Live Active Cultures

I'm home after a week away, but between you and me, I'd rather be back at the beach. It's unseemly for someone unemployed to take a vacation, but my trip followed a week of Universal's Wizarding World hoopla, so I thought of it as a therapeutic post-Potter decompression. Coincidentally, my favorite place in the world made an offer I couldn't refuse. Siesta Key Bungalows, the shabby-chic slice of paradise circa 1963 near Sarasota where I was married, quoted a rate not much above my per-day power bill. We packed the cats in the car and headed southwest.

I've waxed before about the Old Florida pleasures of the area, a tourist town that hasn't been eaten alive by corporate homogenization. It's also the perfect place to get hardcore writing done; without an Xbox or DVR to distract, I churned out a month's worth of pages for a project. When I broke from my laptop's embrace, I explored Siesta Key's pedestrian-friendly downtown and found bars, restaurants and a well-stocked used bookstore. The shopkeeper may look like an adorable old lady, but she won't bargain by a penny. I only hope the pristine white-sand beach a few hundred feet away remains tarball-free.

Only one thing (other than a gazillion bug bites) spoiled my Sarasota stay. There I was in Captain Curt's Crab & Oyster Bar, eating my daily bowl of the "Best `Clam` Chowder in the World" — they're right — when I opened the June 24 Sarasota Observer. At first, I was pleasantly surprised with the production values of the free community newspaper and its substantial pull-out arts and entertainment section.

Then I reached the opinion page, which prominently showcased a bilious "My View" editorial by Rod Thomson, executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review. Thomson railed against arts groups adversely affected by drastic cuts to Florida's arts funding. In case you hadn't heard the wailing, local groups like United Arts of Central Florida, the Orlando Shakes, Orlando Ballet and others received barely 5 percent of the grants they requested.

To Thomson, grant-seeking artists are "lining up at the public trough" and the state's paltry pre-recession arts budget of $32 million (a rounding error in a $70 billion budget) was "bloated." Thomson wrote: "There are plenty of artistic ventures that do not get subsidized — popular movies, television shows" and that the "correct amount of tax funding for the arts is $0."

The scare quotes Thomson used in his mention of "avant garde ‘art'" instantly disqualify his opinion. Frighteningly, his pseudo- populist perversion of libertarianism is pernicious and increasingly popular. I'm philosophically pro-small-government, and I don't pursue grant funding, but I don't begrudge those who do because they earn well below what should be their fair market labor rate. If all performers and other creatives were paid a living wage per hour for their efforts, no one but the ultra-rich could afford entertainment.

Countries need nourishing culture to psychologically survive. Taxpayers aren't carrying artists; artists are subsidizing society's sanity with sweat equity. Most galling about Thomson's pull-up-by-your-bootstraps bullshit is that he and his buddies didn't build their businesses in a free-market vacuum. They suck at the taxation teat whenever they drive a paved road, hire a public school graduate or drink tap water. The corporate entertainments he lauds as not taking "tax handouts" are notorious lobbyists for tax exemptions, economic incentives and copyright extensions. Rod only wants to extinguish the trickle that makes it down to the little people.

Bottom line: Economic development isn't attracted by Thomson's ideology. What separates Sarasota from towns like Cocoa and Daytona is its arts-friendly infrastructure: theaters, museums and cultural institutions within a small radius. If arts in Sarasota (and the rest of the state) wither away, all that's left are shell shops with nekked boobie mugs.

If I could get my hands on Thomson, I wouldn't break his neck. I'd bring him to Breakthrough Theatre of Winter Park, where I caught the final performance of Butterflies Are Free on June 27. Following a stomach cancer diagnosis, Wade Hair quit his teaching job and opened his dream: a tiny 50-seat storefront stage on Fairbanks Avenue. It's a family affair, with his mom manning the concessions and his dad delivering the curtain speech. The elder Mr. Hair reports that his son is doing well and looking forward to the theater's first anniversary fundraiser on July 11.

Leonard Gershe's 1968 play hasn't aged well. The tale of Don Baker (Daniel Boisrond), a blind-from-birth guitarist with a free-spirited neighbor (Katelyn Douglass) and an overbearing mother (Sue Cohen), veers uneasily from romantic comedy to message play. What must have once been titillating is now mostly tepid. Still, I was impressed with what director and recent University High School graduate Heather-Lucia Bass pulled from her equally young cast. In particular, Boisrond made a challenging role credible, especially considering he joined the show with only five days rehearsal. This ain't Broadway, but these kids compare favorably to many Fringe shows.

No one here gets paid cash, but the economic output involves something much more important: civilization. When an artist is gone, he leaves behind a legacy of creation. When Thomson's time comes, will anyone notice but his accountant?

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