Cultural pass program planning under way to encourage children and parents to visit county’s cultural amenities

Idea resulted from community leaders’ trip to Louisville in September, where the president of Ringling College and a county commissioner learned about the success of such a program

Larry Thompson. Image via Twitter
Larry Thompson. Image via Twitter

You might call it an “Ah, ha” moment.

Larry Thompson, president of the Ringling College of Art + Design, was seated next to Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson during the September Louisville Leadership Expedition to Accelerate Progress (LEAP) trip, hosted by the Sarasota County Economic Development Corp., (EDC) when a presentation particularly grabbed their attention, they told The Sarasota News Leader in recent interviews.

As Robinson explained it to her County Commission colleagues on Oct. 13, Louisville, KY, has “a summer arts program for all of [its] students.” Administered through the city’s library system, she continued, it allows each youngster to take one free trip with one adult “to every single participating museum or arts performance” over the summer.

Robinson added, “I think this is a worthy endeavor. [Louisville’s leaders] talked about it in terms of changing kids’ lives and their perspectives, kids that would not normally be able to afford to go into some of these places, which can be quite costly, especially if you have multiple children.”

Robinson won board consensus that day to direct county staff to explore the possibility of starting such a program in this community. “There are a lot of families that can’t afford [visits to arts and cultural venues in Sarasota County],” she pointed out, stressing, “an experience like this could be life-changing.”

Thompson, who is chairman of the board of the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, told the News Leader in a separate interview, “After the [Louisville] presentation, [he and Robinson] spoke for quite a while [about the program], how great it would be [for Sarasota County] … especially in the summer.”

As a result of Robinson’s Oct. 13 comments to her colleagues, efforts are under way to launch such a program in the county in the summer of 2016, the News Leader has learned.

Sarabeth Kalajian. File photo
Sarabeth Kalajian. File photo

On Dec. 1, Sarabeth Kalajian, the county’s director of libraries and historical resources, reported to the board that her staff had “conducted research in the past regarding museum pass programs similar to the Louisville model …” In 2011 and 2012, she continued, a pilot program began, coordinated with the G.WIZ Science Museum on the city of Sarasota’s bayfront; and Historic Spanish Point in Osprey. Families in the county received free passes to visit those facilities, the memo noted. All parties “considered the pilot a success and planned to expand the program” to other cultural attractions, Kalajian wrote in the report. “However, as a result of operational changes with the partner organizations and the eventual closing of [G.WIZ], the distribution of free passes concluded,” she added.

On Nov. 10 of this year, representatives of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, the Arts Education Task Force and Visit Sarasota County, plus EDC staff, reviewed the information from the pilot program, “as well as sample museum pass programs from Louisville and other regions of the country,” Kalajian’s Dec. 1 report said. They also looked at a potential list of local cultural organization partners, the report continued. “There was consensus to explore creating the Sarasota County model.”

Another meeting is set for Jan. 13 “to review a draft participation proposal,” the memo added. That draft will be shared with potential partners during a meeting of the Arts & Cultural Alliance’s board, the memo noted.

Kalajian will provide updates to County Administrator Tom Harmer and the commissioners, she wrote in the report.

A source of support for families

The Ringling is a nationally known art museum. File photo
The Ringling is a nationally known art museum. File photo

“We have some nationally known cultural resources here,” but visiting them can be cost-prohibitive for families, Robinson told the News Leader.

Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts & Cultural Alliance, agreed during an interview with the News Leader. For some families, he said, it is a question of “‘Do we eat well today or do we go out?’”

Some of the arts and cultural organizations in the county experience a decline in the number of visits during the summer, Thompson pointed out, so they would have the capacity for children and parents. The pass program, he added, “would be a great way to expose our young people to all the cultural amenities.”

“A lot of work is yet to be done,” he noted, but planning is moving forward.

“We’re actually working very closely with Sarabeth and others on what kind of program would be most appropriate for Sarasota County,” Shirley told the News Leader. “It’s a very exciting concept.”

Jim Shirley. File photo
Jim Shirley. File photo

Louisville, Shirley noted, “is a very culturally driven town,” but it has more museums, while Sarasota County has “just an unusually strong arts and cultural community.”

Shirley added, “Anything we as a community can do to make arts and culture accessible to the greatest number of people will benefit our community.”

Further, Shirley noted, numerous studies have shown that exposing children to the arts leads to better performance in school, higher graduation rates and a greater likelihood the young people will go on to college. “We’re very supportive of anything we can do to take away barriers [to that exposure].”

During her Oct. 13 remarks to her colleagues, Robinson also pointed out the value of the EDC-sponsored visits to other cities. “There has been public policy born as a result of these trips,” she said, including the Bayfront 20:20 initiative to tie together arts and cultural amenities on the bayfront in downtown Sarasota.

“You get some very interesting ideas,” Thompson told the News Leader, “and you can make connections right away.” His discussion with Robinson about the cultural pass, he added, is “a great example of that.”