Arts and Cultural Alliance executive director updates county Tourist Development Council members on how community organizations are contending with the COVID-19 pandemic

Applications due Feb. 26 for next set of county grants to arts and cultural organizations

Jim Shirley. File photo

Given the continued constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, the executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County recently told members of the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC), “We are doing everything we can to keep the arts in front of people to keep people engaged.”

“The arts organizations were among the first hit hard, and they’re going to be the last back in the door, particularly … the performing arts,” Jim Shirley said during the Jan. 14 TDC meeting.

As of that point, he emphasized, “We have not lost any arts and cultural organizations, and I don’t think we’re going to.”

All of them in the county, he continued, are “working really hard” to stay in touch with their patrons and donors. For example, Shirley said, many of the organizations have been presenting performances via live streaming, which enables patrons all over the country to watch the programs.

Sarasota Opera will be live-streaming its 2021 Winter Spring Festival productions, he pointed out. (A slide Shirley showed the TDC members also noted that the Opera would be limiting in-house audiences to about 20% of capacity, or slightly fewer than 300, compared to the approximately 1,100 it can seat within its downtown Sarasota theater.)

“Any show that takes place [in person] is socially distanced,” Shirley continued. Leaders of the various organizations have been investigating all possible options, he said, for outdoor sites, “and, fortunately, we have great parks available. … This is a great example of where the community can come together.”

He further noted, “The No. 1 priority for all groups is patron safety and safety of the performers.”

Among the outdoor events that have been held, he said, have been Urbanite Theatre’s Outdoor Reading Series. (Urbanite announced this week that it would hold a staged reading of Sam & Lizzie, by Emily Kaczmarek, at 5 and 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 13 at the Hermitage Artist Retreat on Manasota Key in Englewood and at 6 p.m. on Feb. 14 at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in downtown Sarasota.)

An audience is seated on the beach at the Hermitage Artist Retreat for an Urbanite Theatre reading. Image courtesy Urbanite Theatre

Sailor Circus, which is part of the Circus Arts Conservatory, “had some really strong shows” during the holiday period, Shirley told the TDC members. “They had good attendance at each show,” he said, though the audiences were smaller than usual.

Moreover, he continued, the Asolo Repertory Theatre had what he called “one of the success stories,” when its staff extended a stage from the front terrace of the building, so the interior of the structure became the backstage area.

The Tampa Bay Times noted in a review that the December cabaret-style holiday concert was the first live performance for the Asolo Rep since March 2020.

“They seated an audience in the parking lot and distanced them,” Shirley told the TDC members on Jan. 14. “People loved it; [it was] very, very well attended [and] the actors and actresses felt good about doing it.”

However, even with the precautions taken at socially distanced outdoor events, Shirley acknowledged, concern remains that someone could catch the virus.

He noted that, a few months ago, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe held a production in an outdoor venue, but one of the performers ended up testing positive for COVID-19 afterward. Of course, Shirley added, no one could be certain that the performer caught the virus at that event. Still, he stressed, “Very, very conservative” is the approach all the arts and cultural groups are taking.

Shirley also reported that Pedro Reis, founder and president and CEO of the Circus Arts Conservatory, had told him that that organization’s staff was watching preliminary ticket sales for its usual Big Top season before determining whether enough revenue could be generated to make the shows worthwhile.

(As it turned out, the Circus Arts Conservatory announced that it would have to cancel the season, as “COVID-19 is still having a huge and negative impact.” A news release pointed to “health and safety and financial considerations” as the reasons for the decision. “Also canceled is Cirque des Voix® — Circus of the Voices, the annual collaboration of the CAC and Key Chorale,” the release said, noting that the organization’s annual Circus Arts Gala and its Circus Sarasota show “are the largest annual income generators for the nonprofit. This will be the first year in its history that Circus Sarasota will not present a winter show.”)

(In the release, Reis pointed out, “‘As we were monitoring the COVID-19 crisis over these last several weeks, we considered the unpredictability of travel, the safety and comfort of our artists and patrons as well as the long-term survival of our nonprofit efforts. … It is clear that the institution cannot shoulder the projected financial burden due to the [forecast] drop in ticket revenue. This unfortunate cancellation is necessitated by our ultimate goal to ensure that Circus Sarasota continues to inspire audiences and artists for generations to come.’”)

