In his day, John Ringling and the Ringling Brothers Circus brought artists and dignitaries from across the globe to the sandy solitude of Sarasota. His eponymous hotel, the John Ringling Towers, became an artistic and cultural hub for the community where these worldly visitors would convene to dine and discuss art and current affairs. More than a hotel, it became a monument. But following Ringling’s death, the Towers fell into disrepair; empty rooms leading to empty chairs at empty tables in an image of fallen aristocracy to make Victor Hugo cheer. Developers eyed the lucrative plot of land it occupied on Tamiami Trail while a community faction argued for the hotel’s preservation as an important piece of cultural heritage, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from a broad spectrum of individual donors. Eventually development won out and the John Ringling Towers were demolished in 1998 to make way for the Ritz Carlton hotel still there today. But what to do with the remaining funds donated for its preservation?

True to the spirit in which they were donated, those funds contributed to the defense of the John Ringling Towers still serve to promote artistic and cultural growth in Sarasota today by comprising the lifeblood endowment of four separate grants awarded by the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County. Established in 2003 as the John Ringling Towers Grants, one goes to a qualifying historic preservation project and three offer an annual prize of up to $5,000 to individual professional artists working in the literary, performing or visual arts. Community-minded as well as artistically minded, applicants must be local artists.

And while $5,000 isn’t enough to let any artist quit their day job, it can be more than enough to give an aspiring artist that last leg up they need to bring a project to fruition and take the next step in their professional development, and that’s where a supportive organization like the Arts and Cultural Alliance shines, according to Jim Shirley, who has served as executive director since 2010. In 2011, the Alliance awarded an individual artist grant to playwright Annie Morrison, who needed just a little help finishing her latest work. After receiving the grant, Morrison completed her play and eventually took it all the way to Broadway. “Well that’s a pretty good-sized step,” says Shirley. “Not everybody can do that, but it’s an example of what we could see. And any time any of us can help a person achieve something that’s really important to them and then that in turn helps the community, then we’re doing something valuable.” This year John Ringling Tower grants have been awarded to three artists, including Kaylene McCaw, who has amassed a national following producing web presentations on art and artists and needed funding for new equipment, and visual artist Laine Nixon.

“Grants mean a lot,” says Nixon, a member of the SARTQ artist collective who will be using her grant to bring her small-scale Assent series to a large scale for presentation at Gallery 221 in Tampa. “I had no idea how challenging it would be to pursue art as a career and to have that support is really important to be able to take risks.” An artist seemingly most at home when exploring, Nixon appreciates the community having her back as she experiments with new projects and ideas, even if only for a year and only for $5,000. That support allows her to take her art to the place where there are no guarantees. “It doesn’t feel like I’m at the end of something,” she says. “It feels like I’m at the beginning.”

And for Shirley, beyond the financial support, that’s the real message behind the John Ringling Towers Fund grants. “What we want to do is create an environment in the county that says the arts are important here, that culture is an important part of our lives,” he says. “And we want to make this a county where those who create art can feel like they’re valued and have a place. It’s important for them to live here and to feel like this community values them.” So even if the John Ringling Towers are gone, what they stood for remains.