By the time Patricia Caswell added the Manasota Key property to her portfolio of projects, the existing house hung precariously over a berm of sand as though plopped there by accident. Built in 1907 by sawmill operator and Swedish immigrant Carl Johansen, The Hermitage house, as it was called for reasons unverified, had changed hands for decades—until Ruth Swayze, a writer who used the property as both a home and an informal artist retreat in the ‘70s and ‘80s, sold it to Sarasota County in 1988. The house sat for more than a decade, each high tide sweeping more sand from beneath its foundation. Caswell stood before it and wondered how to save the property from being razed to a parking lot and beach access. With the home’s age and impending destruction at the hands of nature, nobody thought the place could be salvaged or that it would even be worth it. But Caswell saw magic in the dilapidated property.

For 12 years, she served as the director of the Sarasota County Arts Council, a precursor to the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County that adopted as its mission the cultivation of a thriving arts scene. “Sarasota had a great foundation of performance art institutions like The Asolo, Sarasota Orchestra, Player’s Theatre and Florida Studio Theatre,” Caswell says, “but it became apparent, when we were doing a lot of strategic planning, that there wasn’t a lot of support for independent artists, and we also needed to do more in south county.”

In this seemingly logical and innocuous way, The Hermitage Artist Retreat was born. With some help from the late arts collector and philanthropist Syd Adler, Caswell raised funds for and orchestrated the restoration of The Hermitage house. It was plucked from its disintegrating foundation and placed on concrete pillars about 100 feet back, coming to rest as though upon a pedestal. The project quickly became a bright star around which a long list of achievements orbited.

“During my tenure as director of the Arts Council, I initiated a county public art program,” says Caswell. The first artist to stay at the retreat was Malcom Robertson, a renowned Scottish sculptor commissioned by Caswell’s crew to fulfill the county’s public art initiative.“He was here working and needed a place to stay,” says Caswell, “so we thought that, instead of paying for a hotel, he could be the first artist to stay at The Hermitage.”

Robertson went on to create and install “Open Book Gateway,” the 18-foot tall stainless steel sculpture that sits in front of the Fruitville Library; as well as “Shell,” a sculpture in a roundabout near Manasota Key. The program continues to bring world-class sculptors to the county to construct installations of varying scale and complexity.

To help pay for those commissions and other initiatives, Caswell created the grant-writing process for the tourist development tax program, which she also had to defend several times. “I saw Palm Beach have great success with their tourist tax,” says Caswell, “so, with the help of several foundation heads, I wrote the guidelines for the program and then stewarded it for many years.” Caswell spent lots of time in front of county commissioners and community stakeholders to campaign in support of the tax, powering through bureaucracy like a “velvet-covered bulldozer,” as Sarasota Ballet Founder Jean Weidner Goldstein used to call her.

Today, that same tourist tax funds major programs around the region—from exhibitions at Ringling College to the nonprofit tourism marketing arm of the county, Visit Sarasota. And though The Hermitage proudly attracts artists from around the world, Caswell saw opportunities to get local artists into the retreat, too. “One of the other things I initiated was the John Ringling Towers Fund,” says Caswell, a grant program that awards local applicants with short stays at The Hermitage to work on their craft.

“She left a really well-organized operation at the Arts Alliance,” says Jim Shirley, the current executive director of the arts organization formerly headed by Caswell. Shirley says that, in many ways, Caswell was the ideal person for that job. “She was obviously very passionate about the arts scene for many years,” says Shirley, “but she was a strong leader and an outstanding collaborator, pulling so many county, state and federal pieces together to fund a lot of programs.”

When Caswell stepped down as program director of The Hermitage in May, she and current CEO/artistic director Andy Sandberg tried to wrap their heads around the staggering number of artistic works that branch out from her efforts as a champion of the arts. “There must be thousands,” she says, “and Andy and I agree it’s just impossible to track how much is out there.” Plays, musical compositions, paintings, novels, sculptures, poems and any number of interdisciplinary works have all germinated at the retreat that once seemed lost to the sea.

On her last day as program director of The Hermitage, Caswell thought she was going in for a final wrap-up meeting with staffers and the board. She was unprepared for the video Sandberg helped put together. “It was a surprise tribute video where 100 artists that came through The Hermitage contributed words of thanks and congratulations,” says Sandberg. They all, in one form or another, remembered her welcoming energy, her reception dinners, and the way she made them feel special and seen. “Patricia was just this wide-eyed, intelligent person that was passionate and curious about so many artforms,” says Sandberg, “but I think, more than anything, she really set the bar high for her hospitality. That really infused the culture of the organization from top to bottom.”

In her customary humility that belies her great feats as a velvet bulldozer for the arts, Caswell reflects on her time with The Hermitage. And it all comes back to the artists—the ones she supported in their artistic pursuits, the ones whose creative blocks were shattered by the picturesque view, and the ones who wrote more in two weeks at The Hermitage than they had in the previous two years.

“I think, more than anything, I’ll miss the artists,” says Caswell. “Artists are the people doing the R&D for the collective subconscious of the nation. They’re always ahead of the curve, and talking to them is like a lightbulb going off constantly because they look at the world in a way most people don’t. How lucky am I to have spent all these years among them?”