Part of what makes the Sarasota area so vibrant are the many exciting arts and culture opportunities it offers, and the organizations that present them try to maintain that excitement through bold creativity and by looking toward the future. We spoke to a number of arts leaders who are still relatively new in their jobs about what’s in store for the coming months.
Participating are Benny Sato Ambush, artistic director for Venice Theatre; Jeffery Kin, who served 15 years as artistic director of Players Centre for Performing Arts and is now general director of the forthcoming Sarasota Arts Festival; Kinsey Robb, executive director for Art Center Sarasota; Anne-Marie Russell, executive director for Architecture Sarasota; Virginia Shearer, executive director for Sarasota Art Museum; and Bramwell Tovey, music director designate for Sarasota Orchestra
Why are the arts important to a community?
Ambush: Engaging with the arts makes us better human beings. Art making is human growth development.
Kin: Our region was literally built from creative folks seeing the value in the natural offerings of our area.
Russell: For our community, it’s what differentiates us in the marketplace globally – we are one of the best beach resort towns in the world, with a remarkable per capita cultural footprint to complement the nature. We own that space. And from an economic 101 impact standpoint, we’d be foolish to not continue to cultivate that.
Shearer: What wakes me up early and keeps me going every day is knowing everything we do in art museums has the potential to harness the power of art to make people’s lives better.
Tovey: The Arts are humankind’s way of expressing our inner narrative – that level of consciousness that transcends our daily activities.
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What makes an effective arts leader?
Ambush: Listening. Surrounding oneself with smart, capable people. Helping those with whom you work to realize their dreams. Integrity. Fairness. Kindness. Consistency. Compassion. Transparency. Honesty. Having a clearly articulated vision. Passion. Energy.
Kin: Effective leaders know how to say no. They understand completely that no one ever gets their way all the time, and that compromise and common sense have to be on the table at all times.
Robb: It will sound cliché but having an appreciation for art matters. Art can be a totally subjective experience. Only supporting artistic works that you like can isolate an organization. Being open to appreciating the many genres, movements, histories, styles, mediums, and techniques creates an inclusive space for engagement and expansion.
Russell: Passion, curiosity, and rigor. Leadership in any industry demands an always-on condition, so if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, you simply won’t have the stamina to sustain. Curiosity – relentless exploration – is a given, but you need the discipline of rigor to frame and harness that curiosity to actually make something happen.
Shearer: As arts leaders, we have to take the time to get to know the Sarasota/Manatee community and strive to be compelling, relevant, and engaged in the life and direction of our city.
Tovey: The essence of any modern leadership is empowering others. Arts leadership also includes advocacy at all levels so everyone in the community can feel confident in accessing the benefits of cultural expression whether it be theatre, dance, opera, or symphonic music.
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How do you plan to navigate our nation’s cultural waters in this challenging, unprecedented time?
Ambush: Work as smartly as I can to serve communities within our new world realities and become the change we wish to see in how we make and govern our art.
Kin: I feel it’s an organization’s ability to adapt, to be fluid and flexible, that keeps a group on the right track.
Robb: Being aware, having perspective, thinking critically, and having empathy develops out of connecting with others…art can be a catalyst for that.
Russell: I think this is where arts leaders have an advantage – we are used to constant innovation, perpetual revolution, incessant iterative activity – so navigating change is an embedded, baked-in skill set. Witness the astonishingly creative ways organizations found to produce work and to connect with audiences. For Architecture Sarasota, the pandemic produced kayak architecture tours, which have become a huge hit and provide an entirely new viewing perspective. We’ll all continue to adapt.
Tovey: By listening and learning from those whose cultural voice has been underrepresented or completely ignored in the past by what I’ll clumsily call “mainstream” cultural life.
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What changes are you planning for 2022?
Robb: Moving into 2022, I would like to focus on more collaboration and the positive impact that makes in building a more inclusive environment.
Russell: It’s not change so much as a continuation of what we’ve been doing. It’s more about managing, keeping a finger on the pulse, and perpetual course correction.
