“The people who have traditionally loved and supported the arts are aging. Places like the ballet, the opera, and the Asolo have a shared problem – how do we attract the next generation?” –Bob Bartner
They say if you pursue your passion, success will follow. Bob and Beverly Bartner personify that claim. Their story is one of commitment, intentionality, and partnership. Their passion for the arts took them from the role of patron to that of producer. As producers, they have been nominated for multiple Tony Awards, numbering twenty-seven between them. The Bartners have produced performances in the U.S. and abroad and have sat on boards that make even the most well-connected raise their brows with admiration. We sat down with this influential couple to find out how Sarasota dazzled these two bright lights of Broadway to shine on our community.
“Sarasota has everything you need to have a wonderful city,” says Bob. “It has great weather, good medical facilities, and the arts. There isn’t another city in Florida that has the kind of arts we have here, and the presence of the arts makes Sarasota a better city.”
WHAT VALUE WOULD YOU SAY THE ARTS BRING TO A COMMUNITY?
Beverly: “Live theater is educational theater. It’s a vestige of free speech. I used to be a school teacher, so it’s a particular passion of mine to find ways to expose kids to the arts early. Art helps children in math and science, it improves their self esteem, and it helps address learning disabilities.
“I’ll tell you a story. In Venezuela, they have something called ‘El Sistema.’ It’s a program that gives very poor children the ability to learn and play instruments. One of the young impoverished students who went through the program was Gustavo Dudamel. He went on to become the conductor at the LA Philharmonic. He actually told those who hired him he wouldn’t take the job unless they put funds aside to start in LA a program similar to Sistema. That program is an example of how exposure to music can change the lives of children.”
Bob: “What do you think programs like that teach children, beyond the obvious of mastering a musical instrument? It teaches them to show up on time, how to care for something of value (their instrument), and how to live in a society. They realize when the person next to them messes up, the whole is affected.”
The Bartners’ love of the arts started early. As a young girl, Bev remembers her father taking her to see theatrical performances. This was long before the days children attended the theater. She remembers listening to Italian opera on the radio every Sunday. In college, that continued as she and her roommate listened to opera music as they studied.
Bob describes his grandfather, Joseph Garlock, as a natural artist in the line of “Grandma Moses.” He painted on whatever medium he could find. With no formal schooling, he nonetheless developed a name for himself (his work is still visible with a Google search). Bob’s Aunt Rose was an art therapist, and one of the founders of the Woodstock Festival in Woodstock, NY. “I hope everyone has an Aunt Rose,” laughs Bob.
DID YOUR LOVE OF THE ARTS DRAW YOU TOGETHER?
Beverly: “I would say it’s a passion we share, but it isn’t what drew us together. Bob and I met because my college roommate married his brother. When I went to her home for the engagement and various parties, I met Bob.”
Bob: “I was immediately smitten. Bev was not.”
When Beverly was forced to drop out of school in Virginia because of an illness, she returned home to New York. For the next six months, Bob would make the trip from New Jersey to visit her. “He couldn’t even get close to me,” laughs Bev. “Our house was supposed to be quarantined. He shouldn’t have even been there, but he came anyway. We had a Spanish-style home. He would come in and talk to my mother downstairs. I would sit on the balcony upstairs and talk to him that way.”
When Beverly recovered, she enrolled in classes at NYU, which allowed Bob to continue to court her. She didn’t make it easy on him. “We knew each other for probably four years,” says Bev. “Finally, my mother said, ‘You know, he’s very nice, but if you’re not interested, don’t lead him on.’ So, I decided he is a nice guy, and we got engaged.”
Because Bev was an Italian Catholic and Bob a Russian Jew, the two had some obstacles to overcome, both societally and within the family. “This just didn’t happen back then,” says Beverly. “My mother was okay with it, but his family wasn’t as thrilled.” They found favor with a young priest in Beverly’s church. “Everyone who attended there was Italian. My family had gone there for years. The priest was so nice, and I guess he understood us,” says Beverly. The priest acquiesced: they could say their vows in the church, though not at the altar. The great news was that they were able to be married and begin their life together in New York: Bob in the publishing business and Beverly at first as a school teacher and later as an entrepreneur selling antiques she gathered from all over the world.
Over the years, Bob’s career took him across three industries: music, publishing, and direct marketing. He held positions at CBS, Columbia Records, Capital Record Club, and Grolier Publishing, where he helped launch the Bright & Early reading collection. Today, he is the U.S. partner of Dennis Publishing. Together, he and the late Felix Dennis developed and delivered such titles as MacUser, The Week, and Maxim. Bob also has the impressive distinction of growing a small, direct-marketing company, Micro Warehouse, into one of the largest computer retailers in the world. He took it public with NASDAQ in 1992.
Despite their full schedule, the Bartners always find time to make family a priority, to attend performances in New York, and to volunteer as a way to live their passion and give back to their community.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN PRODUCING?
