Poor old Florida. The enchanted land of eternal sunshine, glowing with gold from wealthy Northern retirees, has turned into the nation’s nightmare—deserted subdivisions filled with foreclosed homes, shuttered stores, and jobless workers speeding as fast as they can towards the northern border. This summer, we were even called "a broken-down piece of meat," like "Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler," by no less an arbiter than The New York Times.
Yes, times are tough, including here in Sarasota, where unemployment has hit 13 percent, population has declined for the first time in decades, and the legendary Gulf-front Colony Resort just filed for bankruptcy. But we have something that other Florida cities don’t, and if we build on it and broadcast it, it can help us weather this crisis and rise again. That "something" is our cultural life, and this special issue on the arts is proof positive of how rich it is. From our comprehensive cultural calendar to stories about the ballet, film festival, top tickets and more, it’s clear that from November to May, Sarasota is an ongoing festival of every kind of performance, lecture and exhibition imaginable.
We Sarasotans know this. Last year, in a survey conducted by the city, residents ranked "the opportunity to attend cultural events" as one of the top things they liked about Sarasota.
(And for those who insist that arts are only for the elite, it’s worth noting that 64 percent of those respondents have annual household incomes below $50,000.)
And even in these tough times, the arts attract visitors and newcomers to Sarasota. We hear it all the time. A few weeks ago, a real estate broker confided that a major Broadway producer just bought a house here—"because of our arts." Sarasota Convention and Visitor’s Bureau head Virginia Haley tells us that tourists choose Sarasota over other beachfront Florida towns—"because of the arts." And gloomy Deerfield Beach real estate analyst Jack McCabe, whose dark predictions about Florida’s future are all over the national media, recently told our Biz941 editor, Susan Burns, that he planned to leave the east coast for either Carmel, Calif., Maui—or Sarasota. Why Sarasota? One big reason: "the culture."
We get the message, but not everybody does. Our tourism marketing budget is puny compared to many other Florida cities, so arts lovers who don’t know what we have to offer choose other places—like Daytona Beach, which has started marketing itself as an arts destination. With all due respect—Daytona Beach?
But somebody in that city with a drag strip on the beach has figured out that culture sells these days, and not just to tourists. Culture is a key ingredient in "quality of life," that elusive factor that’s long been Sarasota’s claim to fame. In the new technological age, where communities are competing for smart workers and companies, quality of life outweighs factors that used to be more important, like cost of living or even the available labor pool, says Peter Katz, Sarasota County’s new "smart growth" director.
Sarasota’s most passionate preacher for the gospel of creativity and culture in the new world economy may be Larry Thompson, president both of Ringling College of Art and Design and the recently reconstituted Sarasota County Arts Council. He gets frustrated that more of our local officials aren’t true believers. Some "get it," he says, but too often, officials’ reaction to ambitious initiatives that he and other cultural leaders are trying to make happen is, "Isn’t that nice?"
Contrast that with what’s happened in places where the government actively supports the arts. In Asheville, N.C., the city helped turn a parking lot into a vibrant farmers’ and artists’ market that’s become a popular destination for visitors. Closer to home, in St. Petersburg, several city council members persuaded a landowner who'd bought a stalled development to rent out the empty old buildings at bargain rates to artists. More than 120 applied for space in three days, and now instead of a stretch of vacant space, downtown St. Petersburg is growing a cool new hotspot.
And if ever the arts could use some help, it’s now. Thompson says most of our cultural groups were already "disciplined" in their budgeting before the recession. Now, with state funding shrinking by 90 percent in the last three years and a drop in private donations, they’re making deeper cuts—and he believes it’s showing. "When arts groups depend on ticket sales, they start relying on what’s popular," he says. "But creating new work and being on the forefront is what an arts city is all about. The quality of our arts is already eroding—there are fewer new works, fewer performances, fewer things for kids, less outreach."
Sarasota County does fund some arts programs that attract tourists with grants from a percentage of the tourism tax, but Thompson believes we need to do more. He’d like to see us "shore up and stabilize" arts groups with a designated source of government funding for operations.
"Not going to happen," scoffs county administrator Jim Ley. "In this economy? And people don’t support it." When the county polls citizens about what they’re willing to pay taxes for, Ley says, "Arts ranks at the bottom, if it comes up at all." His message to arts groups who want more public money: "It’s your job to go out and sell that to your 380,000 friends and neighbors."
That’s a tall order—but it’s not impossible. Arts supporters have done just that in many other places. In 1989, Denver voters agreed to have one-tenth of one percent of sales taxes go to arts groups. Citizens and leaders believe that a vibrant cultural life is essential to Denver’s prosperity, and they gave the arts $40 million last year—mostly for operations. Orlando supports the arts with a small percentage of property taxes; other communities enact a special tax on entertainment and sports tickets. In Shreveport, La., riverboat casinos pay a percentage of their profits to sustain the arts.
Proposing new taxes in a terrible economy may seem crazy, but we give financial incentives to businesses that bring new jobs and revenues here. If strong cultural assets, from dance companies to creative sector businesses, could help us reshape our economy, isn’t it worth investing in them? Clearly, Sarasotans appreciate what we have here in the arts, and we all know they are a powerful attractor. But we can’t take them for granted: Like our beaches or our wildlife, they need our protection and support. Besides, Thompson argues, hard times require bold moves. "Now is the time to start something new and different," he says.
Other bold new moves? We could guarantee that every student has at least one arts experience a year, he suggests, branding ourselves as the city where students grow up in the arts. We could make more out of being a creative college town, encouraging the growth of a lively student district along the North Trail, with bookstores, cafes, restaurants and galleries. Thompson even envisions growing "a creativity institute" here, a teaching and research center that would establish us as the creative capital of Florida and attract a steady stream of smart and interesting people.
Ideas like these are exciting, but it takes public focus—and investment—to turn them into reality. Our town has always been great at attracting new talent and coming up with new ideas, but not so good at agreeing on a vision and making it happen. Maybe it’s time we got really creative about working together to enhance and promote our precious cultural assets.