Published Jan. 4, 2011

TWISler Breakdown: Sarasota County Festival Steering Committee

This week your good buddy TWISler breaks down the colossal disaster known as the Sarasota County Festival Steering Committee. When it comes to debacles, this fiasco takes incompetence to a whole new level of blunder. (Oh, snap! Thesauruses can be so cruel!) Basically, the story goes like this:

Once upon a time (August 2009) in a land far, far away (Sarasota County) a bunch of members from the art’s community thought real hard and decided that, rather than giving out a bunch of silly grants, they would instead use a one-time lump sum Tourist Development Tax Cultural Tourism allocation (Uh, kinda redundant?) to develop a cultural arts festival meant to coax traveling nomads and vagabonds, called “tourists,” into wanting to spend time in their land. The King (Board of County Commissioners) soon heard their cries (October 2009) and established a grand order of wise men (Festival Steering Committee) to envision a concept for the festival. The wise men were very wise and soon came up with the idea to use magic (Digital Arts Festival) to attract the nomads. The wise men then hired an oracle (Lords Cultural Development) to develop a business plan for their magic festival. But when the wise men returned to the art’s community to reveal their idea, the arts community didn’t like it. They didn’t like the idea one bit, and told the wise men to start all over. The wise men and the oracle were sad, but they wanted to please the arts community, so they tried to think of a better idea. They couldn’t. —The End

First of all, the committee’s initial smooth move was hiring Toronto-based consultant Lord Cultural Resources to draw up the business plan. Because we all know if you’re trying to figure out how to get tourists down to a warm, sunny Florida beach town — you should probably ask a Canadian. Come on, do you really have to hire a consultant to design a festival when you live in a city saturated with artists? You couldn’t find any outside-the-box, creative thinkers this side of Niagara Falls, heh? There’s so much imagination in this freakin’ town, most of us think our friends are imaginary. Not surprisingly, the $50 grand we shelled out for the good Lord’s expertise might as well have been fed to the Jungle Garden flamingos. At least that would have produced something halfway colorful.

In fairness to the committee, this royal screw up wasn’t totally their fault. Their original submission for a “Digital Arts Festival,” a brilliant idea with endless potential, was delivered a Bruce Lee-style roundhouse kick to the throat from local arts organization leaders who just couldn’t figure out how the “digital” concept could possibly mesh with their traditional artistic mediums. They’ve obviously never made it to a Pink Floyd laser light show. Even Ringling College said the idea wouldn’t “play to their strengths,” which is funny seeing as how three months earlier they had asked the City Commission if they could turn the historic Municipal Auditorium into a soundstage for “digital” film production.

Let’s see here — a digital projection backdrop behind a symphony, an interactive 3D art exhibit, a theater production in front of a green screen, an opera with auto-tuned voices, a ballet Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style — there’s just a few state-of-the-art, unique spectacle-like, tourist-raking ideas that Mr. TWISler was able to conjure up in about 30 seconds. Too bad that idea got flushed down the genius toilet. Maybe we’ll start our own Digital Arts Festival. We’ll just rent out a huge space, invite all our friends on Facebook, and do a whole bunch of cool shit with technology. Then again, maybe they’re right. Digital is so yesterday.

But you can’t say the committee isn’t entertaining. The Pelican Press coverage describing past Steering Committee meetings reads like a scene out of Spinal Tap. You can actually picture the blank look on people’s faces. Just to give you a little taste, here’s a few choice snippets from an August 2010 piece by Stan Zimmerman affectionately titled, “Festival Steering Committee floundering,” detailing the minutes of a July committee meeting:

After an hour of discussion, the committee placed a conference call to Dov Goldstein, the project leader for Lords. His second question: “The digital arts festival is off the table?”
“Yes,” the committee members replied simultaneously into the speakerphone.

This intelligent dialogue, mind you, takes place three months after the “digital” idea had supposedly been scraped. The piece continues with highlights of the members’ discussion over budget concerns:

Member Gretchen Serrie asked reflectively, “Maybe we’re searching for a solution that isn’t there. We’re really struggling with how to do this. Maybe $825,000 will not be able to do what we’re tasked to do.”
“It’s challenging,” said Goldstein.

Just to add a little context to this nervous tick inducing exchange, we’ll point out that the first Vinyl Music Festival was produced in 45 days with a total budget of $17,000, and over 2,500 tourists felt it was worth the trip to Sarasota. “I could build anything you want for $800,000,” says Dr. TWISler Jr. “I could take you to the fuckin’ moon!” The piece then recounts the committee’s follow-up concept attempt. It’s gold, baby:

“We’re looking for the Flash Something Festival. We’re looking for that word in between,” said member Bruce Rogers. “It could be the Flash Family Festival, with unique family acts. That’s the specificity we’re missing.” …
“Who would buy tickets to a Flash Festival?” asked Goldstein.
“Most would probably be from here,” said Serrie.

Ooh, fun! Is this like MadLibs? How about the Flash Flood Festival? Flash Bulb? Flash Dance? Flash Forward? Flash Back? How about the Flash Gordon Festival? Oh, I like that one.

Come November, and there’s the year-old Festival Steering Committee six months behind deadline and still searching for that “middle word” that comes after “Flash.” A million dollars in their pocket, and they can’t even throw a party. They’ve now decided to push the original April 2012 festival start-date back a year, since it took so long to settle on a concept, which they have apparently now finally nailed down. And the winning idea is… the “Festival of Firsts!” Where they will unveil brand spanking new works of art before your very eyes! (Isn’t that called a wine and cheese reception?) Alas, this drool inciting comatose of a concept is what the committee has chosen to hop on and ride to failure town. How are you supposed to get people talking about something nobody’s ever seen? We’re not sure. We do know that when your own consultant’s report says, “The Festival of Firsts may help to retain or regain local audiences for the arts organizations but will do little in attracting new tourism to the area,” you may want to rethink your options. But hey, if it doesn’t work we’re only out a million bucks, right?

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