Proposed arts festival could bring national attention to Sarasota area cultural scene

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Crowds gather during the Ringling International Arts Festival, which operated for nine years at The Ringling.

In his career as a developer, Mark Kauffman has seen possibilities where others saw vacant lots. With partners or on his own, he transformed a former Maas Brothers department store into Sarasota Main Plaza and the Hollywood 11 movie theater, created the Ritz-Carlton resort, the still-new Rosemary Square complex, and others.

Now he wants to bring greater awareness to the Sarasota area arts and culture scene by creating a festival that could draw national and international attention, and help local businesses. He envisions something that could develop into an event like the Spoleto Festival, in Charleston, S.C. 

“If we can get the major arts organizations to join this, and the smaller organizations would also join in, the concept is to bring people to Sarasota in the offseason and let them spend a week or two weeks here, and every night could be a different entertainment venue for them,” he said in a recent interview.

A 2006 photo of developer Mark Kauffman who is behind a plan to create a new arts festival, with support from the business community, to bring national attention to Sarasota’s cultural scene.

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Kauffman believes having the business community behind the effort could give this new idea the support it needs, if it can win the involvement of the arts organizations. 

The Downtown Improvement District has already committed $100,000 for seed money to get the new non-profit entity off the ground. It will start out under the auspices of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County until it can establish its own tax-exempt 501(c)3 status.

“If you have to summarize it one word, the word is ‘obvious,’” Kauffman said. “The enthusiasm to anyone I mention it to is just incredible. It could grow into something really big.”

The fledgling festival has hired Jeffery Kin, the longtime producing artistic director of the Players Centre for Performing Arts, to serve as general director. Kin announced he would step away from his Players position later in the season as he begins working to get other arts organizations involved with the new event.

At this stage, there is no grand scheme or intention. Kauffman and Kin said they are open to all possibilities, but can imagine a roughly two-week period when all the arts groups present special programs marketed nationally.

For years, thousands gathered in downtown Sarasota to celebrate the annual Arts Day, which showcased work by small and large arts groups and professional, amateur and student artists.

Kauffman said the festival will also need to get a buy-in from the Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Council, hotels, and tourism officials.

In addition to Spoleto, which runs for about 17 days, Kauffman compared the idea to places like Niagara on the Lake and the Berkshires in Massachusetts where there are multiple performing arts organizations.

“I think it’s a game-changing idea and we don’t have to invent anything,” he said.

Related:Sarasota County gives arts groups funding boost in tourist tax grants

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Kin said with the DID investment, the festival has “a business organization investing in an idea that isn’t really tied to any one organization. We’re going to cast a really wide net. There are lots of partners here, local businesses, the city. I think what we’re finding is everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but no one knew how to do it or no one knew how to do it right. We’re bringing in outside money to get people talking, communicating and making decisions.”

Jeffery Kin, longtime producing artistic director of the Players Centre for Performing Arts ,will become the general director of a proposed new Sarasota arts festival aiming to start in 2024.

Kin said the organization is looking at 2024 to launch the festival, but there are still many questions to be answered.

“When is the best time for this festival? What should it be called? We know it’s a good idea, but we need someone to make it make sense to all the parties engaged,” he said. “That is a challenge. That’s why they’re talking three years to make it happen. It’s not something we’ll do in the course of a year.”

Past festival proposals

This is not the first proposal to bring the area’s arts organizations together for an overarching event that could be marketed nationally.

In 2010, with a $1 million bonus in tourist tax money, the Sarasota County Commission established a committee to create a community-wide arts celebration that had broader ambitions. The committee hired a Toronto-based consulting company to oversee what was at one point called “Festival of the First.” It never got off the ground.

In the first seasons of the nine-year run of the Ringling International Arts Festival, local organizations were able to link to their events by being included on a master schedule. But few RIAF attendees ventured away from the international array of artists performing on the Ringling Museum campus, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose Baryshnikov Arts Center programmed the first five festivals. 

In 2011, a 47-page special section was included in the US Airways inflight magazine touting the area’s performing and visual arts organizations. It was intended to bring added attention to what distinguishes Sarasota from other beachfront communities.

At the time, Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota, said until people spend time in town and experience the cultural life they “don’t think of Florida as a cultural destination.”

Jim Shirley, executive director of the arts alliance, said the 2010 effort fell apart because there wasn’t enough money to support the proposal.

Previously:Weekend craft festival marks the return of special events to Venice

The chalk festival has brought thousands of people to see street art creations in Sarasota and Venice. The next festival has been postponed until spring because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A new approach

“The biggest difference in what’s happening now is the impetus to put something together as an artist festival is coming from the business community,” he said. The fact that the DID has indicated a willingness to continue supporting the effort “if we make good advancement in funding the festival over a three-year period of time” gives organizers time to put it together.

Shirley said the time of year chosen for the festival must be resolved. Kauffman mentioned the summer, when businesses and restaurants could use a boost, but Shirley said many of the arts organizations are between seasons and may not be equipped to participate in ways that could showcase what they do during the regular season. He said the shoulder seasons of late spring or early fall, just after seasons end or just before they start might make more sense.

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John Moran, operations manager for the Downtown Improvement District, describes it as “a purely economic development project. To get $100,000 from the board of directors, which is not arts and culture-focused, is a challenge, and exciting to watch. But you can hear the enthusiasm there and they're willing to take that gamble.”

Kin said he is beginning to talk with leaders of other arts festivals. “I’m doing my homework to make sure I do this right. Every festival started in a different manner. This idea is kind of unique. A business group is investing in and, in a way, coordinating a festival.”

But he and Kauffman said if it’s done right, a small investment in the start could have big returns to make more people aware of what is available on stages and in museums.

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