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Bayfront studies strengthen call for new performance venues

As Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 moves forward with plans for developing the land surrounding the Van Wezel, arts organizations are searching for an opportunity to address an ongoing crunch for space.

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  • | 10:15 a.m. February 25, 2016
A lack of availability at the Van Wezel has led the Sarasota Orchestra to conclude it's in need of a new performing arts venue.
A lack of availability at the Van Wezel has led the Sarasota Orchestra to conclude it's in need of a new performing arts venue.
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Specifics on cost, design and scope are all to be determined, but the Sarasota Orchestra has done enough research to conclude it needs a new facility to maximize its potential.

As Sarasota builds on its reputation as an arts community, arts organizations are reaching a similar conclusion: Given the current infrastructure, there’s not enough performance space.

For months, the orchestra has been conducting a needs assessment study as Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 plans for the future of more than 40 acres of city-owned land near the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The study is still ongoing, but the results so far say the area’s existing venues are inadequate, both acoustically and in terms of available calendar time.

On Monday, the Van Wezel Foundation discussed a separate study that also called for a new performance hall. That study considered the potential needs of the orchestra — and suggested a second, separate performance hall would be the best options for both organizations.

For all of the stakeholders in Bayfront 20:20, a significant question lingers: Is there demand and financial support for a potentially unprecedented investment in the arts on the bayfront?

Joseph McKenna, president and CEO of the Sarasota Orchestra, says that remains to be seen. Right now, he’s committed to a few key points. First, a new organization should be formed to begin the practical work of developing a master plan for the bayfront. Second, there is a clear need for the orchestra to address ongoing facility needs.

Currently, the orchestra uses six venues in the region. Although it’s able to secure some performance dates at the Van Wezel, the orchestra is seldom able to rehearse on the stage on which it will ultimately perform.

“Would you work three days in one location and then have to pick up your operation and go to another location for the rest of the week?” McKenna asked. “That doesn’t seem that efficient.”

“Would you work three days in one location and then have to pick up your operation and go to another location for the rest of the week?” — Joeseph McKenna

The inability to have more regular access to a larger performing arts hall constrains the orchestra’s programming capability, the report concluded. Education programs and storage issues means the orchestra’s needs extend beyond performance space, too.

What that ultimately means for  a new facility should be sorted out as the orchestra’s study continues and the master planning process comes together, he said. He admits there are questions about the community’s appetite for supporting a new facility but says that’s just one way of looking at the venue problem.

“How does our cultural community thrive going forward without addressing the facility challenge?” McKenna asked. “It’s sort of a two-sided equation.”


The issue is not unique to the Sarasota Orchestra.

Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, says arts organizations are closely monitoring the Bayfront 20:20 conversation. Having dealt with the growing crunch for performance space, they know this might be an opportunity to see their long-standing needs addressed, too.

“One of the hopes of the arts community is that as we move forward with projects, the community remains aware there is a lot of need for additional new spaces for all of the arts and cultural organizations here,” Shirley said. 

Bayfront 20:20 has focused on establishing a collaborative process, but there hasn’t yet been a substantive opportunity for arts organizations to frankly discuss how they might fit in.

“There has been some dialogue between other arts organizations in a general sense,” McKenna said. “I think that will be in the ensuing phase — the integration and reconciliation of some aspects of the cultural community.”

“We’re really in desperate need to be part of that project.” — Iain Webb

The Sarasota Ballet is one of more than a dozen arts organizations that have endorsed Bayfront 20:20’s vision. Its leaders are anxious for planning to begin in earnest, because they have a vested interest in getting involved in any new facility in some capacity.

“We’re really in desperate need to be part of that project to kind of build this big complex,” said Iain Webb, director of Sarasota Ballet. “We want to be one of the main players in it, because it’s going to increase the visibility of Sarasota as far as the arts is concerned.”

For organizations that don’t already have a bayfront footprint, a new building doesn’t have to be near the Van Wezel. Shirley imagined three or four organizations teaming up to share a venue in a place like the Rosemary District, allowing more room for the arts  in a growing community.

“That would allow us to put out even more great products than we currently do,” Shirley said. “We could program and run another facility or two if we had a way to make it meet the needs of other organizations.”


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