Town Talk with Dr. Larry Thompson
By Ryan G. Van Cleave
Dr. Larry R. Thompson came to Sarasota in 1998 to be President of Ringling College of Art and Design, a position he still holds today. Prior to this, he was President and CEO of the Flint Cultural Center in Michigan and the founding Director and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio. In his capacity as a lawyer, he also served as Special Assistant to the President of The Ohio State University.
Anyone who’s met him knows firsthand that Dr. Thompson, a self-described “left-brain guy in a right-brain world,” is a spirited, pioneering, and visionary community leader. Plus it’s no secret: he’s an enthusiastic dancer.
To put it simply, Dr. Thompson loves Ringling College and he’s equally in love with Sarasota—a place he considers to be his new hometown. “It’s my 19th year here, so I’m ALMOST a native,” he jokes.
I asked him to share some of his thoughts on loving and living in Sarasota.
A 2015 article in Time.com ranked the North Port/Sarasota/Bradenton metropolitan area as the “city with the highest well-being in the United States.” Why do you think we ranked so high?
A confluence of factors. First of all, it’s an absolutely beautiful city with a terrific environment. It’s located in a part of the US where it’s sunny and warm all the time—always great in terms of mental health!
But the thing that really distinguishes it from a lot of other towns that have their own beaches is the plethora of art and culture opportunities. That’s really what makes Sarasota so special and good for people’s well-being. The arts have that effect on us.
What’s the most important thing that people should know or understand about Sarasota?
Too often, it’s characterized as a retirement community. It’s true that we have a number of retirees here, but we’re anything but a sleepy city. Sarasota is a creative epicenter. Not only do we have places like Ringling College and all the arts and culture organizations—the foundation, the base source for that creativity—but we have a number of business that are also incredibly creative themselves. Voalte. BioLucid, which is now part of ShareCare.
I’d love to see this community branded as “The Creative Epicenter” or “The Creative Coast.”
In all your time living, working, and being part of Sarasota, what has surprised you the most?
The consistently high quality of people here. This is a very intellectual, curious, intelligent, creative, and caring community.
How does Ringling College of Art and Design fit into the larger community?
We as a college need to be a very active participant in the community. That’s the reason I’m so involved with activities with respect to the community. It’s not just about the college, it’s about the college in context of the larger whole.
We should also be a force for economic development as well as be part of the solution for some of the issues that our community faces.
What is the “Sarasota philosophy of life”?
There’s a philosophy here about remaining active regardless of your age. The participation by people who are 70 (my age!), 80, 90 or more is very high. They are involved and eager and dynamic. Many here share a philosophy that’s simply this: life continues on.
If Sarasota had a mascot/spirit animal, what would it be?
On my office desk, I have a statue from Thailand of Saraswati, the goddess of creativity, learning, and education. That’d be an appropriate mascot!
Note, too, the similarity between “Saraswati” and “Sarasota”!
What are you most looking forward to in terms of the future of our area?
I’d love to see more of our graduates and graduates of other area colleges stay in the area because they have so many opportunities now worth staying for. I’d like to see enhanced economic development in a number of fields such as in the creative areas and health care, and I’d like to see us enjoy a robust economy other than tourism and the financial arena.
I’d also like for us to be a community that addresses our human needs with honesty versus a political agenda.
Sarasota has more Zagat-rated restaurants in a 20-mile radius than any other city in Florida. What are some of your faves?
I love Walt’s Fish Market and Restaurant—that’s a wonderful, old-fashioned fish place. I also like Beach Bistro. And Libby’s Café & Bar. We often go to Café Epicure, too.
On any given weekend, where are people most likely to have a Larry Thompson sighting?
My wife says I’m a workaholic, so I probably should say “at a Ringling College or area nonprofit event.”
What’s a Sarasota gem that most people either don’t know about or don’t fully appreciate?
I hate to be so self-serving here, but not everyone knows enough about Ringling College. It’s not your grandfather’s art school. It’s a thriving state-of-the-art, first-class institution that allows students from all throughout the world to deepen, transform, and explore their artistic passions as they become tomorrow’s leaders of art and design.
Your thoughts on the increasing number of roundabouts?
My wife and I have a little battle about this. I’m not a huge fan. On Honore or smaller roads? Fabulous. On 41 and high-traffic areas? I am concerned about how people will navigate them, how pedestrians will be able to cross without any lights. I understand the reason for them, but I’m just not a huge fan.
Sarasota County has 35 miles of beaches. Where does Beachfront Larry kick back in flip flops, a big hat, and Bermuda shorts?
I always go to Siesta Key. It’s close to our house. I love that beach, and I’ve loved it from the moment we first came here and our daughter—she was maybe 11—saw the white powder sand and said, “Look! It’s Sarasota snow.”
Three words that come to mind when someone says “Sarasota.”