The WORK of ART: Finding Stability, With Grit, Determination And Luck

By Thomas Becnel
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.

For years, Leymis Bolanos Wilmott ran a dance company out of her Honda Civic.

What became Sarasota Contemporary Dance, with a spiffy new office and rehearsal space in the Rosemary District, started out as a small company with an odd name, Fuzion Dance. The founder was also the choreographer, manager, planner, marketer and chauffeur.

“In the beginning, things were really hard,” says Wilmott, 41. “I would say Fuzion Dance On Wheels, because everything was in my car. But I always made the company a priority.”

She did small jobs for little money, but they were all dance-related.

She taught dance classes at Booker High School, the YMCA, the Senior Friendship Center and any other place she could find.

Wilmott and her husband lived in Bradenton, where housing was cheaper, but they committed to Sarasota. She began a relationship with New College of Florida. She collaborated with local arts groups.

Her company matured. She got a new board of directors. Community support helped give Sarasota Contemporary Dance a high-profile headquarters on the Boulevard of the Arts.

“This is saying we’re established, we have a home,” Wilmott says. “It’s rare to have a home. I have friends on Facebook who are like, ‘How did you do it, Leymis?'”

The answer to that question includes 12 years of toil and sacrifice. Wilmott, a mother of two, only got health insurance last year. Her confidence and determination came with reflection and thought.

She keeps a prayer journal and tries to be mindful of her success.

“I believe in the power of prayer,” Wilmott says. “I believe that I was put in Sarasota for this. I was at the right place at the right time — and I put in the time. This didn’t happen overnight. This was not done alone. This happened with a tribe.”

Music fame, baseball hook
Lots of artists have talent. Most performers have enthusiasm. Staying power is another thing.

A career in the arts requires tenacity and endurance. Maybe a little good luck. Also a kind of selfishness, or single-mindedness, that keeps people on track.

Some artists create their own opportunities. They open a gallery or start a theater. They find a niche.

For other performers, fame is fleeting and careers are short. Classical ballet dancers, for instance, often quit performing in their 30s.

Taking the next step in a career often calls for a different set of skills.

Open-mindedness. Flexibility. Adaptability.

Consider Marcus Ratzenboeck, the 42-year-old concertmaster for The Venice Symphony. He’s had three musical careers so far, along with a claim to fame in baseball, of all things.

He grew up in Chicago, but moved to Sarasota and studied violin at Booker High School. He developed his talent at Florida State, Indiana University and then the Louisville Symphony.

Ratzenboeck spent 10 years in Kentucky. He did session work in a local recording studio. He hooked up with a hard rock band called Tantric.

He wound up playing electric violin on a song called “Down & Out.” It became a big hit. He joined the band and began touring.

“It was an interesting life,” he says. “I was still doing classical music, but the rock really took off for a while. We had a good six-year run.”

Raztenboeck made good money in popular music. He still drives a BMW. Not a lot of classical musicians can say that.
The baseball hook to the Tantric story came when former Tampa Bay Rays star Evan Longoria chose “Down & Out” for the walk-up music that played every time he came to bat. Thousands of sports fans learned to associate clutch hitting with the powerful opening chords of that song on the violin.

Duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh. Duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh.

Ratzenboeck got to meet Longoria and go to some Rays games. He played the national anthem at Tropicana Field. That was fun, too.

When he got tired of touring with Tantric, Ratzenboeck moved back to Sarasota, where his parents had a machine shop off Clark Road. He turned it into a recording studio. He returned to the world of classical music, which was harder than he thought it would be.

He spent long hours practicing the most demanding pieces for violin. He did orchestra auditions to stay sharp.

“It took me years to get back to where I was,” he says. “In some ways, it was even more of a challenge, but I always knew I would.”

Ratzenboeck joined the Venice Symphony and became concertmaster. He also plays with jazz bands and rock groups.

“I work hard,” he says. “I work a lot. I’m always doing something. I’m always trying to create. There’s never any downtime.”

A bag of nickels?
Before Tim Jaeger figured out how to make a living with art, he had a variety of jobs.

Dog walker. Book seller. Art dealer. Wine server. Lawn mower.

