Jim Shirley has always been a hometown guy. It’s in his blood, that urge to contribute to something larger than himself, a mentality instilled by his upbringing in a small town in Arkansas. That same urge is what drove Shirley to take the mantle as the executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County in 2009 after a career in medical sales, a position that he’ll have held for 13 years when he steps down at the end of this December. 

 Ada Limòn Poet Laureate of the United States.


“It’s kind of an interesting and convoluted story,” says Shirley of his path to the Arts and Cultural Alliance. “Although I’ve been involved in the arts as a patron for many years, I have no artistic talent myself. When my family and I settled in Sarasota for the first time in my life, my career and my family were in the same area for the foreseeable future—I finally had the opportunity to sink my teeth into something. Not long after that, the Arts and Cultural Alliance gave me a call. They said it’s all about the arts but they really need business help. They want to be able to strengthen the business of their organization.”

The Arts and Cultural Alliance serves as the umbrella organization for all arts and cultural institutions in Sarasota County, a connection point between the arts and non-arts communities. “We’re that kind of behind-the-scenes organization that’s involved in almost everything, but really doesn’t lead anything, other than influence. We work a lot with the government and the business community, people in the community who are not necessarily involved heavily in the arts, but about why the arts are important,” says Shirley. “That includes everything from redistributing money from the state or federal government into the community to help support arts and culture to working with the school system to make sure that the arts are never cut from the schools come budget cuts.” Just because the Alliance plays a behind-the -scenes role, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a vital one—especially when focused on an area as art-centric as Sarasota. “In Sarasota County alone, we have over 8,000 people employed full-time in non-profit arts organizations. Cumulatively, they probably would be the largest employer in the county, bigger than the county government, bigger than the school system,” says Shirley. “

Part of our role is determining what the economic impact of the arts is on the area. How do they help impact tourism? How do they impact your lifestyle and your child’s education?” Part of what that effort has looked like recently for Shirley, as he moves into his last few months with the Alliance, has been the initiation of the Sarasota Youth Poet Laureate Program. The program, which will serve Florida’s Cultural Coast of Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, and DeSoto counties, will culminate in the anointing of the area’s first Youth Poet Laureate in an award ceremony on November 7th, at which Ada Limón, Poet Laureate of the United States, will be present. More than just a competition, however, the Sarasota Youth Poet Laureate Program will be an educationally-oriented initiative to help students across the region to develop and grow their creative writing skills. “Over the next year, the Alliance will develop and put on a series of events in this four-county region, including collaborations with local theaters on skill-based workshops on how to present your poetry as well as writing-based workshops featuring professional poets. These events will be open to any young person that wants to come and learn more about poetry and creative writing,” says Shirley.

Shirley’s 13 years with the Arts Alliance has been mutually beneficial to both him and to the Sarasota Arts scene. Not only has he left a lasting impact on the arts and cultural organizations amongst the community, but they too have left an impression on him that he’ll never forget. “It’s been a pleasure for me. It’s helped make my life a better life. I’ve gotten to work with and meet people who are very creative and intellectually engaged in the day to day work that we do,” says Shirley. “That’s what I’ve really enjoyed about this whole experience – being able to be involved with people in the community.”