It wasn’t all that long ago when the Annual Arts Celebration put on by the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County struggled to fill small theater spaces.
You could count on seeing the die-hard arts supporters and the leaders of different organizations who were expected to attend to receive ceremonial, diploma-like scrolls acknowledging the tourist tax grants their groups were receiving for the year.
There were some touching moments when a handful of people were honored for major contributions to the arts, followed by a small reception.
So, it’s nice to see how it’s grown over the years and to realize that this year’s event attracted well more than 1,000 people to the performance and awards ceremony at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Sure, the tickets are free and there’s a little wine and dessert afterward (if you’re quick enough before the cookies disappear). But there’s a genuine feeling of support and love for the arts among the audience members, who now include lots of people who aren’t actually involved in producing or presenting.
They’re the patrons, the key ingredient who keep the entire arts community humming.
The event is a sort of kick-off to the arts season and a clear reminder of all the variety and great work that is put on by dozens of organizations and hundreds of artists, performers and technical people, both professional and amateur.
I’m not saying all these nice things just because my arts-reporting colleagues Susan Rife and Carrie Seidman and I were honored with this year’s Arts Leadership Award for Media. We like to think we’re good reporters, but everyone involved in our selection worked to keep it a surprise until shortly before we took our seats for the presentation.
When our turn came to accept the teardrop-shaped trophy, it really hit me about how thankful we all should be to live in a community with so much art, music, theater and dance, and other forms of artistic expression that make this a culturally vibrant community.
What would this community be without the arts? Just another beach town with nice weather? They’re the reason many of us chose to live here. It’s what kept me here after I was initially hired at the Herald-Tribune as an assistant city editor. I had no idea at the time that there was so much of a cultural life. And it’s only grown stronger in the last three decades.
The arts help to define the Sarasota area, to give it an edge and make it special.
Susan, Carrie and I are lucky because without all the arts groups we write about, we wouldn’t have jobs. But I think it’s safe to say that these are more than jobs to us. We each have the same kind of passion about the arts organizations we cover (and get to attend on occasion) as the people who put on all those exhibits and performances.
We’re happy that there’s so much to write about (even if we sometimes feel like we’re drowning in the bounty).
I have often said how fortunate I am to have a job where I get paid to go to the theater and write what I think about performances. It was my dream job when I was growing up (once I discovered there was such a career for critics). There’s a lot more to the job, of course, but when it comes down to it, I couldn’t imagine having it any other way.
I love going to the theater and talking about what I’ve seen. I just do it in print and online and hopefully start a conversation. Carrie is doing the same thing, primarily with dance, and Susan gets to share her love for books in each week’s Arts section.
And as the event’s program book noted, we’re also fortunate that even during an economic downturn the Herald-Tribune didn’t take the route of so many other newspapers and media companies, which cut arts coverage first. Actually, we didn’t just maintain what we were offering, we expanded it with a new website, artssarasota.com, fully dedicated to covering the area’s vibrant arts scene.
The three of us could complain about how things work from time to time, or how we’re going to cover multiple events happening on the same night. But there’s no complaining about living in a community where there can be so much to see and do that it becomes overwhelming. I wouldn’t like the alternative.
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and president of the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at email@example.com. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.