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The Scenestress celebrates local arts and culture all-stars

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(Clockwise, from L) Fuzión Dance Artists Rolando Cabrera, Jahrel Thompson, Benjamin Howe, and Guest Artist Duane Scheuneman mingle with the crowd after their thrilling performance at the Arts and Cultural Alliance's Annual Arts Awards.

(Clockwise, from L) Fuzión Dance Artists Rolando Cabrera, Jahrel Thompson, Benjamin Howe, and Guest Artist Duane Scheuneman mingle with the crowd after their thrilling performance at the Arts and Cultural Alliance's Annual Arts Awards.

They couldn't have picked a more picturesque evening than Monday night to recognize champions of Sarasota's arts and cultural scene. The sky glowed orange over rippling azure waters behind the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall (777 N. Tamiami Trl., Sarasota, FL 34236), and the heat of the day had just started to dissipate in the breeze. The only drawback was that I had to go inside to join the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County's annual celebration.

Inside the dim purple recesses of the Van Wezel, I bumped (almost literally) into poet and essayist Alexis Orgerawho had been relaxing her nerves at a pre-celebration VIP reception before she'd accept an Individual Artist Award in Literary Arts up on the big stage. I could see that plenty of audience members had the same idea and were visiting the lobby bar to fill up on wine and cocktails before they filed into the grand hall.

I was impressed to find the seats more than half-full, but then again, I shouldn't have been surprised. Many of the speakers and award-winners who stepped to the podium gushed praise for the quality, diversity and (as the Herald-Tribune's arts coverage team noted with a bit of chagrin while accepting an Arts Leadership Award in Media) the staggering quantity of arts and culture in this relatively small town. The Alliance's Executive Director Jim Shirley dropped some applause-worthy statistics to drive home the point that the arts are the biggest economic driver of our community: Local non-profit arts organizations alone provide about 5,000 full-time jobs, for instance. And did you know that 2.4 million tickets were sold to local arts events in the past year, with 1 million of those purchased by tourists? I didn't, and my jaw just about hit my knees.

Between the awards, we got to see and hear a delightful cross-section of Sarasota arts. The Sarasota Jazz Project kicked it off and got people dancing in their seats. Fuzión Dance Artists collaborated with guest artist Dwayne Scheuneman on a mesmerizing and boundary-crossing quartet titled "Propel," in which Scheuneman's wheelchair at first grabbed the spotlight but eventually seemed to disappear, or rather meld seamlessly into the corps. And I got my second shot of opera this month, with performances by Sarasota Opera studio artists Jennifer Townshend and Jon Jurgens.

It's true that #ilovesarasotaarts, but this dessert station, picked clean minutes after the ceremony,  is a good indicator that we all love some Sarasota desserts as well.

It's true that #ilovesarasotaarts, but this dessert station, picked clean minutes after the ceremony, is a good indicator that we all love some Sarasota desserts as well.

Emotions ran high throughout the entire awards ceremony. Tears started onstage as Iain Webb accepted his award for Artistic Achievement, and there may have been damp eyes in the audience after Shirley announced the early-morning passing of Jerry Roucher, former president of the Jazz Club of Sarasota. The Sarasota Jazz Project's swinging performance gave an uplifting tribute to his legacy.

With so much to celebrate, the ceremony lasted nearly two hours. After the 2013 Cultural Champion Howard Millman delivered his closing joke about the Broadway producer at the pearly gates, (punchline: "There's one problem: God's got a girlfriend, and she sings"), the crowd rose gratefully to their feet and poured into the foyer for desserts and wine. 

The lone table of petit fours didn't stand a chance in the feeding frenzy, but there was more than enough vino to go around. What a scene! Folks from the chamber music club snapped Instagrams with ballet people; theater bigwigs rubbed elbows with art gallery owners. It was pretty cool to just be a fly on the wall and watch the artistic set collide, mingle, and indubitably plant seeds for the next great show.

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Last modified: October 22, 2013
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