“It’s a jungle out there.
“And just south of that jungle is a cluster of once-occupied but more recently neglected buildings destined for new life as an artists’ retreat.
“It is called The Hermitage.”
Those are the first three paragraphs of the first feature story I wrote about what would and has become a major retreat for artists in the fields of art, music and writing. My article was published on July 8, 2000.
The main house floor boards would not support a person in a wheel chair. The ramp at the back led to the beach — such as it was then.
The best built house, designed by architect Alfred Whitney to higher hurricane standards than required today, still needed a lot of work. Two cisterns were in very sad shape and a beachfront cottage was even worse.
There also were a pump house and garage. It all needed a lot of work, but in the eyes of Patricia Caswell, former director of the Sarasota Arts Council, the late Syd Adler, the late Ruth Swayze and her daughter artist, Carroll Swayze and Realtor Nelda Thompson, who is the subject of today’s feature article, the Hermitage one day would one day be an artists’ retreat.
Money came from Sarasota County, the Gulf Coast Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, countless individual and countless individual donors.
The feature article celebrating Nelda Thompson and her part of the story is more proof that to accomplish great things it literally takes a village and when the village has someone like Thompson, the world is the winner.
These days, artists can come for up to six weeks to work on a special project at no cost other than a commitment to contribute something to the area.
Playwright Romulus Linney did a presentation on theater on the main stage at Venice Theatre with its executive director Murray Chase. The site’s first guest, Scottish sculptor Malcomb Robertson was commissioned about three years later to create “Open Book Gateway,” an 18-foot tall aluminum work featuring an open book atop another open book and placed near the entrance to the then-new library just east of Interstate 75.
Musicians have performed concerts on the beach. Artists have exhibited paintings completed while in residence. Writers have presented talks on their craft.
Guiding the growth since its earliest days was its first executive director, Bruce E. Rodgers, who first served in a consulting role as acting executive director.
With 11 years experience with the Asolo Theatre Company in Sarasota, the playwright and musician was the perfect person to guide the Hermitage on its path to what is today a world-class retreat for artists. Rodgers was instrumental in establishing operating policies and procedures and in the creation of a National Artist Advisory Committee comprising artists, directors, and curators of America’s most prestigious arts organizations.
As the Hermitage prospered and its fame grew, it formed an association with the Greenfield Foundation of Philadelphia. Each year the Greenfield Prize of $30,000 and a trophy is given to an artist. Robertson was commissioned to design that trophy, further cementing his ties to this area while also demonstrating what a stay at the hermitage can mean to an artist.
Rodgers retired this past year. His successor as artistic director and CEO is Andy Sandberg, writer, director and Tony Award-winning producer who is committed to developing new work and new artists.
As this area has become the Cultural Center of Florida and perhaps even the Southeastern U.S., the Hermitage has become an important part of that title.
It also is an important historical site. Like Historic Spanish Point, it was home to the Calusa Indians and still has a shell midden on its land. The main house dates to about 1905-06 when it was built by Swedish immigrant Carl G. Johnson.
Ruth Swayze and her daughter were the last occupants of that house. A beach house adjacent to the Whitney house was in the worst condition but was restored as an artist residence by Tom Digman for whom the cottage was named.
It definitely has taken a village to bring the Hermitage to what it is today and Realtor Nelda Thompson was certainly one of them. So was and is co-founder Patricia Caswell who continues in many capacities to cpntribute to the site’s growth and increasing fame.
The Gondolier regularly reports on Hermitage events. Except for much-needed fund-raising events such as the annual Artful Lobster which was last weekend, most are free presentations by the resident artists. As many are Bring-your-chair to the beach events, as the awful pandemic continues, the Hermitage will continue to offer a variety of interesting programs to the community.
Coming up next is “The Making of a Musical,” at 5 p.m. Monday at the Hermitage Beach, 6660 Manasota Key Road, Englewood. Bring your chair for a presentation by composer and music director Rona Siddiqui, who will explore the craft of musical theater along with local vocalists.
To learn about this special place and other events, visit hermitageartistretreat.org.