Andy Sandberg doesn’t want to be Sarasota’s best kept secret.
Sandberg, the artistic director and CEO of the Hermitage Artist Retreat, arrived right as the COVID-19 pandemic was about to strike, and he’s presided over an organization that has doubled its funding and dramatically expanded its programming.
Sandberg is quick to credit the people around him; he says that his predecessors left the organization in tremendous shape and the board stepped up its commitment in 2021, but he wants the local community to know the Hermitage has gigantic ambitions.
“One of the biggest misinterpretations I’ve heard of the Hermitage — and still occasionally hear — is that it’s this isolated place for exclusive artists to go far over there,” he says.
“They think Manasota Key is some Shangrila off in Siberia. … We have this reputation for being a hidden gem, and I don’t embrace the phrase hidden gem. You can be a gem and celebrate what we’re doing, celebrate the accomplishments of these artists and celebrate the fact that some of the greatest works in the country and the world are being started right here.”
It’s that niche — the involvement in fostering artists in the beginning stages of their work — that distinguishes the Hermitage from other arts organizations in town and around the world. Sandberg doesn’t want to be the place that houses the big premiere or the red carpet event; he wants to lend a helping hand to the artists well before they have a finished product.
The Hermitage has expanded its residency program to about 60 or 70 artists per year, and it recently added a second lucrative arts scholarship — the Hermitage Major Theater Award — thanks to the philanthropy of Flora Major and the Kutya Major Foundation.
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And although that award is limited to playwrights or theater artists, the Hermitage sponsors a stunning array of different artists across different disciplines and mediums. One week they might have an event with a playwright, and the next a brilliant classical musician.
Interestingly, the Hermitage raison d’etre doesn’t put it at odds with theaters or concert halls that you might expect to be a competing entity. Sandberg says that the Hermitage has been able to form synergistic relationships with virtually every arts organization in town.
“I often say we’re Switzerland,” he says. “We make watches and chocolate, and everyone likes watches and chocolate. We are not doing exclusive arrangements with anybody. We’re working with Selby Gardens. We’re working with Booker High School. We’re working with the Bay Park. When we do an event with the Asolo, the next week we might be doing one with Florida Studio Theatre. The next week we might do something with Westcoast Black Theater Troupe or the Venice Theater or the Urbanite.”
And what do their events look like if they’re not hosing the final performance? They’re holding writing workshops with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights, and they’re inviting cutting-edge musicians to come in and speak to audiences about how they get their start.
It’s a safe space for the artists, who are working on pieces that might not be completed for months or years down the line. And it gives the audience some quality time with artists in a relaxed setting where the expectations aren’t as stark as they are at a concert hall.
“I come from the theater world. I love new work,” says Sandberg, a Tony Award-winning producer. “That’s always been my passion. What drew me to the Hermitage is it’s an organization that supports solely the artist’s early development. Many people like to say: ‘I was at the opening. I was at the premiere. I was there at the beginning.’ The reality is they weren’t there at the beginning; they were there at a significant milestone. We’re truly supporting the beginning, which is often eight to 10 years before a work has its first life. People are setting down their first pages or first songs of shows that will eventually go on all around the world.”
Two former Hermitage artists — Nico Mulhy and Craig Lucas — took a piece they were working on in Manasota and brought it to the stage at the English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
That opera, directed by Bartlett Sher, was named “Two Boys,” and the Met and English National Opera shared the initial production costs to stage it. Before it ever saw the light of day, Mulhy performed a song called “Skip Away” at Asolo Repertory Theatre.
Gavin Creel, an actor who won the Tony Award in 2017 for his performance in the Broadway revival of “Hello Dolly!,” was a Hermitage fellow and spent his residency working on a passion project.
Earlier this year, he hosted an event and spoke about what the program meant.
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“I’m a proud Hermitage fellow,” Creel says. “I think the best thing about the Hermitage is you are allowed whatever you need: time, daydreaming, resources, space. Time and space are so hard to come by in New York, and as a writer, it’s so easy to get bogged down.”
The Hermitage has empowered a curatorial council to choose artists from all over the map, and the council members serve three-year terms before ceding their position. They’re not tasked with fulfilling any artistic quotas or having artists from any specific discipline.
On the contrary, they’re encouraged to increase the breadth and depth of volume across disciplines, and they’re welcomed to reach out to artists who are quite established and also artists looking for their big break. In many cases, says Sandberg, the council reaches out to artists who would never even know about the Hermitage resident program at all.
“I think the Hermitage is serving one of the most diverse artist populations of any arts organization. And that’s not just in our region, but I think across the board,” says Sandberg. “The reason for that is our curators put a lot of thought and care into identifying artists who are forward thinking, artists who are pushing boundaries, artists who are challenging themselves.”
In addition to the Major Theater Award — which will annually award $35,000 to an artist who is working on creating a new dramatic work — the Hermitage also offers the Greenfield Prize, given for a new work of art in the fields of drama, musical and visual art.
Ellen Berman, a trustee of the Hermitage Artist Retreat, says she has known Sandberg for a long time and that she’s excited by the direction the organization has been taking.
“The future is boundless,” she says. “Since Andy came, there’s been an explosion of activities and ideas. It’s very exciting. We have a series of awards to commission new artists. It’s such an inspirational and magical place where artists have time and space to create.”
Sandberg likes to say that critics aren’t allowed at the Hermitage; it’s a space to celebrate art and nurture artists, and because the works are still at an introductory place, there’s really no reason why anybody should be expecting a finished product.
When people move to Sarasota, says Sandberg, they already know the types of art they love. They know where to find the orchestra or the opera, if that’s what they like, and if they’re theater buffs, they have more than a few options to see live performances.
But what Sandberg wants people to know is that if they’re looking to support artists at an early stage of development, they have one of the best places to do that right in their backyard.
“When I first came here, one of the things I heard over and over was that Sarasota has millions or thousands of nonprofits and nonprofit arts organizations,” he says. “And that’s a wonderful fact. However, the volume is not what makes Sarasota such a vibrant arts organization. It’s how intertwined and embedded in the culture it is. For me, one of the goals was to say, ‘We consider ourselves to be one of the leading arts organizations in that field.’
“That’s great that there are thousands and thousands; we’re not interested in being perceived as one of a thousand. We feel that our place in this ecosystem is as a leader, a colleague and a collaborator, and we want to celebrate that. We’ve tried to plant that flag.”