Ringling arts festival: A dream brought to life

Bradenton Herald – John Ringling’s vision for a celebration of the arts is about to become a reality.

The Ringling International Arts Festival, first conjured by Ringling in 1928, finally comes to fruition Wednesday.

The festival will feature five days of some of the best dance, music, art and theater the world has to offer. Dozens of acclaimed artists from eight countries will descend on the Ringling and Florida State University campus to present the festival’s impressive programs.

The mission: Showcase art, engage, educate and boost area tourism.

At the movement’s forefront is a living legend. Mikhail Baryshnikov, a world-renowned dancer, and his New York-based Baryshnikov Arts Center are co-hosting the festival with the museum.

The Russian-born Baryshnikov said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to partner with the Ringling Museum, especially after seeing its 66-acre complex gently nestled on the Sarasota Bay. His excitement for the event is palpable.

“We are talking Mendelssohn, we are talking Shakespeare, we are talking Hemingway,” Baryshnikov said in a phone interview with the Herald from Oregon. “We are talking Flamenco, modern dance. It is all very accessible. Really interesting programs.”

Working through recession

When Ringling initially tried to launch a festival, his plans were dashed after the stock market crashed, says Dwight Currie, associate director of museum programs. Some 80 years later, Bradenton resident and former Florida state senator John McKay marketed the idea again to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art — Ringling’s long-standing legacy. It was 2002 when McKay thought of the idea, but the country was in the middle of recession and still coping with the aftermath of 9/11.

But this week, regardless of a tougher recession now gripping the country, the show will go on.

While hosting a festival in sour economic times could be considered risky, the benefits far outweigh the costs in Baryshnikov’s eyes. He says it will help local businesses and bring a renewed spirit to Florida and the Sarasota-Bradenton area.

“In the most difficult times, people need this uplifting, which is what art brings to people,” he said. “In times like this, people need art.”

So far, ticket sales are doing well, says Pedja Muzijevic, Baryshnikov Arts Center’s director of music programming. Anticipation for the festival has reached as far as New York, Los Angeles and Paris. About 30 percent of the ticket sales are from out of state.

As of last week, seats for festival performances were at 71 percent capacity, said Lynn Hobeck Bates, the museum’s public relations manager.

Hotels on the Manatee-Sarasota border say they haven’t received many bookings from out-of-town festival attendees, but are hopeful they will get last-minute guests.

“We’re in walking distance,” said Anna Arun, a manager at the Sleep Inn Hotel Sarasota/Bradenton Airport.

But people are coming, Muzijevic said.

“Our first and foremost task is to interest people in Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Bradenton and then build from that,” he said.

Baryshnikov says he is pleased to see the Ringling and FSU theaters filled with interesting festival programs that will attract people from all walks of life.

“I think that it’s hopefully a very exciting beginning for years to come,” he said.

published Oct. 4, 2009

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