The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is outdated, inefficiently designed and needs to be replaced with a new venue to remain competitive. These are the conclusions reached in a third-party study of the city facility.
On Monday, the City Commission will hold a workshop to discuss the future needs of the Van Wezel and Sarasota Orchestra. The dialogue is part of the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 effort, a grassroots campaign to create a master plan for 42 acres of city-owned land surrounding the Van Wezel.
A slideshow presentation for Monday’s meeting outlines the significant changes proposed for the Van Wezel. The Van Wezel Foundation hired AMS Planning and Research, a Connecticut-based arts consulting firm, to assess the facility’s needs. In a report dated Sept. 10, the consultant shared its findings.
“While it is likely that the facility could continue to function for some time with modest investment, changing customer and operating expectations suggest that a major renovation would be necessary for the hall to achieve first-class standards, now and for the next 50 years,” the report states.
“Changing customer and operating expectations suggest that a major renovation would be necessary for the hall to achieve first-class standards.”
The consultant considered four scenarios for the future of the Van Wezel: maintaining the status quo, renovating the existing space, creating ancillary facilities or constructing a new venue. According to the presentation, the first three options were ruled out for not adequately serving the goals of the Van Wezel.
The report states the Van Wezel is unsustainable in its current state, despite its success. The main hall is overused during peak season, and the orchestra community events generate lower revenue than the Van Wezel’s own programming. As a result, hosting additional orchestra or ballet events would result in lost income to the Van Wezel, and there are limited options for increasing revenue in the existing facility.
The presentation paints the Van Wezel as the anchor of Sarasota’s reputation as a cultural capital in Florida. It touts positive balance sheets and increasing ticket sales as positive signs for the venue. Citing concerns about competition from similar facilities in the region, though, the consultant says a major investment would be wise.
The report details many issues with the current building. The exterior and interior are worn and outdated. It’s not oriented to capitalize on its bayfront location. The acoustics are inadequate for live classical music, and the backstage area and split lobby are not in keeping with modern venues.
The proposed scope of a new facility would be between 2,100 and 2,400 seats, with event space, administrative areas and an outdoor plaza. The report has options for a venue with and without a resident orchestra.
As the Sarasota Orchestra considers its future needs, the consultant said a single multiuse facility would not solve the current calendar restraints facing the Van Wezel. As a result, it recommends exploring a two-venue option to serve both parties.
Monica Van Buskirk, president of the Van Wezel Foundation, was unavailable for comment. A memo from Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 chairman Michael Klauber said the organization would decline to comment on the presentation until after Monday’s workshop. Sarasota Orchestra President Joseph McKenna also declined comment until after the meeting.
Martin Rappaport, a member of the Van Wezel Foundation board, deferred comments on the recommended improvements to Monday’s presentation.
“He’ll make that presentation as to what it’s going to take to keep (the Van Wezel’s) prominent position in future years,” Rappaport said. “Based on that, the city and the community will have to decide as to what it wants.”