He drove a 15-year-old Chevy Citation. No savings account or health insurance. He shared a rental house with other young artists.

Jaeger kept painting, though, and kept networking at galleries, frame shops and art supply stores.

He finally got a job at Art Center Sarasota, and that helped him return to the Ringling College of Art & Design, where he had earned a bachelor’s degree in 2002. Now he’s campus and community engagement manager, in an office crowded with large canvases and small photos.

On the bulletin board behind his desk hangs a plastic bag filled with $1.75 in change.

“See that?” says Jaeger, 38. “That’s the bag of nickels I had in my car on my first day of work here. A dollar seventy-five. That’s how much money I had. I’m not joking. It was all nickels because I had spent all the quarters.”

A few years later, during a recession, he helped start SaRtQ, an art collective that helps local people show and sell their work.

In a city like Sarasota, artists must fight for attention.

Jaeger still paints every evening in his garage studio. It’s important to him. At shows and sales, he enjoys talking to people about his work.

That’s important, too.

“Let me put it this way,” he says. “You’re not going to sell a lot of paintings if you can’t talk to people.”

Jaeger shows his work across Florida and around the country. He leads workshops. He’s active at Ringling, with SaRtQ and in Gulf Coast galleries.

A life in the arts. There’s satisfaction in that.

“I feel like I’m a success,” Jaeger says. “I can support my family and my career as an artist.”

Last actor standing
Since 1996, David Breitbarth has been a resident actor with the Asolo Repertory Theatre.

Sarasota fans know the 60-year-old from his performances in more than 70 plays.

These range from “Julius Caesar” and “I Hate Hamlet” to “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Glengarry Glen Ross.” From “The Crucible” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” to “A Flea in Her Ear” and “Don Juan in Hell.” From “Amadeus” and “God of Carnage” to “Shakespeare in Love” and “Rhinoceros.”

This is a great swath of theater. More great characters than he can remember. More great lines than he can count.
“I’m a lucky one,” Breitbarth says with a smile. “I think I have the best theater job in the state. I never forget for a moment how lucky I am. I know so many actors who haven’t had the breaks I’ve had.”

He’s from New York City and began his acting career there. He never appeared on Broadway, but did do a couple of off-Broadway plays.

“None of which were any good,” he adds. “It was just a job.”

One of the best jobs he had was understudy for a touring role in the musical “Spring Awakening.” He remembers the travel. He also remembers the expense account.

After many years in New York, Breitbarth moved to California and tried to find work in film and television. That was frustrating, too. He suffered the usual doubts and disappointments.

In 1995, he did land a guest spot on “Frasier,” the hit NBC comedy.

Millions of viewers saw him play a member of the focus group reviewing a radio show. His less than thrilling line of dialogue: “The stuff he says really seems to make a lot of sense.”

There was some physical comedy, too.

At the end of the scene, Breitbarth picks food out of his teeth in front of a two-way mirror.

“It was silly,” he says with a shrug. “It was one day. It was one line.”

After his time in Los Angeles, Breitbarth got a job at Asolo Rep and stayed in Sarasota.

He kept acting. He helped start the Banyan Theater Company, but never wanted to become a director, producer or businessman. He kept acting.

Breitbarth has been married, but never had children. That made it easier to focus on performing.

Repertory theater can be hard on older actors, who must play two or even three roles in rotation at a single theater. These days, it takes longer for him to learn a part.

Asolo Rep appreciates his talent and experience. He’s the only person left from the company he joined 22 years ago. He’s asked to mentor students and young performers.

“They call me an associate artist,” Breitbarth says, shaking his head. “It’s nice to be called that, but I’m an actor.”

Westcoast story
Nate Jacobs, founder of the Westcoast Black Theater Troupe, has told his story many different times to many different audiences.

He doesn’t mind repeating himself.

It’s a good story.

The Florida A&M graduate moved to Sarasota and began acting in shows at Asolo Rep and Florida Studio Theatre. He began working for a Sarasota church called the Westcoast Center for Human Development.

Jacobs borrowed that name when he started his theater company in 1999.

Not everyone was encouraging. Not even his own family.

His mother and two of his brothers, both lawyers, tried to talk him out of a theater career. What are you doing? they asked. Why are you wasting your time?

