Sarasota arts champion Patricia Caswell retires from Hermitage Artist Retreat

Susan L. Rife
Special to the Herald-Tribune
A portrait of Patricia Caswell at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, which she helped to create on Manasota Key. The former director of the Sarasota County Arts Council, Caswell is retiring as the founding program director of the Hermitage.

Each time a new composer, sculptor, poet or painter arrives for a six-week residency at the Hermitage Artist Retreat on Manasota Key, the staff hauls tables and chairs, white tablecloths, silverware, flower arrangements and bottles of wine onto the sand for what has become a Hermitage signature: dinner on the beach, candles flickering as the sun sets into the Gulf of Mexico, conversation and laughter flowing freely among creative minds.

The intimate beach dinners were the brainchild of Patricia Caswell, co-founder of the Hermitage and, for the last 13 years, its program director. The dinners are a tribute to Caswell’s mother, Ardelle Shanley, and family friend Ruth Swayze, who, starting in the 1960s, would celebrate family birthdays with fancy meals on the beach.

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When the artist retreat was established in 2001, Caswell made it her business to make the first night of each artist’s residency as magical as those intimate family gatherings.

“I’d drag a table down by the water, cook ahead of time,” Caswell said. “The end result was wonderful. It’s a very special part of the experience, to sit there and have dinner while the stars were coming out.”

When Andy Sandberg, now the Hermitage’s artistic director and chief executive officer, came to Englewood to interview for the position in the fall of 2019, Caswell took him on a walking tour of the retreat’s grounds, regaling him with stories not just of the history of what once was a nudist colony and of Hermitage artists, but of Caswell’s connection to Swayze and John Lund, who lived at the Hermitage back in the 1970s and who introduced Caswell to her husband, attorney and community theater actor Chris Caswell.

“She really just had this love for telling stories,” said Sandberg. “Nothing is just, ‘here’s this building.’ She will tell you from her own memory, she’ll tell you a story of something that happened 30 years ago and how it impacts an artist 20 years later.”

Caswell saw a need, helped preserve Artist Retreat

Caswell, who for 17 years was head of the Sarasota County Arts Council (now the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County), will retire from her position at the Hermitage on her birthday, Monday. And while the sunset dinners will continue, thanks to a budget that now includes a cook, Caswell’s impact on the organization extends much further.

The Hermitage would not exist if not for Caswell, who in the late 1990s saw the need to preserve the ramshackle beach shacks on Manasota Key and who, along with art collector and philanthropist Syd Adler, first envisioned the collection of buildings, which dated to the early 20th century, as a place where artists could gather to create new works.

The arts council at the time was doing a countywide strategic plan, said Caswell. “Some of the goals of that plan were met by this idea. At one of the town meetings in North Port, some of the artists said you need to do more for artists, you need to do more in South County, you need to do something about the Hermitage. All these things came together in my brain.”

Patricia Caswell, right, program director of the Hermitage Artist Retreat, assists musician Claire Chase during a performance at the 2017 Artful Lobster luncheon on Manasota Key.

At about the same time, she said, Adler came to her office. 

“He was a little bit angry. He was upset that all of the money by the late 1990s was going to the institutions,” Caswell said. “He said, where are the artists? I said, ‘Oh, Syd, have I got an idea.’ His eyes started to glisten.”

At the time, Caswell said, the focus of the arts organizations in Sarasota County ran heavily to what she calls “dead white European males,” citing the Ringling Museum of Art’s collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens and others of the Baroque era, and the Sarasota Opera’s focus on the complete works of Giuseppe Verdi.

The idea was to bring creative people back to Sarasota

Sarasota’s roots as an artists’ colony that had birthed such artists as painter Syd Solomon and author John D. MacDonald seemed a distant memory.

“We had many artists in Sarasota but they all felt like they were the poor stepchildren,” she said. “Syd was right on board. He wanted to do something that would bring back the creative people.”

In 2005, as executive director of the Sarasota County Arts Council, Patricia Caswell posed for a portrait by artist Judith Carducci at the Ringling College of Art and Design.

Adler and Caswell became co-founders of the modern Hermitage, supervising the restoration of four of the original five buildings on the property. Originally under the auspices of the Arts Council, the Hermitage eventually spun off as its own entity. 

But the retreat is not simply a place where artists come from New York or Chicago to create new work. It’s also the site of frequent public performances, poetry readings on the beach and the like, which former Executive Director Bruce Rodgers initially thought was a crazy idea.

“She would come up with ideas that I would say, oh, that would never work, and of course, they did,” said Rodgers. “Performances on the beach: That was her idea.”

Rodgers was skeptical. Coming out of a theater background where indoor venues allowed for full control of every aspect of a performance, he thought the logistics of setting up sound where artists would have to compete with the distractions of the sea and the sunset were too daunting. But the readings and performances soon were drawing crowds of as many as 1,500 people to the beach.

“She’s tenacious,” he said. “She gets something in her teeth and she’s going to figure out how to make it happen.”

What's the future hold for Heritage? It all comes back to the artists

Sandberg said Caswell has been particularly helpful during his first year as artistic director, “always open to a conversation” about the future of the organization. “She’s always offered herself from the position of: How can I be helpful from the position of what the organization is trying to achieve.”

Patricia Caswell, left, with the late Gerri Aaron, who became a close friend and mentor, and Jo Rutstein at the Children First Fairytale Ball in 2014.

But for Caswell, it always comes back to the artists.

She’ll miss “the extraordinary artists that have been there, and spending time with them. This is a very special thing that just a few of us got to do, because they were there to work. The evenings there were like a Paris salon with Gertrude Stein. We had Nico Muhly, he sat there around the table, talking to us about what it was like to be a young guy, a young composer, whose piece had been chosen by the Metropolitan Opera, him not understanding their traditions, them deferring all these decisions to the ‘maestro,’ all these stories inside the guts of the Metropolitan Opera.”

To Rodgers, “A hallmark of her time at the Hermitage was her love for and commitment to the artists. This was a huge factor in our success.”

Sandberg noted that while Caswell is retiring from her program director position at the Hermitage, she will always be a co-founder.

“Her passion for the organization is infectious; her love for the artists, which is really the core of what we are,” Sandberg said. “It’s hard to imagine that just 20 years ago this was just a washed-up shack on the beach trying to figure out what it was going to be.”

For more information on the Hermitage: hermitageartistretreat.org.

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