Act I: Local artists and performers share highs and lows of beginning a career
When Will Ralston graduated from the Ringling College of Art & Design, he moved back in with his parents. Freelance work included airbrushing custom cars and motorcycles, but he took any job he could find.
“I once got paid to airbrush dancers at a strip club,” Ralston says, laughing through his bushy beard. “It was called Bottoms Up — the Bottoms Up Gentleman’s Club. Not your finest establishment, but the ladies were sweet.”
When a tattoo parlor hired him to paint a mural, he discovered a new source of income, a new way to express himself, and a colorful new career.
Ralston, 33, worked at different tattoo shops in Tampa and Sarasota. He became known for vivid octopus images and whimsical designs of sharks playing saxophones. He found his way to Oddity Tattoo on Main Street.
No fewer than four Ringling graduates work in the downtown storefront. It’s a tattoo parlor with an art gallery. Oddity sells prints and shows paintings by the artists who work there.
Ralston still paints — he had a June show at a Sarasota brewery — but he’s primarily a tattoo artist. He’s not complaining.
“It’s a big thing,” he says. “It’s become so popular that more artists are looking into it. The art itself is beautiful. You’re seeing things that you can only imagine being painted on canvas.”
Support for arts, or artists?
Hundreds of Sarasota actors, dancers, singers, musicians and visual artists know the high points and low comedy of starting a career.
Most try and fail to support themselves as performers. They take second and third jobs. They scrimp and sacrifice.
For many, a life in the arts amounts to a vow of poverty.
This kind of struggle is nothing new, but it does stand out in a city that savors its reputation as an art center.
Sarasota is home to the Ringling Museum of Art — the state art museum of Florida — along with the Sarasota Opera and Sarasota Orchestra. There is also the Sarasota Ballet and Sarasota Contemporary Dance, along with Florida Studio Theater, Asolo Repertory Theatre, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and the Urbanite Theatre.
This roster outshines the lineup of many larger cities in Florida.
“There’s really not much to compare to Sarasota, especially in the performing arts,” says Jim Shirley, executive director for the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County. “Around the country, there are very few cities that have the arts community we have.”
Civic pride isn’t the only payoff. There’s money in the arts. Benefits extend to the community through everything from costume shops to catering work.
A 2017 survey by Americans for the Arts estimated that nonprofit arts and culture generates $295 million each year in total economic activity for Sarasota County. This supports 7,400 full-time jobs, generates $220 million in household income, and delivers $32 million in state and local taxes.
The arts also encourage tourism and help draw the wealthy and well-educated retirees that have been crucial to the prosperity of Sarasota.
“We are one of the best elder communities in the world, period,” Shirley says. “We are able to attract retirees who could choose to live anywhere. They know the value of investing in the arts.”
Nate Jacobs, founder of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, marvels at the generosity of local arts patrons.
“Around the nation, they call us the miracle theater,” he says. “It’s almost unheard of for a white community to support a black company.”
Even in Sarasota, though, financial support doesn’t trickle down to many artists and performers. Most jobs remain part-time or short-term. Precious few offer pensions and benefits.
Even full-time positions pay less than people might think.
Consider the Sarasota Orchestra, one of the biggest employers of classical musicians on the Gulf Coast. It has a highly competitive audition process that draws classical musicians who have spent years training in music conservatories and graduate schools.
Starting pay for those who land a job? $35,000 a year.
That salary, competitive with other orchestras in Florida, is more than most arts jobs. It’s also less — far less — than the $43,000 base pay for teachers with just a bachelor’s degree in Sarasota County public schools.
Members of the Sarasota Ballet’s corps de ballet are guaranteed 33 weeks of work a year at $550 per week. That’s $18,000, plus help buying insurance. At Sarasota Contemporary Dance, a small company with a new rehearsal space in the Rosemary District, dancers earn $10 and $10.75 an hour.
At the Sarasota Opera, which has a three-month winter season and three-week fall production, guest performers sing major roles and are paid varying rates. Studio artists who sing minor roles earn $500 a week, plus housing and airfare.
Hundreds of young singers apply for 24 spots in an opera apprentice program that pays $400 a week, plus housing and airfare.
