As we continue coping with COVID-19 while also preparing for its long-lasting impacts, it’s no surprise that Sarasota’s arts and cultural community is out in front, leading our wider community forward. From safely restoring the vitality of an important economic sector to reckoning with inequities that extend far beyond our community, the arts have shined in a well-suited role: regional leader.
Arts organizations were among the hardest hit by the dual health and economic crises of the past 18 months. Dark stages, shuttered box offices, and canceled fundraisers threatened business models and hit artists and employees where it hurt. But ever the creative innovators, arts groups large and small responded with gusto, pivoting to outdoor shows, virtual events, and more as a means to sustain themselves and provide much-needed joy to others.
The approach of this fall’s performance season saw Sarasota arts leaders again act decisively. Nine major players—all recent recipients of Gulf Coast Community Foundation Arts Appreciation Grants—developed and announced the #SafeArtsSarasota health and safety protocols.
The organizations recognized that they must operate at greater capacity this year to remain viable. Doing so requires the safest possible environment for patrons and for artists and staff alike. The robust new indoor safety measures allow and ensure just that. Adopting the guidelines was a business decision, and it was the right thing to do.
“Internally, we’ve all done so much on our air and ventilation systems, asking our staffs to be fully vaccinated, having our staffs and our actors and musicians wear masks,” says Julie Leach, executive director of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe (WBTT). “Everybody wants the same end result—we want our fun and normal work and social lives back—and we’re trying to chart a path toward that.”
The #SafeArtsSarasota initiative exemplifies the collaborative spirit of our region’s arts organizations.
While nine presenting houses announced the protocols, many more organizations—including visual and cultural arts groups—quickly joined, adopting the same or similar measures for their own facilities and events. Brendan Ragan, co-artistic director of Urbanite Theatre, credits the original groups with “doing the legwork in figuring out the way to ensure safe spaces without skirting any legal boundaries. I applaud them so much for doing that.”
Urbanite, a daring black-box theater that debuted in 2015, was born of the collaborative and supportive nature of Sarasota’s arts community. Co-founders Ragan and Summer Dawn Wallace are graduates of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training. “We’re obviously drafting on a lot of their wakes,” Ragan acknowledges of established institutions. “The culture here was thriving long before we opened.” But Urbanite has successfully tapped into that culture while filling a niche and lifting up bold new voices.
Besides an “extraordinary relationship with Asolo Rep,” Ragan says, Urbanite has been helped out a lot by WBTT, partnered last summer with The Hermitage Artist Retreat, and even rented housing from Sarasota Opera. Two playwrights whose work it’s producing this year are Hermitage fellows.
“It’s different here,” Ragan says of Sarasota. “Organizations welcome more organizations with open arms. They see it as, ‘We’re going to draw more people to Sarasota.’ There’s a strong sense of shared collaboration.”
Also shared is a collective interest in expanding diversity—from stage to seats to back of house.
“It starts with the stages for us,” says Ragan. “We want our stages to reflect the diversity of both our community and the country.” He adds, “That effort will remove some of the barriers for new audience members. Ultimately, we want to influence and support the industry in such a way that allows us to further diversify our administrative staff as well.”
Many #SafeArtsSarasota partners are blazing trails to meet the needs and reflect the character of our increasingly diverse region.
- CreArte Latino Cultural Center, a self-dubbed “cultural exchange channel between Latinos/Hispanics and the community at large,” is committed to bringing the arts to more of our neighbors while offering new opportunities to local artists and Hispanic artists from around the world.
- The Circus Arts Conservatory brings the diversity that thrives in the circus arts to children in our community who might not know circus. “We foster equity through our diverse programming,” says Pedro Reis, President/CEO of the CAC. “Students thrive and succeed in ways they never thought possible.”
- Asolo Rep’s long-running Kaleidoscope program celebrates the unique voice of neurodivergent individuals and individuals with disabilities. [email protected] Rep supports and engages the LGBTQIA+ community through the power of theater.
WBTT just opened its fall season with EUBIE!, a toe-tapping revue of songs by legendary composer and ragtime pianist Eubie Blake, “the father of Black Broadway.” It was the inaugural show staged by WBTT in its first full season in the early 2000s.
“You can hear contemporary shows in the music,” says performer Vallea E. Woodbury. “Even though a lot of people don’t know the name, everyone knows the music.” Adds director and WBTT education director Jim Weaver, “It’s actually being revived on Broadway—that’s what I’ve heard. So, timing wise, Westcoast got the rights to do this show just in time!”
Yet another example of the unique blend of heritage and innovation, gravity and celebration, and business and creativity that colors Sarasota’s cultural community.