The Circus Sarasota Big Top stands on property near the Mall at University Town Center in 2020. Image courtesy Circus Arts Conservatory

During his remarks to the Tourist Development Council members, Shirley also talked of the fact that the Sarasota Orchestra is limiting its audiences at its Holley Hall venue to 20% of capacity, with other performances scheduled for outdoor venues, including Benderson Park.

In response to a question from Sarasota Mayor Hagen Brody, a new member of the TDC, Shirley explained that after the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, he was part of a group that surveyed seating capacities in each venue, such as the city’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on North Tamiami Trail. The members of the group applied a social distancing formula, Shirley continued, to come up with capacity figures.

A positive consequence of the pandemic

One positive consequence of the pandemic, Shirley continued, has been a bigger focus on visual arts in the community. Thanks to a financial commitment from the City of Sarasota, he said, “a great murals program” has been underway in the city. The most recent example to go up, he noted, is at the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce offices, which are located at 1945 Fruitville Road in Sarasota.

That artwork recognizes the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Chamber, Shirley said, “and it is a spectacular mural. … It’s about two-thirds done.”

A still from a Jan. 5 video posted on the Facebook page of the Arts and Cultural Alliance shows work underway on the mural. Image courtesy Arts and Cultural Alliance via Facebook

Not only can people stop to take a look at it, he pointed out, but, thanks to technology courtesy of the Ringling College of Art + Design, members of the public can enjoy what he called “integrative reality”: They can use their smartphones to click on part of the mural; then, they will be referred to the history of the Chamber.

This is one of the initial uses of that technology with visual arts in Sarasota, he noted.

Additionally, thanks to the efforts of TDC member and North Port Mayor Jill Luke, artists are at work on the first mural in North Port, Shirley said.

The Fiscal Year 2022 arts grants cycle

Looking ahead, Shirley also explained that his staff has been working with arts and cultural organizations interested in applying for the annual grants the County Commission provides with funding generated by the county’s 5% Tourist Development Tax on accommodations rented for six months or less time.

In July, 2020, the commission approved $1,669,300 in grants to 39 entities.

During a July 8, 2020 presentation to the commissioners, Shirley explained that the benchmark the National Assembly for State Arts Agencies has set for success in communities is for tourists to make up 30% of the attendees at arts and cultural events. The Arts and Cultural Alliance has projected that the number of visitors attending programs that won Sarasota County grants for the 2021 fiscal year would represent 62% of the total attendees, he said.

“The arts are a major influence on people coming here,” Shirley told the commissioners.

This slide, shown to the TDC members on Jan. 14, offers details about the latest grant application process. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A county formula dictates the portion of Tourist Development Tax revenue that can be used for the grants.

Information sessions related to the upcoming round of grants were conducted in December 2020, Shirley told the TDC members on Jan. 14, with applications due at 5 p.m. on Feb. 26.

Those grants, he emphasized, will assist organizations with putting on productions during the 2022 fiscal year, which will begin Oct. 1 and end on Sept. 30, 2022.

After the Feb. 26 deadline, he continued, the members of the Grant Panel, which operates on behalf of the Arts and Cultural Alliance, will review all the applications and then make their recommendations on the awards.

Asked whether he expected the number of applications to be comparable to figures in recent years, Shirley replied that, based on what he had seen, it might be higher. The key, he noted, will be figuring out ways the organizations can meet their commitment to draw a sufficient number of visitors to the county in return for the grant funds.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time with the groups, one-on-one,” Shirley added. “People are optimistic.”

At the conclusion of Shirley’s presentation, TDC Vice Chair Norman Schimmel of Sarasota pointed out that he has been getting almost daily communications from arts and cultural organizations in the community, which provide updates on their activities. “So just compliments on the communication going out,” Schimmel told Shirley.

“Most of these organizations have very active communications and public relations groups,” Shirley replied. Additionally, he said, Visit Sarasota County (VSC), the county’s tourism office, has “been phenomenal” in assisting with promoting the arts and cultural groups. “We’re doing everything we can to stay visible.”