Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and Van Wezel Foundation leaders are chomping at the bit to build a modern new complex with a 2,250-seat main theater (“with a center aisle, maybe two,” says executive director Mary Bensel), a 400-seat theater for educational and community programs, an event lawn for outdoor concerts, dance studio, classrooms and a large catering space for special events. They’ve temporarily named it the Sarasota Performing Art Center.
“More seats, more shows, lower prices,” Bensel told Sarasota city commissioners at the standing-room-only meeting Sept. 6 where city commissioners voted to approve the master plan for The Bay, the 53 acres of mostly underutilized bayfront between Boulevard of the Arts and the boat ramps north of 10th Street. Right now, it’s mostly a glum, gray parking lot.
Van Wezel leaders also are advocating a seismic new governance structure with private sector management. (The hall has been a department of the city of Sarasota since it opened its doors in 1970, and its employees are city employees. Support for its educational programs comes from the private, not-for-profit Van Wezel Foundation.) “Philanthropic funding is dependent on [that private management structure],” Bensel told city commissioners. And that funding is critical; the cost of the new complex is estimated to be between $240 million and $270 million.
The new Sarasota Performing Art Center will be located on the northern portion of The Bay. No timetable has been set, although organizers predict a 10- to 20-year buildout of the entire Bay project. The purple Van Wezel Hall is penciled into the master plan, with its future use to be determined.
But it definitely won’t be the home of the Sarasota Orchestra. Orchestra leadership has been adamant for years that it requires a new concert hall built for orchestral acoustics, a space where it can control its own expanding performance calendar.
Earlier this summer, executive director Joe McKenna formally notified the city commission that it would not be seeking concert hall space within The Bay. Rumors have swirled around the possible new site, which will be within city limits—the fairgrounds on Fruitville Road and the old Ringling Shopping Center, among them. But at press time no announcement had been made.
Meanwhile, the venerable Players community theater at the corner of North Tamiami Trail and Ninth Street since 1936 hopes to break ground next spring on its $30 million new complex in Lakewood Ranch. It even renamed itself The Players Centre for Performing Arts in anticipation that other arts groups “that would love to have a presence closer to I-75” will rent one of its three planned stages for occasional performances, says artistic director Jeffery Kin. “In fact,” says Kin, “when [fashion designer] Michael Kors was in the building [last spring] and saw Funny Girl, I told him we’re moving to I-75, and he said ‘smart.’”
The existing building, prime property in what is fast becoming a condominium and hotel row, sold for $9.5 million in early October. A lease-back agreement with the anonymous new owner has The Players staying put for the next two years as it continues its capital campaign. As of late August, almost $2 million additionally had been raised toward the new complex.