Sarasota has long been a mecca for the arts. Connoisseurs and creators continue to collaborate here, enriching our community with opportunities for expression, education, and enjoyment of many art forms. Now, thanks to group of visionary Sarasotans, a grand new venue for contemporary art is taking shape.

The Sarasota Museum of Art (SMOA) will be dedicated to visual art of the 20th and 21st centuries, exhibited within the historic Sarasota High School building. Currently being transformed into a 57,000 square foot space, the renovated high school will house twelve galleries, a three-story Contemporary Atrium, outdoor Sculpture Court, 110-seat auditorium, as well as educational and meeting spaces.

SMOA is a partnership with the Ringling College of Art & Design. Together they are bringing to fruition a wide range of cultural offerings. Sarasotans will have access to a Visual Arts Education Center, where professional artists and the general public can interact in outreach initiatives, continuing education classes, lecture series, workshops, and studio spaces.

What began as a dream has become a reality thanks to several key players in the SMOA story. Wendy Surkis, President of SMOA, and Flora Major, a board member and significant donor to the project, were enthusiastic to speak with FEMME ROUGE about their passion and hard work in establishing this important addition to the Sarasota arts scene.

➤ The Driving Force Behind SMOA

Much has been written about SMOA President Wendy Surkis. Known for her business acumen, intense drive, and the laser focus she brings to all she undertakes, Femme Rouge wanted to find out more about the woman who has shown such passion for her adopted community.

wendy_SurkisA native New Yorker, Surkis left home to pursue her studies at the University of Maryland, graduating with a degree in Art Education. She continued on to graduate school, earning a Masters Degree in Psychology with a specialty in Art Therapy from the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

Surkis landed a position as a therapist in an acute mental health center in Columbus, Indiana, and before long was promoted to Director of Activities Therapies.

But Surkis was restless to return to her roots. “Being a northeasterner, I was longing to go back to the east coast. I spent some time looking for a position in my field; nothing quite clicked for me,” Surkis said. “I was offered an opportunity to go into advertising doing new business development. A sales role and working on commission were totally new to me. In 1976, it was also uncommon for women to be in ad sales. After much deliberation, I decided to go for it.”

And go for it she did … in a big way. Of her initial years there, Surkis recalls, “I started at this ad agency when it had one office in midtown Manhattan. I worked very hard to understand the business, picked up the phone and made cold calls, did my research on prospective accounts (pre-Internet). I organized and prepared materials and strategies to present to companies of all sizes. Training was not offered. I tackled my new role more as a person who gives guidance as opposed to thinking about how much money I was going to make … which is what I heard my colleagues speak about.” To no one’s surprise, her hard work was rewarded. “In a short number of years, I became the leading salesperson in the company,” says Surkis. “Ultimately, I ran the firm and expanded it.”

Surkis spent the next twenty-five years growing the advertising agency from a one-office operation into a full service international firm with eighteen branches, several hundred employees and $100 million in sales. “Growing this firm was like growing a family,” reflects Surkis. “The business was doing well, so at the age of fifty  the time had come to change my 24/7 life from work, work, work. I was fortunate enough to retire.”

When Surkis moved to Siesta Key in 2000, she had visions of the relaxed life of a retiree – and for a while enjoyed playing golf, taking up photography, and fishing off of her dock.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 11.14.46 AMBut those “retirement” days were to be short-lived. When Surkis got the call to discuss a modern and contemporary art museum for Sarasota, she recalls thinking to herself, “Modern and contemporary art, art museum, artists, building a project from scratch – all things that interest me. I’ll go to a meeting and see what this is all about. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” She dove in headfirst and became President, leading the grassroots group of thirteen Founding Members.

“How could I say ‘no’ to leading this new endeavor? It had my name written all over it. My love for art and my inner passion for creative business endeavors prompted me to jump in, totally devote myself to this terrific opportunity and to focus my skills on enhancing the culture of my new community.”

With her characteristic high energy and drive, Surkis worked tirelessly – literally day and night. “I was convinced from the ‘get go’ that SMOA would become a meaningful addition to Sarasota’s cultural landscape and provide an expanded presence as an educational icon for contemporary art,” said Surkis. “As the lead person, I was going to bring this to fruition. The support that SMOA received fueled me each and every day.”

“Donors stepped forward. The community rallied. Volunteers came aboard. The media was generous. [Ringling College President] Larry Thompson had faith and trusted me. He supported the new ideas I brought to him and I ran with them. Larry relied  on me to plan, program, and fundraise. I felt his confidence from day one that I would get the job done. The SMOA Board was active and committed. The Ringling College Trustees were supportive.”

“It became crystal clear to me on November, 2008 when I was standing on the front steps of Sarasota High School being handed the keys to the historic building – that this project was going to be my give back to my community. My life was 24/7 SMOA … and I was synonymous with SMOA.” “But,” Surkis adds, “one person doesn’t make a project of this magnitude happen as a lone soldier – it takes an entire community. Our community did it … I am ever so grateful to each and every one. Now, watching the renovation, hiring the new Executive Director, I take a deep breath and when I think about the journey, my eyes well up and my emotion is … WOW!”