MANASOTA KEY — In the 1990s, Sarasota County commissioners looked at a collection of aging and somewhat dilapidated buildings on Manasota Beach as a much needed parking lot for beachgoers.
Patricia Caswell, executive director of the Sarasota County Arts Council, saw a solution to something that had been troubling her for years.
Artists and writers had moved to the area but Sarasota was not producing artists as were big cities like New York and Los Angeles and smaller cities such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Park City, Utah, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Caswell, who was director of the Sarasota County Arts Council for the past 17 years, felt that this area needed to do more for its artists.
It was the eve of the 21st century. Sarasota County had been home to writers like “Black Stallion” author Walter Farley, mystery writer John D. MacDonald and more recently Stephen King. But they were writers before they came to this area.
When she learned about the Hermitage site she went to the county and proposed leasing it for $1 a year as an artists’ retreat. It would take a few years, county support and serious money but the answer was in some dilapidated buildings on Manasota Key — an artist retreat.
“Thankfully for all of us — including the hundreds of artists who have experienced Hermitage Fellowships and residencies — Patricia felt called to action with a dream of creating a place for artists unlike any other in our region,” Hermitage Executive Director Andy Sandberg said. “She dreamed of establishing the research and development wing of our vibrant arts and cultural scene — a home for artists and thinkers committed to creativity, preservation and community.”
But what would the county get in exchange?
Caswell had a response for that too. This idea was too important to the area and its many artists.
Caswell’s response was that the artists should give something back to the community in exchange for their time at the retreat.
“That was unheard of at the time,” Caswell said. “I promised the commissioners that they all would do something and they are happy to do it.”
Those selected as artists-in-residence usually give an hour-long program. It could be a talk about the book they are writing, a recital of new musical compositions or a showing of a new painting or sculpture.
When the late playwright Romulus Linney (father of actress Laura Linney) was at the Hermitage a few years ago, he spoke about his work with Venice Theatre’s Executive Director Murray Chase from the theater’s main stage.
While many Hermitage fellows are mid-level artists in their profession, the Hermitage has also hosted 12 Pulitzer winners, some MacArthur fellows and many others who have been honored with some of the top awards in the arts.
Usually, the resident artists will present a program at the Hermitage beach to which people can bring chairs and often enjoy a lovely sunset as a bonus.
During her 17-year association with the Hermitage, Caswell witnessed the restoration of all the old buildings, the addition of some extra land and a newer building called The Palm. She’s also seen the creation of the Greenfield Prize, which includes a Hermitage stay and $30,000. The new building’s name “The Palm,” can be changed should a donor want to honor someone, Caswell said.
During the first five years, before there was a resident director, Caswell did everything from fundraising to contract letting and construction supervision.
“I raised the money for the renovation of the Hermitage house and three neighboring beach houses. Syd Adler liked working with the architects, but I wrote the grants, got contributions, and raised nearly $1 million for the renovation.”
Many neighbors helped too, happy to have an artist retreat rather than a parking lot. Many early board members continue to contribute.
It has taken a village and all these years but little by little the original buildings were saved and additional land was added so that today’s site is nearly doubled in size.
At the five-year mark, Bruce Rogers, a playwright who had been director of the Asolo Conservatory of Actor Training, was hired to head up the Hermitage program. He too has recently retired. Rogers was replaced by Tony Award-winning Andy Sandberg as the site’s executive director.
Helping to select the Hermitage fellows is a lengthy list of leaders in a variety of artistic disciplines. They come from all over the country.
One does not apply to attend the Hermitage. Hermitage fellows are selected by a curatorial committee and then invited to attend for up to six weeks to work on a special project. In exchange they are asked to give something back to the community while here.
Caswell said that Hermitage fellows are impressed with the program and also with the area and the intelligence of audiences here.
“The Hermitage exists today because of Patricia’s vision, passion, and determination,” Sandberg said.
Since its founding, the Hermitage has added a summer program for which arts teachers in Florida may apply. This follows Caswell’s desire to do more for Florida artists. Five are selected for a special two-week summer program.
“The artists are delightful to be around,” she said.
While Caswell will miss her day-to-day duties at the Hermitage, there is no doubt she will remain active in the area’s arts community, perhaps even returning to the stage which is where she met her husband, Chris Caswell, an attorney by day and award-winning actor by night.
They met in 1978 while he was playing Jesus in “Godspell” and she sang the Mary Magdelan song.
The director, Jake Lund, was married to Ruth Swayze — mother of artist Carroll Swayze.
“Ruth was another area resident who was passionate about saving the Hermitage,” Caswell said. “I spent many happy hours at their house.”
The Caswells are the parents of daughter Shanley Caswell who supports herself in New York City by working in theater, and a son named Ben.
Caswell will continue to support the arts and especially area artists. She started the Hermitage and the John Ringling Tower Fund to support artists.
“Though Patricia is retiring as program director, she is forever a co-founder, and for that we are enormously grateful,” Sandberg added. “Now, as we write the next chapter of this organization’s history, we are committed to seeing the Hermitage continue to grow and thrive for many generations to come — and we are continuing to dream big, just as Patricia did in founding this extraordinary and magical place.”