As if the pursuit of a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center and its possible coexistence of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall weren’t generating enough controversy, attorneys representing heirs to the benefactors’ family and the SPAC Foundation are exchanging letters over the use of the Van Wezel name.
In a letter dated Dec. 29, 2022, attorney Morgan Bentley, representing Tony and Katherine Stone, to Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier and Michael Wilson, who represents the SPAC Foundation, demanded the SPAC cease and desist any and all use of the Van Wezel name in its promotional and fundraising efforts for the new performing arts center.
As it began to prepare to plan for the new facility, in 2019 the Van Wezel Foundation changed its identity to the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation but has continued to work on behalf of both the SPAC and the Van Wezel. A task force appointed by the city and the Foundation has launched a search for an architecture firm to design the SPAC.
The Foundation’s website at vwfoundation.org is titled “Van Wezel Foundation A Vision for Sarasota Performing Arts Center.” In his letter, Bentley calls that use “wholly inappropriate.”
“My request is that you direct your colleagues and constituents to cease using the Van Wezel name in relation to the construction of the new Performing Arts Center,” the letter reads. “More specifically, please remind your respective boards that the new facility will not be called the Van Wezel and is not a ‘new Van Wezel’ in any way shape or form. Lastly, cease using the Van Wezel name in any materials or public statements by the Foundation that disparage, denigrates, or questions the viability of the current Van Wezel Auditorium.”
In a response dated Jan. 3, 2023, attorney Dan Bailey, on behalf of the Foundation, stipulated that the Van Wezel name will not be attached to the new facility and that the organization has not been officially registered as the Van Wezel Foundation for three years, although it does continue to raise funds for the existing facility.
“I do not detect, however, that your clients object to the continued use of the Van Wezel name to the extent it is used to raise funds for the existing Van Wezel Hall,” Bailey wrote. “In 2022 alone, the Foundation raised and contributed a philanthropic grant of $600,000 to the Hall. This is an ongoing obligation of the Foundation pursuant to a 2021 memorandum of understanding between the Foundation and the city.”
The city partnered with the Foundation in 2019 as a public-private venture to begin the process of building a new performing arts center in The Bay, the 53-acre city-owned bayfront park under redevelopment by the Bay Park Conservancy. The Van Wezel stands at the southwest corner of the parking lot and the new SPAC is planned for the northeast corner of the site.
The city is exploring how to preserve and repurpose the Van Wezel, which is not to compete with the new facility. The Foundation is responsible for raising private funds to build the 165,000-square-foot SPAC, to be matched with city funding from the tax increment financing district surrounding the property and other city, county, state and Bailey's letter concludes, “The Foundation does intend to move exclusively to the SPAC identity for purposes of fundraising for the new performing arts center in as orderly and expeditions manner as possible.”