About That Festival Funding

By staff January 29, 2010

A compromise for Ringling Festival.

By Charlie Huisking

A creative compromise has helped allay the concerns local arts leaders had about the funding for the Ringling International Arts Festival. But some wariness remains.

Earlier this week, the Sarasota County Commission passed a resolution allocating $250,000 to the second annual festival in October. Half the money is coming from a $1 million Tourist Tax arts fund surplus, with the rest from a Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau promotional fund.

The first festival, a partnership between the Ringling Museum of Art and the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, brought in dancers, actors and musicians from around the world. The festival was a huge success, with 90 percent of the available 12,000 tickets sold. The event generated a large amount of international publicity for Sarasota, including a big spread in the magazine Time Out London.

Originally, the festival was planned as a biennial event. However, because it was so popular, organizers decided to bring it back in 2010. Former state Sen. John McKay, the event’s principal backer, asked local governments in Sarasota and Manatee to contribute a total of $700,000 to the budget. He requested $250,000 from the Tourist Tax arts surplus.

But that didn’t sit well with the arts community, since the arts fund surplus (which resulted from a change in accounting procedures for the Tourist Tax program) was supposed to be reserved for a festival or other projects that would promote local arts groups, not visiting arts troupes.

“In difficult economic times like this, when every arts organization is feeling strained, and we need any help we can get, it is hard to see a piece of the funding used for something else,” Victor DeRenzi, Sarasota Opera’s artistic director, said when the issue first came up.

A steering committee, appointed by the county to help determine how the $1 million should be spent, initially deadlocked 4-4 on the Ringling Festival request. Members representing the tourism industry voted yes, while those with ties to the arts community voted no.

Committee member Bruce Rodgers, executive director o f the Hermitage Artist Retreat, told McKay that he appreciated his passion and enthusiasm for the festival. But Rodgers said he was bothered that the festival hadn’t supplied the committee with extensive budget information. He noted that the local arts groups who apply for Tourist Tax money have to go through an extensive grant application process.

“You’re not going through the process we all do when we ask for taxpayer money,” Rodgers said. “You’re asking us it to give it to the [Ringling Museum] just by saying that it’s a good idea.”

Rodgers proposed a compromise: that only $125,000 come from the Tourist Tax fund, with the other half coming from the county’s general fund. Rodgers also recommended that the funding be approved only after festival organizers provide extensive budget documentation, as well as a plan to reduce the festival’s reliance on government support. Rodgers also suggested that the festival get a commitment from the Baryshnikov Center for its long-term interest in the event.

The Rodgers compromise was basically the plan approved by the County Commission this week, except that $125,000 will now come from the CVB promotional fund rather than the county’s general fund, thanks to an offer from CVB head Virginia Haley..

The county’s resolution also urged the festival to involve local arts organizations in the event as much as possible. That may be difficult with the festival scheduled for October, when most local arts groups haven’t begun their seasons.

At the steering committee meeting, Gretchen Serrie, the former executive director of the Sarasota Orchestra, asked McKay if Mikhail Baryshnikov was open to changing the date of the next festival to April 2011, to give local arts groups more time to play a meaningful role.

McKay bridled at that suggestion, saying, “I’m not about to tell the greatest dancer of the 20th century what he can and cannot do.” But later he said a shift to another time of the year might be possible for future festivals.

McKay has high hopes for the event, saying it could become “the greatest arts festival in the world, and certainly in the United States.” He compares its potential to that of Spoleto, the renowned arts festival in Charleston.

I hear that some festival backers have complained privately that the arts officials who have raised questions are nay-sayers who don’t see the big picture. Some arts leaders, on the other hand, feel festival organizers were arrogant and condescending

Most arts leaders I’ve talked to wish the festival well. But they want to remind government and tourism leaders that it’s the local organizations that make Sarasota the culturally vital year-round destination that it is.


Midnight Train to the Van Wezel

I’m not sure if the Pips are coming, but legendary soul singer Gladys Knight will be the headliner for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall’s ninth annual gala on Feb. 14. Gala tickets ($275 and $500) will include a cocktail party and silent auction, a catered dinner in the Grand Foyer by Michael’s on East, preferred seating for the concert, and a Tribute to Motown after-party. Proceeds from the event will benefit the hall’s educational programs.

Known as the Empress of Soul, Knight led one of the most successful groups in R&B history. Look for her to sing such hits as “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and “Neither One of Us.” For tickets and more information, call the Van Wezel’s Jennifer Wilson, 366-5011.


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