“I heard that a million times,” Jacobs says. “But I knew there was a calling in my life for this. I decided to see this through.”

He still remembers audition night for a show called “Cotton Club Cabaret.” Hardly anyone showed up. Things looked bleak.

“Then Teresa Stanley walked in,” he says.

Stanley went on to perform on Broadway in “The Color Purple” and “Rock of Ages.” Westcoast became one of the most successful black theaters in the nation.

Jacobs, 57, now has a corner office on the second floor of a new administration building at 10th Way and North Orange Avenue. A picture window looks down on the theater that will be expanded next year.

Westcoast had theatrical success for many years, but the business side of the company was a mess. The troupe was covered in red ink. There was debt and disorganization.

Jacobs — like Wilmott at Sarasota Contemporary Dance — finally got a board of directors who insisted that he get help to run the company. Christine Jennings, a Sarasota banker and businesswoman, joined the nonprofit organization as executive director.

For Jacobs, it was something like a miracle.

“I never thought a woman of her stature would work with a struggling black theater company,” he says. “She came on board and there was more stability and structure.”

And more meetings. Meetings all day long. Meetings with staff and meetings with the board and meetings with patrons.

This was humbling for Jacobs, who’s far more comfortable on stage or at rehearsal.

“It was hard at first,” he says. “I’m like, I don’t know if I want to do this. Responsibility forced me to do it. I grew up.”

Jacobs never lost his drive or passion for the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. He always appreciates the community support it enjoys in Sarasota.

It was there even in the beginning. It was there even when he struggled. It was there even when he couldn’t see it.
“People said, ‘Nate, we’ve been watching you for 20 years,'” he says. “‘You worked so hard. You never gave up.'”

Dancing with donors
At Sarasota Contemporary Dance, Wilmott remains creative director. She choreographs pieces and works with young dancers. She visits schools and leads dance programs.

None of this is new, but now she has help.

“Now I can finally delegate,” she says. “I have a general manager. I don’t have to teach every class.”

When Wilmott was growing up in Miami, her family couldn’t afford dance lessons. She went to the New World School of the Arts for high school and college. Then she earned a master’s degree at Florida State University.

An FSU dance program led her to the Gulf Coast after graduation. She made her mark with Sarasota Contemporary Dance.

Sometimes she feels like she’s come a long way. Sometimes she doesn’t.

“I’m finally seeing the rewards,” she says, “but I’m still paying student loans from my master’s degree.”

The fate of the company will not depend upon her choreography. At least as important will be her leadership, management and fundraising. Yet the future looks bright in the natural light of the group’s third-story space in the Rosemary District.

Wilmott smiles when she points out that that a meeting room remains a little bare.

“We have a donor wall,” she says, “that needs to be filled.”

The changing work of art
Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts, keeps an eye on employment statistics and funding trends.

He notes that, for more than half a century, a steady 1.5 percent of the civilian workforce has been employed in the arts. Today, that’s about 2.5 million people.

Yet the arts world is constantly changing. Traditional forms give way to new media. There are different kinds of jobs now.

“The arts aren’t just the province of our big museum halls or great concert halls,” Cohen says. “We’re seeing more and more public arts programs. Artists are finding opportunities working in schools and in health care. Close to 50 percent of the nation’s hospitals have some kind of arts programs.”

In Western Europe, federal governments provide the majority of funding for major arts organizations. In the United States, cultural groups depend on philanthropy, which has reached record numbers.

In 2017, according to the Giving USA organization, private gifts to arts, culture and the humanities reached $19 billion.

Public support also influences government funding at the county, state and national level.

“Most people would be surprised to know,” Cohen says, “that a Republican-led Congress has increased funds for the National Endowment for the Arts two years in a row.”

More cities are promoting the arts as part of downtown redevelopment and riverfront projects. A thriving cultural scene is seen as part of a healthy business climate.

The number of self-employed artists has grown in recent years, according to employment statistics. More of them have become entrepreneurs. More of them are open to trying new things.

“The world changes and so does the way people engage with art,” Cohen says. “Artists generally are watchers and listeners and people who have an ear to the ground. They find a way to connect with these evolving social trends and how they want to participate with the arts.”

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