Bob: “Our love of the arts morphed into supporting them and eventually, into producing. It started with our involvement with the Long Warf Theater in Connecticut. They would produce work from new artists, and one play they ran was Wit by Margaret Edson. The story addressed the topic of cancer. At that time, nobody said a person ‘died of cancer,’ not even in the obituaries. But here we had a story of a person struggling with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. Doctors proposed experimental chemo treatment, and so the question becomes, ‘Is this person a guinea pig or patient?’ It made people uneasy. It was cutting edge. We wanted to get it done in New York, but we couldn’t find a theater or a commercial producer. Finally, we found an off-off Broadway theater, but we needed $25,000 to produce it. Even though I had no experience as a producer, I wrote the check. We had nobody with experience, so we recruited a commercial producer. Ben Brantley from the New York Times gave it a rave review. Then we were able to move it to Off Broadway, where we ran it for two years. Margaret Edson won a Pulitzer Prize for that. She said she would never write another play again – that she didn’t have it in her. So that’s how we got started in theater.”
Bob and Beverly went on to produce many more plays, both in New York and London. While Bob gets most of the credit for their plays, he is quick to point out that they function as a team. “I don’t produce the plays,” he explains, “WE – both Beverly and myself – decide on which plays we will produce.” Having earned fourteen Olivier Awards (The UK’s equivalent of a Tony), nine Tony Awards, and several Pulitzer Prizes, their list of successes is significant (see right), but their focus remains simple. Wherever they find the opportunity, they add their resources to support their community. This is often done through the arts, but Beverly’s passion for children also draws her to support medical and educational charities.
While Bob worked for CBS, he and Beverly traveled frequently to the U.S. Virgin Islands, eventually buying a home there. Rather than kick back and slip into a quiet island life, the Bartners networked with other continentals to strengthen the local schools, offer free or affordable medical care, and improve the community arts. When they eventually moved to Sarasota, their commitment to their community continued. Bob has served as Chairman of the Board at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, and both he and Beverly are current board members. Four years after moving to Sarasota, the Bartners continue to be excited about the future. Changes in the art scene make them hopeful for sustainable growth. “The Asolo is a particularly interesting hybrid of a structure,” says Bob. “It’s a true Repertory Company.” That means one group of actors perform in multiple plays that all run at the same time. “You can see three different plays on the same weekend, and the same actors will be in each play,” explains Bob. What makes it even more special is that Florida State University works with the Asolo. Twelve students a year who are all enrolled in a 3-year program earn credit by working with the Asolo. That’s thirty-six students working with the theater at any given time. Though Michael Donald Edwards and the Asolo are Bob’s prime connection to Sarasota’s art culture, he has respect for other influencers and venues. “Ian Webb joined the ballet and it has had an enormous impact on the quality of the productions,” says Bob. “Anu Tali has made an equally enormous impact on the orchestra. We have such potential for greatness, especially considering all the new people coming to live in Sarasota. My hope is that we begin to work together – all the members of all the boards representing each venue. If we work together, it’s a win-win-win. Without it, we will stunt growth and new ideas.”
That’s a big concern to the Bartners, along with most who are closely connected to the arts. The troubling truth, supported by the most current data, is that classical art forms are dying. The couple understand the importance of raising awareness to inspire the next generation of creatives who will influence our culture.
Bob: “The people who have traditionally loved and supported the arts are aging. Places like the ballet, the opera, and the Asolo have a shared problem: how do we attract the next generation – the younger people – into the audience? If they come, some will fall in love and become involved as philanthropic supporters. We need those philanthropists. Ticket sales cover only about half of a production house’s expenses; we don’t survive without the support of those who understand the importance of the performing arts.”
HOW DO WE CHANGE THAT TREND?
Beverly: “We need to start by exposing young people to the arts, and we know that’s not going to happen in the schools. One way for it to happen is for parents with the ability to commit to bringing their kids to the theater.
Another way is to have people or organizations underwrite programs that bring all children to the theater. One program could allow children and their parents to come to productions for free; this could be dress rehearsals or a matinée performance. Another program could be to bring the productions to the students.”
Bob: “We have a successful example of this already. Third-year students from FSU who study at the Asolo Repertory Theater travel all over the state of Florida performing Shakespeare in front of students. You would think students used to their phones and videos games wouldn’t be able to sit still for Shakespeare. But, it’s exactly the opposite. The students are mesmerized. They are still and quiet and attentive. At the end, the performers stimulate discussion with good questions, and the kids give thoughtful answers. We need more programs like this to expose the students to the performing arts.”
Bob and Beverly are committed to doing their part to support the arts in Sarasota. To find out ways you can get involved, please contact any of these organizations: Asolo Repertory Theatre, West Coast Theatre, Florida Studio Theatre, The Players Theatre, Urbanite Theatre, Ringling College of Art & Design, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Orchestra.