Victor DeRenzi, artistic director of the Sarasota Opera, considers the apprenticeships a paid training program in a highly competitive field. He makes no apologies for a system that ruthlessly culls those who are less talented, insufficiently prepared or not so determined to succeed.
What infuriates the conductor is the idea of apprentices arriving with six-figure student loans from private colleges and conservatories.
“How do you make that up?” DeRenzi demands. “At what point in your life do you pay off $100,000 in debt while you’re supporting yourself? Nobody in medical school says, ‘Have you thought about a second job?’ If they tried that in law school, they’d lose their accreditation.”
At the same time, if performers have any doubt about their career choice, DeRenzi thinks they should do something else. Money is a poor motivation. For him, art is the highest calling, one that calls for absolute commitment.
“I don’t believe in work-life balance,” he says. “If you’re in the arts, that is your life. If you need another life, well, have another life.”
‘La Vie Boheme’
In the beginning, especially, the arts life often includes day jobs, side jobs and survival jobs.
Dancers wait tables. Playwrights serve drinks. Musicians take whatever gig they can find.
“That’s the tricky part about this,” says Henry Washington, a singer and dancer with the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. “Finding a job that works.”
He works construction during the day so he can perform at night. His sideline is cutting hair as a mobile barber with a loyal clientele.
“Guys text me, ‘Are you cutting today?’” Washington says. “And they’ll wait. They’ll wait until the weekend if they have to.”
Most performers don’t make a lot of money on the side. Many get help from their families. Some struggle to buy groceries and pay the rent.
For young artists, these challenges are considered rites of passage.
Sharing a crappy apartment? Check. Mocking the boss at a temp job? Yep. Shopping at thrift stores? Sure.
In the musical “Rent,” young performers sing, dance and celebrate “La Vie Boheme” as they squat in abandoned buildings in New York City.
Art becomes its own reward for many artists. It’s the highlight of their lives. Taking the stage, taking a bow, taking home that first paycheck, no matter how small.
Not being able to perform is the worst hardship.
Elizabeth Tredent, a soprano at the Sarasota Opera, spent four years as an apprentice and studio artist before gaining a principal role. It took her awhile to get used to the rejection of going to 10 straight auditions without landing a single role.
“What’s harder is waiting for your time,” Tredent says. “People will say, ‘What are you doing? What’s coming up for you?’ and it’s like a stab in the heart. And then you feel like you have to defend yourself.”
Lots of artists know that feeling. Friends and family don’t understand their careers. Determination looks desperate from a distance.
Tredent, who stands 6 feet tall, never doubted herself. She never stopped singing. She never forgot the way she felt in her first opera.
“When it hits you, there’s no words for it — you just know,” she says. “This is my destiny. It sounds cheesy, but that’s how I feel.”
More realistic education
Aaron Dworkin, a professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, believes arts education needs a reality check.
Even at the college level, the odds are against arts students, especially for the dream jobs that everyone wants. A vast majority will never play for a major orchestra, never appear on a Broadway stage, and never see their work in a famous gallery.
Harsh, but true, and something young artists need to hear.
“The thing that frustrates me is that these realities are all known,” Dworkin says. “Yet they are not told.”
He tells students that it’s much more likely they will get an arts-related job that requires communication, cooperation and management skills. He recommends coursework in innovation, entrepreneurship and career-building.
More and more universities and arts institutions are turning in this academic direction.
Standing in the way are centuries of tradition, not to mention some of the most powerful forces in human nature.
Students follow dreams of work and sacrifice that lead to fame and fortune. Teachers try so hard to encourage young artists that they worry about discouraging them with unpleasant truths.
Dworkin was a classical violinist who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Michigan. As an undergrad, he founded the Sphinx Organization, a nonprofit for the development of young black and Latino musicians.
This was about the time he had his own epiphany.
He was not destined to become America’s next great violin soloist. And that was OK. He would build a career as an arts educator, administrator and entrepreneur.
When Dworkin faces students today, he tries to be realistic yet encouraging.
“Go for it, absolutely,” he tells them. “But know the reality.”
Clucking ‘Happy Birthday’
Few actors start out in Sarasota — there’s not enough work — but many struggle in New York and Los Angeles before landing on the Gulf Coast. Some come to earn master’s degrees in theater at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training.
