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Venice arts scene is worth the trip

Long overshadowed by cultural capital Sarasota 18 miles north, the city of Venice is making a name for itself with an abundance of cultural attractions.

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  • | 12:00 p.m. September 13, 2023
Clyde Butcher's iconic black-and-white photos of Florida landscapes are on display in his Venice Gallery and Studio.
Clyde Butcher's iconic black-and-white photos of Florida landscapes are on display in his Venice Gallery and Studio.
Courtesy photo
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Less than 18 miles south of downtown Sarasota lies the nearly 100-year-old city of Venice. While it may have been pegged as a sleepy town for arts and entertainment in the past, insiders say that has changed significantly in recent years.

“Venice has become its own arts and culture destination,” said Christine Kasten, executive director of the Venice Symphony. Kasten cites both the quality and quantity of Venice’s shows, events and happenings. 

Among the highlights of this year's season are Michael Feinstein's "Hooray for Hollywood" show with the Venice Symphony, celebrating its 50th anniversary. Other highly anticipated Venice shows are "Jimmy Buffett's Escape to Margaritaville" and Jeff Daniels' "Pickleball," at the Venice Theatre.

In a season filled with glittering events, one promises to stand out: the symphony's fundraiser "Venice Nights," which will transform the town's community center into a replica of its Italian namesake on Jan. 5. It's safe to assume the gondolas will be on wheels, but with plenty of water, who knows?

After Hurricane Ian destroyed its primary performance space last September, the nearly 75-year-old Venice Theatre deserves some major "props" for rallying and producing a full season in temporary spaces. 

Hurricane Ian destroyed the Venice Theatre main stage, the 432-seat Jervey Theatre.
Courtesy photo

Those include the 130-seat Raymond Center and the 90-seat black box Pinkerton Theatre, which reopened in January. To keep the show going, the Venice Theatre had to borrow physical seats from the Manatee Performing Arts Center and Theatre Winter Haven.

The Raymond Center is hosting mainstage family-friendly musicals and plays that normally would be at the 432-seat Jervey Theatre, according to Executive Director Kristofer Geddie. 

“A Christmas Carol” will play in December and, in what turns out to be a tribute to the recently departed singer, “Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville” will open in January.

The Pinkerton will continue staging Venice Theatre's more inventive programming, Geddie added, with "Pickleball" playing from Oct. 27 through Nov. 19, a festival of three one-person plays called “SoloFest” in December and more. 

The Venice Theatre is also presenting concerts at three other local venues: Venice Community Center, Pine View School Auditorium and The Venice Performing Arts Center (VPAC).

Murray Chase, the former Venice Theatre executive director who is now restoration supervisor, admits that the rebuild of the Jervey Theatre is challenging on a few fronts. 

Chase is grappling with the need to upgrade outdated building and electrical facilities to meet modern standards, the escalation of the cost and the availability of building materials. “We can’t (just) replace what we had,” Chase said in an interview.

In a letter to its stakeholders last week, the theater said it has been working with Sweet Sparkman Architecture and Interiors, Magnum Builders and Boone Law Firm to apply and be approved for rezoning, a height exception and the exterior redesign.

Due to increased costs, more damage being discovered and the complexity of the restoration, Venice Theatre needs to raise an additional $7 million to make a complete recovery, the letter said. The Jervey Theatre is expected to reopen in late 2024, it said.

In addition to the Jervey Theatre, VPAC is a key venue in town for performances of all kinds, including theater, music and dance.

Derek Blankenship, the new executive director of the Venice Institute for the Performing Arts (VIPA), which manages and produces entertainment and educational programs at VIPA, said he is personally looking forward to seeing both Tony Danza and the Dallas Brass this season.

Tony Danza will sing, tell stories and joke and even do a little soft shoe when he comes to Venice on March 9.
Courtesy photo

A professional trumpet player for more than 20 years, Blankenship waxes nostalgic when he talks about his high school experience playing with the Dallas Brass. The ensemble’s March 21 performance offers a mix of classical masterpieces, Dixieland, swing, Broadway, Hollywood and patriotic music.

Tony Danza “puts on a great show,” said Blankenship. The star of TV’s “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss?” is backed by a four-person band. He sings, tells stories and jokes, and even breaks out a little soft shoe and ukulele playing, Blankenship added. Danza comes to Venice on March 9.

VPAC shows also include a bevy of tributes to stars such as Tina Turner, