Economic development was the major agenda item every day, 24-7, for the communities. When I came to Sarasota and talked to people in economic development, it was like there wasn’t really anything. It was a different world. The community at that point was in a growth-versus-no-growth stage. That was very foreign to me.”
Thompson saw a less-than-diversified economy in which tourism, construction and banking industries seemed to pay all the bills. He predicted that combination would result in catastrophe. Eventually, it did.
Thanks to that bit of prescience, Thompson in recent years has risen to an almost prophetic level in the eyes of many local leaders. Politicians from an array of camps lean on him for advice. At a board meeting last year, for example, Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta publicly credited Thompson with pulling together the inaugural Ringing International Arts Festival (RIAF)—even though that was a project of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, not Ringling College. Nonetheless, Thompson’s name is often associated with all things arts-and-culture-related in the city. He has made that much of an impact.
As Thompson aspires to create a more enriched and empowered creative class in Southwest Florida, he has also cultivated a reputation outside of academic circles. The College president’s pedestal has reached surprising heights, and at times, it has seemed he could do no wrong.
But anyone that stands on a pedestal too long is bound to teeter.
In the last year, Thompson found himself both wittingly and unwittingly involved in some of the Sarasota’s biggest controversies: the Unconditional Surrender debate and the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium brouhaha. His personal groundswell of respect was tested. His viewpoint was exalted and later dismissed, sometimes by the same people. In other arenas, his expertise remains unchallenged, and it seems unlikely that anyone is ready to exile this prophet and his wisdom.
Dustups and Displacements
The campus at Ringling College can be a hard place to navigate when under construction, and since this summer’s projects included renovations to Keating Center, the office of the president is harder to find than usual. Noxious fumes have filled Thompson’s normal building, forcing his entire staff out of the structure. For now, he is operating out of a small office on the second floor of the Ulla Searing Student Center. “We’re confined here for now,” he says.
But his disposition seems largely unaffected by the displacement. His trademark tweed jacket hangs on a hook in his temporary office, and he is roaming the halls of the building in a brown T-shirt and slacks. Thompson is certainly happier here than in front of the Commission, where he recently proposed a controversial new use for the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium—a move that led the masses to decry his name. Thompson also looks more at ease now than he does at Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce functions, where everyone seems eager to rub his elbow and talk business.
Yes, Thompson’s current office is temporary, but it still serves well as a space for a higher education leader. To the uninformed eye, it would appear that Thompson has worked here forever, and it certainly would not seem like he had no knowledge of this environment a decade ago. He reminisces about the time a headhunter first rang him about the job at the College. “Higher education is where my passion lies,” Thompson says. “But I never thought I would really be at an arts college. I did not know much about Ringling, and knew nothing about Sarasota.”
Thompson, a figure lionized at times by Sarasota’s elite, is not a native, and he is sometimes confounded by the mindsets that dominate life in Southwest Florida. The lackadaisical attitudes about economic development that prevailed when he first arrived here seemed foreign. In the last 10 years, Thompson has spent much of his administrative efforts trying to change that mindset, while building and spending political capital along the way.
On the outside, Thompson seems to be a man of purpose and determination, but he admits it was difficult to find his path in life. The College president grew up in Ohio, surrounded by medical professionals. His mother was a registered nurse and his older brother became a physician. As a young boy, Thompson considered a career in medicine—possibly veterinary—but in college, he quickly learned he was better at math than biology. By the time he finished his bachelor’s degree as a math major, he realized that, while numbers came easily to him, he could never live a life centered around formulas. He went to graduate school and earned a master’s degree in counseling and educational administration, then took a position at a local college as a director of financial aid. Still unsatisfied, he went back to school for his law degree, then spent about 12 years offering legal advice to Ohio State University and other Rust Belt schools.
“The one constant thing in everything I have done is education,” Thompson says, though he suggests that trajectory wasn’t consciously designed.
Thompson ended up serving as Ohio State’s full-time counsel, offering more than just legal advice on campus. He oversaw the public radio and TV stations for three years. When the University was searching for a new athletic director, Thompson assumed the role in the interim. He also led the creation of a new research initiative. And in those temporary assignments, he found a passion for leading. “I loved working with people of all different backgrounds,” Thompson says. “I enjoyed the challenge of trying to put pieces together, to make things happen and to see tangible results.”
And his efforts drew attention within Ohio business circles. Thompson was eventually recruited to head up the development of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. Thompson led the fundraising efforts and managed the architecture and construction of the institution. It was there that he earned his chops by turning an arts-centered entity into an economic force that helped define a community’s cultural and business identity.
“The way to raise money for that was not through rock n’ roll fans,” Thompson recalls. “Almost all of the money came from Cleveland. We raised up the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the intent of it being an economic development tool.”
The music institution generated tourism jobs and increased global awareness of Cleveland as a city. It created new industries in Cleveland at a time when manufacturing and changing technologies were devastating the area’s economy. “I became very familiar with the importance of tourism in economic development, and with the arts in economic development,” Thompson says.
That economic expertise was bolstered when Thompson’s work at the Hall of Fame was completed and he was recruited to head the Flint Cultural Center in Flint, Mich. This was an existing campus of diverse cultural treasures, which included a performing arts hall, a planetarium, a music institute and an automobile museum. “It was an amazing place nobody would ever dream was in Flint, Michigan,” Thompson explains. “But it was my job to bring all these arts organizations that were on this one campus together to work independently.”
Despite the city’s artistic resources, Flint wasn’t largely perceived as a cultural hub. It was a town made famous by its General Motors plants and the Michael Moore documentary, Roger and Me. Thompson’s hope was to turn the Cultural Center into an attraction for the fine-arts-minded set, and to help create an identity for the community that transcended manufacturing. “Part of turning that around was so this could be a real engine to help showcase the good things about Flint,” Thompson says.
After getting the Cultural Center in order, the call to higher education reached Thompson once again. Ringling College needed a new president. It was January in Michigan, and the weather was right for a trip to Sarasota. Thompson recalls a trip to the area with his wife during the interview process (she vowed she would move to Sarasota whether or not he got the job). He did, of course, get the job, averting any subsequent marital separation. And as soon as he got to town, Thompson began offering his new take on the role of the College in the community at large.
Over the years, Thompson found himself in positions of prominence in arts and education groups. While the former math major might not have expected to hold key posts on the Sarasota County Arts Council and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall board, his post at the College landed him there. Thompson led the College during the absorption of the Sarasota Museum of Art, rose to the role of president of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, and became treasurer of the President’s Council of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.
But the most unexpected role he played was that of an economic development guru. Since his arrival, Thompson has been active in the Sarasota Chamber, bringing in speakers to discuss how culture could enhance the region’s sense of place. He has also served on boards for both the Economic Development Council of Manatee County and the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) of Sarasota County.
“My philosophy is that the College has a major obligation to assist and be part of the community in as many ways as possible,” Thompson says. “Institutes of higher education tend to be very insular and tough to penetrate from the outside. They are very focused on their core mission of educating the students, and that usually means that they have their own bubble. But I tend to think of the College as a major corporate citizen, and it needs to be engaged in the community.”
Ringling College, in particular, has a narrow focus on design, which brings with it a business aspect, Thompson says. “It happens that, in today’s world, art and design are some of the biggest drivers of the future of the economy,” he adds.
The commitment is something local economic development officials appreciate. Kathy Baylis, president of Sarasota County’s EDC, says the higher education institutions in the region make for great recruiting tools. By guaranteeing a skilled workforce, the schools boost the chances that major companies will move to the county. Ringling College plays an especially integral role in the community, so much so that, when the EDC announced its platform for job growth in its master plan, design was one of just five focus categories.
Sarasota County Film Commissioner Jeanne Corcoran has used the presence of the College—specifically its digital filmmaking and computer animation programs—to woo Hollywood studios to open satellite offices in this region. The presence of high-quality students and graduates makes for tremendous synergy opportunities, she says. As Corcoran seeks new ways to create soundstages in town, an association with the College strengthens her chances of success, she says. “It would give real-world, hands-on experiences to students, who would get real credits on their résumés,” Corcoran says. “That is invaluable. If we brought in indie films and TV productions, that would genuinely help the community as well.”
Thompson proudly notes that the College’s reputation alone has drawn the attention of studios like Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks. While none have opened up shops here yet, Corcoran and Thompson believe it is just a matter of time before one studio sees an opportunity to secure a permanent location in Sarasota.
Thompson does get a bit frustrated, however, when the College’s film programs seem to garner all the attention from the press. “I understand it from a media standpoint,” he says. “It’s sexy and it’s new.” But graphic design and other programs offer immediate business possibilities as well, Thompson says. In the fall, the College kicked off a business program for the arts—something Thompson hopes will prepare artists to become entrepreneurs.
It seems like an odd approach to running an art school, but Thompson is determined to bring some left-brain sensibilities to a very right-brain area. In return, he hopes the creativity that is being nurtured on the College’s grounds will offer vigor to the overly goal-oriented business world.
The message is so important to Thompson that he has sacrificed much of his free time to advocating it. “It’s really been a sacrifice for my family,” Thompson says. “I have never spent enough time with my kids. Now they are growing up and going to college. I have some real regrets about that.”
Thompson’s oldest son, Eric, is 33 and earning a PhD at the University of Florida, while his 22-year-old daughter, Sarah, is finishing up a bachelor’s degree at New College of Florida. Thompson’s youngest son, Hunter, is leaving home this fall to begin his first semester at Ringling College.
But while many fathers long for more time with their children, Thompson can only lament so much. “When you are doing something you love, is it free time or not?” he ponders. “It’s like these artists doing their passion while they are going to school. If you ask them what they do with their free time, they say, ‘I paint.’ ”
Thompson’s sacrifices for the good of the community don’t always earn him accolades. In the last year, unpopular
positions have kept Thompson’s name in the news. It began when the local public became consumed with the fate of the bayfront statue, Unconditional Surrender.
Despite his desperate maneuvers to avoid debate, arguments about the kissing sailor statue sucked in Thompson. “I’m very neutral,” he repeats multiple times. In the minds of the city’s artists, however, that stance wasn’t enough. While people have patriotic and aesthetic reasons for loving or hating the statue, many local sculptors were offended by the intellectual property issues surrounding the monument, which bears a striking and supposedly-coincidental resemblance to a Life magazine cover from 1945.
Thompson admits that the kitsch Seward Johnson piece isn’t exactly his bag. Some of the steel monuments on the College’s campus offer more originality than Unconditional Surrender, Thompson says, but those haven’t found their way onto Sarasota postcards. “OK, personally, I would rather one of those be the image of Sarasota,” Thompson concedes. “But it also says something that Unconditional Surrender can be another image of Sarasota.”
Thompson has shied away from taking a hard stance on the subject, instead choosing to celebrate the fact that Sarasota’s community so fervently debated the question, “What is art?” for more than a year, thanks to a single statue.
Last year, Sarasota City Commissioner Kelly Kirschner read Thompson’s mere support of the art debate as a tacit endorsement. Kirschner joined a scant majority in voting to leave the statue on the bayfront for another decade, which satiated supportive veterans but angered local artists. During his vote, Kirschner supported Thompson as an expert and leader in the local art world.
The confusion prompted Thompson to write an email to Kirschner clarifying that he didn’t support the statue, just the conversation. That resulted in a tete-a-tete between Kirschner and statue critics, but it didn’t change any of the outcomes.
That was a controversy Thompson never wanted to start. And there were others. In an unrelated hearing at the Commission, Thompson’s name was cited when a proposal regarding the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium became public. After a suggestion by City Commissioner Terry Turner, Thompson had intimated that Sarasota should lease the building to Ringling College at a rate of $1 per year for 99 years, and allow the College to repurpose the building as a movie soundstage.
The result was outrage.
Adrien Lucas, organizer of the Atomic Holiday Bazaar, said the College was trying to take a resource away—virtually for free. “What they want is for Sarasota citizens to foot the bill for their soundstage,” Lucas said to applause.
Virginia Hoffman, a community activist that led a losing fight against Unconditional Surrender, called the Auditorium proposal offensive. Neighborhood leader Susan Chapman brought in crowds to decry the plan. Kirschner, who had leaned so heavily on Thompson’s words during the statue debate, led a charge against the plan. At one meeting, more than 50 people voiced their opinions, and only Thompson spoke up on behalf of the plan. Days before an almost certain rejection of the proposal, Thompson withdrew.
Months after that proposal went down in infamy, Thompson remains chagrined. When asked if it was indeed his first major political misstep since arriving in Sarasota, he refused to go that far. “It was the right step to have it looked at. I still believe that was the right step,” Thompson says. “But what it became… I was a little more naïve than I should have been.”
Even as the plans dissolved, leaders are still careful to stress support for the College. City Commissioner Fredd Atkins says every effort should be made to help find a suitable location for a soundstage, and Kirschner echoes the sentiment.
Corcoran says the political will was just too much to bear, but that Thompson should not take the blame. “You never want to hurt a community, and always want to help a community,” Corcoran says. “When so many were in opposition, he very graciously stepped back and said it was just an idea balloon, and obviously was not wanted.”
And while his idea for a soundstage was slighted, Thompson remains a voice leaders turn to for guidance. When the Sarasota County Arts Council last year opted to drop its layman board in favor of a group of arts community leaders, Thompson was named chairman of the reformed organization. This month, Thompson expects that the Council will announce more major changes and initiatives.
“I feel very optimistic about the Arts Council now in terms of where it is headed,” Thompson says. “It’s still struggling, but it’s got a whole new face to it. The fact that arts and culture is being recognized now is one of the key defining elements for Sarasota and an important part of Sarasota’s future. That is where the Arts Council needs to be focused.”
Thompson has looked forward to Festival sARTee, a happening he believes incorporates local talent into the RIAF—something that was lacking in the inaugural year.
And, of course, Thompson is loving the work and success of his students at the College. Thompson is a president that refuses to stay within the ivory tower, and he is committed to growing the prestige of the College’s art and design programs.
Like Thompson’s relocation to the Ulla Searing Student Center from the President’s Office at Keating Hall, any political fall from grace seems temporary at best. The fumes of controversy pass. The memory of kicked-up dust and smoke disappears quickly, and in its place appears the glow of restoration.
BY JACOB OGLES
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