Summer Dawn Wallace, co-founder of the Urbanite Theatre, is a Conservatory grad who lived the life of a young actress. She did odd jobs. She did odder jobs.
“I was a cheese demonstrator at Walmart,” Wallace says. “I did singing telegrams — dressed up as a chicken, clucked out ‘Happy Birthday,’ and laid eggs.”
Even when she did land a theater role, it didn’t last.
“I did a tour in Singapore and it was amazing,” she says. “Then I didn’t work for 10 months.”
Her Asolo classmate and Urbanite co-founder, Brendan Ragan, helped start a theater in Baltimore with drama friends from college. He worked day jobs to pay his bills.
“I was a matchmaker for a year,” Ragan says. “I applied for a customer service job and, being an actor, I did really well in the interview, and I wound up getting a job I was wholly unqualified for. And it was terrible.
“I’m way too much of a feeler. The memberships were super-expensive and all of these people were angry and single and taking it out on me. I went home every night with the burdens of these people on my shoulders.”
Ragan and Wallace laugh. It’s easy to laugh now. At the time, it was less funny and more painful.
“As a young artist, as a young actor, doors slam in your face constantly,” Wallace says. “You have to decide if it’s worth it.”
Tips for a dancer/waitress
Mary Allison performs with Sarasota Contemporary Dance. She teaches dance to children at the Woodland Fine Arts Academy. And she waits tables at Bonefish Grill.
Sometimes the 30-year-old does all of these things in a single day.
“Yesterday, I felt like a zombie,” she says. “If I can schedule a nap in between, I will.”
When Allison moved to Sarasota, she was married. All of her jobs were dance-related, even if some of them didn’t pay very well. She kept busy and earned a reputation in the dance community.
Then she got divorced and life changed.
Dance didn’t pay her bills. Debts mounted. She got a retail job at the mall, which she hated, and then became a waitress.
“That was really hard for me — hard for my ego,” she says. “I felt I had to prove I could make it just through my field. So this was like a huge reality check and wake-up call. You know, how am I going to survive?”
Allison is from Niceville. Her family would like to have her back in the Panhandle, but she’s committed to the Gulf Coast and Sarasota.
“Art is really valued here, and it isn’t everywhere,” she says. “Not where I’m from.”
Working and performing have helped teach Allison time management and discipline.
This year, she decided to give up coffee, television and staying up late at night. She’s grown more interested in yoga, vegetarianism and nutrition.
Allison would like to teach full-time, while continuing to perform, but doesn’t know if that will happen for her.
“I have thought, ‘What is my life going to look like in five years?’” she says. “And my mind can’t go there. I can’t determine what’s going to be in my future.”
‘Classic snakes and sparklers’
Ralston, the Main Street tattoo artist, has long hair and a full beard, but his glasses make him look less like a hipster and more like a sci-fi nerd.
His cargo shorts and T-shirts reveal the ink on his own arms and legs. His tats are mostly traditional designs.
“Skulls, demons and all that,” he says. “The classic snakes and sparklers.”
He laughs at his own joke.
“It’s from a movie,” he explains. “‘Joe Dirt.’”
Ralston studied art in high school and college, but never had a career plan. Freelance work and fate led him to tattoo art. He started out as an apprentice.
“It’s a bigger learning curve than I thought it would be,” he says. “Every skin is different, every body is different. There’s a lot of adjustment with it.”
Not just the medium was new.
Like so many artists, Ralston was uncomfortable negotiating terms with bosses and prices with clients. He made mistakes and tried not to repeat them.
“It’s hard learning the business aspect of this,” he says. “How not to get beat up on price. When to stand your ground. Trying to get what you’re worth.”
Ralston charges $150 an hour, but that’s only time with an ink gun in his hand. Concepts and preliminary sketches are on his own dime.
Working at Oddity Tattoo helped him build a client list. His girlfriend helped him create a website. He promotes his work on Facebook and Instagram.
Ralston doesn’t dream of opening his own shop one day. Too much hassle. He does respect artists who can manage a business while continuing to create.
“These people, they live for this, they live for their art,” he says. “The people who can balance it out, those are the people I admire. They’re doing it right.”
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