Shearer: Next spring we’ll explore human impact on the environment, the ways that place informs identity, and how people build their own personas and sense of self in an exhibition entitled “State of the Art 2020: Constructs.”
Tovey: Diversity and inclusion are now at the forefront of our plans. Excellence is quite different from elitism, with which it is often confused.
What’s your strategy for attracting young audiences to the arts?
Ambush: Find them, work with them, help develop them, offer life-impacting growth experiences for them, serve their interests.
Shearer: The family audience is largely untapped for us at the Sarasota Art Museum, so we’re creating programs and experiences for families to meet the needs of parents and grandparents, and children of all ages. The patron of the future is the toddler of today.
Robb: TikTok every day! I’m kidding, but also somewhat serious. We can’t ignore the importance of social media with younger generations – it’s a vast and deep rabbit hole that you can easily get sucked into, but it’s also a source for finding community events, discovering new talents, interests, etc.
Russell: Remember why something traditional was once revolutionary. The rawness and purity you find there will have an energy that will usually appeal to emerging audiences. Keep looking at even your most established programs with fresh eyes. Complacency = death.
Tovey: The performance of orchestral music at a very high level remains the best strategy of all. Film and video game soundtracks remain dominated by the sound of symphony orchestras, so we know the potency of the orchestra remains relevant to younger listeners. Consideration of context for younger listeners is a daily challenge.
How important is mentoring younger, or less-experienced professionals within your organization?
Ambush: Vital. We are growing our future generation of arts leaders, practitioners, volunteers, board members, donors, supporters, and fans of the arts.
Kin: I can’t wait to engage the next me! I can’t wait to give a chance to someone who has smarts, energy, and compassion. What a gift it will be to give that boost to someone who has that great personality and skillset and help them put it to good use. I’m on the lookout already!
Robb: I’ve had some great mentors along the way; being able to share my experiences, networks, and knowledge is a responsibility I’m happy to uphold. On the flip side, I learn a tremendous amount from my colleagues everyday – that concept of exchanging experiences, ideas, and “tricks of the trade” only illustrates that one’s learning is never done. And that’s exactly how it should be.
Russell: It’s pretty much my raison d’etre – learn as much as you can and share what you learn. What else is there? The secret is that I learn more from them than they do from me, so one could argue it’s entirely self-serving. By constantly challenging and questioning me, the kids keep me from fossilizing, Plus, umm, there is no future without them. It’s really that simple.
Shearer: The museum field quite simply does not reflect the diversity of our culture. Our institutions have to nurture, support, and mentor emerging professionals to create the field we want to see. It will take time and investment, like our Kutya Major Teen Art Ambassador program, a new paid internship program for high school juniors and seniors that launches in summer 2022.
What changes already have your mark on them?
Ambush: Venice Theatre offers a range of training and performance opportunities for community members of all ages.
Robb: We recently completed a light renovation of the walls in our atrium to better show off the wonderful art that comes through our doors.
Shearer: We’re focused on activating the museum and leveraging our onsite education programs – the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) and Studio+Digital Arts.
Tovey: I am only in a designated role until next season, but I think the empowerment and respect of musicians is a mark of my personal style.
How will you implement new technologies to move your organization in new directions?
Kin: To take on a leadership role in the arts means you must be fearless. You have to embrace change and you have to grow as a person just as much as you want your organization to grow. If my 90-year-old mom can Duo Chat and Facebook Message, then I should be able to look at a tool like Slack, appreciate its value, and utilize it for the betterment of my organization.
Robb: Utilizing new technologies can be daunting and cumbersome, but once you get the hang of it, it gets easier. Currently, I’m exploring the land of crypto.
Russell: Donation via Bitcoin is just around the corner.
Shearer: At the end of the day, it’s all about the art – but it’s what you do with the art that matters.
Tovey: Ultimately, technology will help us build a new performance hall with state-of-the-art acoustics. As I know from performing in some of the very best international concert halls, that is the key to the best experiences for audiences and musicians.
Freelance writer Ryan Van Cleave, Ph.D., is head of the Creative Writing BFA program at Ringling College of Art & Design.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: New arts leaders discuss the future of Sarasota, Florida’s arts scene