Hermitage Artist Retreat Offers Natural Inspiration

Story by Jay Handelman, Herald-Tribune.

Click here for original story.

“There was a time when residents living on Manasota Key were worried about the impact of an artists community moving into a set of dilapidated beachfront cottages.

“What’s it going to be, a bunch of hippies running around having all-night parties?” Bruce Rodgers recalls some neighbors wondering when discussions first started about turning the vacant and empty site into what has become the Hermitage Artist Retreat.

The concern was understandable since the property, long known as the Hermitage, briefly housed a nudist camp decades ago.

One of the cottages that has been restored over the last few years to provide temporary housing for guest artists invited to spend time at the Hermitage Artist Retreat. STAFF PHOTO/NICK ADAMS

One of the cottages that has been restored over the last few years to provide temporary housing for guest artists invited to spend time at the Hermitage Artist Retreat. STAFF PHOTO/NICK ADAMS

At one time, it was a collection of wood-frame homes and cabins that looked like they might soon be washed out into the Gulf of Mexico. Today, the buildings have been lovingly restored and provide temporary living quarters to some of the nation’s top painters, writers, musicians and choreographers who come to clear their minds and draw inspiration from the sun and sand and wildlife so they can focus on the business of creating.

Just a few minutes of breathing in the salt air or watching a sunset from a wooden deck can be transformative for those staying on the grounds.

They may not all be household names, but they are having an international impact on what we read, watch, see and hear.

“People don’t understand that every symphony you hear, every book you read, every painting you see, every play you experience begins with a person in a room with an idea and a passion,” Rodgers said. “Everything they see begins that way. Our job is to support that part of the process that ends up in the theater, in concert halls, bookstores and museums.”

Rodgers is marking his 10th anniversary as executive director of an organization that began out of a need to provide services and support for individual artists that was discovered in a 1999 Comprehensive Community Cultural Plan coordinated by what was then known as the Sarasota County Arts Council (now the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County).

At around the same time, art collector and philanthropist Syd Adler was talking to the Arts Council about ways to help visual artists.

Artists staying at the Hermitage Artist Retreat have a cottage to gather for meals and socializing when they're not working on creating their latest pieces. STAFF PHOTO/NICK ADAMS

Artists staying at the Hermitage Artist Retreat have a cottage to gather for meals and socializing when they’re not working on creating their latest pieces. STAFF PHOTO/NICK ADAMS

Adler and Patricia Caswell, who led the Arts Council for 17 years (and now serves as the Hermitage program director) began working together with others to save the collection of Hermitage buildings and raise money to begin running an artist retreat. The Sarasota County Commission gave the Arts Council a long-term lease (with a token annual fee), and the county Parks and Recreation Department still has oversight of the property, which has been expanded to include a newer building, the Palm House built in 2000.

Rodgers, a musician and playwright who spent many years as associate artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre, was hired as executive director and made several suggestions that made the Hermitage distinct among the hundreds of artist retreats in the country.

Even with a relatively small budget of about $600,000 a year, the Hermitage has gained attention in part because of its selection process and the prominence of its advisory committee, plus its beachfront location.

“We are widely known and respected among the artists in America in a way people don’t really know or understand. I’d like the community to understand the level of what’s being done here and to be proud of it,” Rodgers said. “People are coming here and creating a symphony for the Chicago Symphony. Robert Spano, conductor of Atlanta Symphony, comes here to compose. Natasha Trethewey (the 2012 U.S. Poet Laureate) was here last year and she’ll be teaching at State College of Florida through an endowed residency that allows her to come back, so they’ll be getting a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet teaching there.”

Rodgers made a decision early on to not allow artists to apply for residencies. Instead, Hermitage guests are chosen by advisory panels of prominent artists in different disciplines, and those selected know who recommended them.

“Our theory is that they come with an obligation to that person,” Rodgers said. “They’re inviting people who can live in the environment we provide. Artist communities are an intense period of time alone and if you choose, it can be an intense time with other artists.”

Rodgers said the Hermitage can handle five or six artists at a time in its different spaces. Some stay to themselves, others mix over meals or drinks and other activities.

“The key to it is the people they pick,” said playwright Arthur Kopit, a two-time Pulitzer finalist. “You have four or five other people who are significant in their fields and they bond over the work they’re doing in this relaxed atmosphere. It’s very special.”

The Hermitage also administers the Greenfield Prize, which was launched in 2008 and has brought the retreat added exposure.

A path through a wooded area leads from a cottage to the beach at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, where writers, composers, choreographers and others come to create in a stress-free environment on Manasota Key. STAFF PHOTO / NICK ADAMS

A path through a wooded area leads from a cottage to the beach at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, where writers, composers, choreographers and others come to create in a stress-free environment on Manasota Key. STAFF PHOTO / NICK ADAMS

“I can’t overstate the impact the prize has had on this organization,” Rodgers said. “It was the equivalent of a $3.5 million endowment gift. It’s not only the prize, but all of what it takes to support the prize on a national level. It has brought us a high level of artists.”

Composers Vijay Iyer and Eve Beglarian, artists Sanford Biggers, Trenton Doyle Hancock and Coco Fusco and playwrights John Guare, Craig Lucas and Nilo Cruz have won the Greenfield Prize, which includes a $30,000 commission for a new piece of work that has its first public performance at a Sarasota arts organization.

Lucas’ play “Ode to Joy” had its first public readings as “Love and Irony” at Asolo Rep, which helped guide rewrites that led to its premiere at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in New York, with Lucas directing. Cruz’s play “Bathing in Moonlight,” presented in a staged reading earlier this year at Asolo Rep, will get its world premiere in 2017 at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey, where the artistic director is Emily Mann, who is now head of the Hermitage’s National Artist Advisory Committee.

Biggers and Hancock had exhibits of their Greenfield work at the Ringling Museum and Iyer’s Greenfield composition “Bruits,” was given its world premiere at a La Musica concert last spring.

The local connection is another distinctive aspect of the Hermitage operation. Each artist is required to take part in at least two community events during their stay, whether it’s a beach reading of new work or a panel discussion or class at a local college.

Patricia Caswell, right, (with singer Kamala Sankaram), is the program director for Hermitage Artist Retreat and helped to create the organization when she was executive director of the Sarasota County Arts Council. ROD MILLINGTON PHOTO

Patricia Caswell, right, (with singer Kamala Sankaram), is the program director for Hermitage Artist Retreat and helped to create the organization when she was executive director of the Sarasota County Arts Council. ROD MILLINGTON PHOTO

Caswell said that requirement was a spur of the moment suggestion after county commissioners questioned the benefit to local residents from having artists hidden away in the community.

“They said these people will come from all over, work and then leave. What are they doing for the citizens of Sarasota County? On the fly, I said every one of them will do something public. I didn’t know if it would work or how the artists would feel. We were trying to win over the commissioners.”

It turned out better than she thought. The artists “love it. They love reading or showing their new work here,” Caswell said. “The audiences are smart and kind and they really like trying that out.”

The artists appreciate the feedback they get from the public programs, said Kopit, who took part in several post-performance talkbacks at Venice Theatre during the run of his controversial play “The Road to Nirvana” earlier this year. (Kopit also is known for his plays “Indians” and “Wings” and the books to the musicals “Nine” and “Phantom.”)

“It’s a return of gratitude for us being invited down,” he said. “It’s a chance to communicate, get some feedback. It’s part of the deal, but it’s a good part of the deal. It’s the right thing.”

Kopit said the Hermitage is an ideal location for inspiring artists because of “the lovely climate, the gentle water, the beach, the low-key temperament of the place. It’s an instant sense of relaxation and the lack of pressure to achieve something specific is wonderful. Many artists have come here just to be there, to meditate, walk on the beach, get away and think.”

The Hermitage has enjoyed its share of prominent artists, but the bulk of those who have had residencies probably aren’t well known beyond careful followers of certain art forms.

But that doesn’t minimize their significance or importance in the arts world, Rodgers said.

“The art of our time is not only what happens on Broadway or in the new Stephen King book. Bookstores are full of books by writers people never heard of, but those books are being written at artists communities.”

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