting for! Martine Collier presented the Arts Leadership Awards. Ulla Searing, one of the most generous givers in our town, who was written up in the Wall Street Journal only a few days earlier and who turned 95 that very week, received the leadership award for, what else, philanthropy. Margaret Wise won hers for advocacy. Martine said she didn’t know why both of them hadn’t gotten it a long time ago.

Martine quoted Katherine Hepburn to describe Margaret: “If you follow all the rules, you miss all the fun.” Everyone who serves with Margaret on the Sarasota Memorial Hospital Board, the Florida Arts Council or the Asolo Repertory Theatre, of which she is currently president, has learned that even when Margaret doesn’t pronounce it properly, she always knows what she’s talking about. And no ship will ever go down while she’s on it.

Another award winner was Larry Thompson, now in his ninth year as president of Ringling College of Art and Design. Larry had just celebrated a birthday, too, and had recently received the American Jewish Committee Civic Achievement Award. His head looked exactly the same size as last year, however, and his wife, Pat, vowed to keep it that way. A past president of the Arts Council, Larry won for Arts in Education, and Martine aptly quoted Elvis Presley: “’Ambition is a dream with a V-8 engine,’ and Larry has his foot planted firmly on the gas.”

Cliff Roles cut out every rival in the Media Award department. Martine said Cliff was the first person to welcome her when she arrived in town this year. She had to go on his radio show and talk about her vision. Cliff played every one of his alter egos—ringmaster, auctioneer, actor, radio host and columnist—in his thank-you speech.

Then there was the surprise hit of the evening, performances by actor Jessi Blue Gormezano and husband/wife producing team of A Tale of Two Cities, Ron Sharpe and Barbara Russell. Jessi acted, Ron and Barbara sang, and bam, they blew us away.  

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