State of SMOA

By Kay Kipling Photography by Ted Mase January 1, 2011

In a previous life, Sarasota Museum of Art (SMOA) president Wendy Surkis built a one-office New York advertising agency into an international company with 18 branches and more than $100 million in sales. Now she’s embraced the challenge of raising $22 million ($14 million for renovation, $8 million for endowment) to get SMOA, a new modern art museum on the grounds of the venerable Sarasota High School building, up and running. Surkis and the SMOA board are halfway to that goal already, having raised $11.7 million in the past three years. We talked with Surkis about SMOA.

Q. How did you get involved in SMOA?

A. I came to Sarasota in 1999 for a three-day weekend and ended up moving here full-time, and I’ve been involved since its inception. The first real push came from David Kruidenier [a member of the Cowles Publishing Company family], who was friendly with [board members] Dick and Linda Dickinson. He said to Linda, “I can’t believe this cultural community doesn’t have a modern and contemporary art museum.” So Linda put together a few people, and at a second meeting I was asked to come. That was in 2003.

Q. Where did the seed money come from?

A. The Kruideniers presented a $100,000 challenge grant. Since then we’ve been raising money from people like me—transplants who are art collectors and enthusiasts and who see the value of this asset to the community.

What are your donors like?

A. People give for multiple reasons. For some, the museum is a big part of it; for others it’s about preserving an icon of Sarasota’s heritage with this Collegiate Gothic building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places; others love the idea of leaving a legacy. Within the last year, we’ve started engaging with Sarasota High alumni.

Q. Tell us about the building itself.

A. The high school building now has two full floors, with a half floor on the third. Our design plan, which covers 57,000 square feet of space, will have Ringling College continuing education programs and classes on the first and third floors, with the second floor providing approximately 22,000 square feet of exhibition space. What’s wonderful is that people at the museum level will be able to look down through the windows and see people actually making art in the space below. We’ll also have an outdoor sculpture garden and a café, plus plenty of parking.

Q. You’ve kept the buzz going with new banners and signage on the building recently, and also with the ARTmuse program, where you bring in visiting artists.

A. Yes, we had Judy Pfaff here with her master printer, making one of her oversize prints. Later this month we’ll have glass sculptor Seth Randall demonstrating how he uses the lost wax process. We invite donors at a certain level to these events. We’re also bringing in someone from the curatorial staff at the Jewish Museum in New York next month, and in March the vice mayor and alderman of culture and tourism from Antwerp, Belgium, will speak about how valuable museums are to a community and how they impact a city.

Q. Any particular focus to the exhibitions SMOA will present?

A. Art of the 20th and 21st century. What’s great is that we have some double-height spaces that will allow art of all kinds of sizes, including some installations. We’ll start off with traveling shows from various museums, and eventually will hire professionals who will curate shows here that move to other places. And also eventually, we can collect.

Q. Is there any time frame for opening the doors?

A. In an ideal world, we’d reach our fund-raising goal by 2012 and start the renovation in 2013. We have the design and know what we want to do, so once we have the money it will take 14-18 months. And once we reach the three-quarter point of our goal, we can apply for grants from major organizations like the Kresge Foundation. We’re getting closer every day, and I’m delighted and grateful because of the people who’ve stepped forward.

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