A Festival of Firsts

There’s a new and exciting artistic breeze blowing in Sarasota County and it’s moving in like a front from the north, pushing out the heavy, stagnant air ahead of it. I was first aware of it a couple years ago as the new, young artistic leaders in our community began realizing a different vision for our major organizations. Then last year, with the success of the inaugural Ringling International Art Festival, the “breeze” began to freshen. Here’s the thing – the community seems to be developing a taste for new work, and for those of us who work at providing the community with its artistic content, this is very exciting news indeed.

There’s a new and exciting artistic breeze blowing in Sarasota County and it’s moving in like a front from the north, pushing out the heavy, stagnant air ahead of it. I was first aware of it a couple years ago as the new, young artistic leaders in our community began realizing a different vision for our major organizations. Then last year, with the success of the inaugural Ringling International Art Festival, the “breeze” began to freshen. Here’s the thing – the community seems to be developing a taste for new work, and for those of us who work at providing the community with its artistic content, this is very exciting news indeed.

As a board member of the Sarasota County Arts Council, I’ve been appointed to an advisory committee to the Sarasota County Board of County Commissioners charged with developing an annual festival in collaboration with Lord Consulting of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The festival funding is to be seeded with a one-time “windfall” $1 million, earmarked for the Arts that appeared when the County adjusted its accounting process for the Tourist Development funds (meaning the “bed tax.”) Since the notion of the festival grew from a series of meetings with the Sarasota County cultural community, the festival has to end up representing, benefiting and showcasing the cultural community’s breadth and richness. And since the festival’s funding comes from tourist money, it must have the ability to attract an audience from beyond Sarasota County. This has been the challenge. But just last week we stumbled upon an organizing concept for the festival that has exciting implications for us all, including the Hermitage.

Tentatively named the “Festival of Firsts,” the festival will be organized around the concept of “premieres.” The festival work may be world premieres, newly commissioned work, American premieres, Florida premieres – but most importantly, for 3-4 days, Sarasota County’s cultural community will be performing and exhibiting work that the general public has never seen before. Some of that work will be by highly respected creators who attract world-wide attention and the cultural tourists who want to be the first to see it. And it all seems to feed into the new-found interest in new work growing in our community.

The reason this is so meaningful to the Hermitage is that, well, new work is what we do. Major artists come to us from all over the world just to make new work. With the advent of the Greenfield Prize at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, we are commissioning new work from major creators annually. This work is being created here at the Hermitage, and seeing its first audiences in Sarasota County in the spring and always in collaboration with one of our fine artistic organizations. It’s also the same time of year that we hold the Greenfield dinner and bring celebrated artists to the community to give a major speech about their art. In 2012, when it seems most likely that the festival will begin, the Hermitage will be hosting the premiere exhibition of a new work by one of America’s most important new visual artists, Sanford Biggers. At the same time, Artistic Director Ian Webb and the Sarasota Ballet would like to premiere a new work by internationally-respected choreographer Mathew Bourne. And at the Greenfield dinner that year, we will also be announcing the commissioning of a new work of music to premiere in 2014. Add on a new play or two, a new piece of music, and we have the core for something really exciting happening. It could even give rise to interesting restaurant ideas from the “Sarasota Originals” during the festival. Perhaps a showcase of new homes can coordinate, too.

While there are still many obstacles to overcome and decisions to be made, the concept is fertile and will hopefully grow and evolve. It’s not difficult to “see” how it could work. And that vision is exciting enough to push us through the obstacles. In its heyday, the Humana Festival at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville attracted the world-wide press who wrote about the new plays that were premiered. A special festival weekend filled Louisville hotels and restaurants with theatre fans looking to be the first to see new plays, many of which later ended up on Broadway or in regional theaters, or on film. The Louisville restaurants created special festival menus. It was a big deal, and I attended the festival for many years. Our Festival of Firsts, premiering new work in many art forms, could be a big deal too – a very big deal. Let us know what you think.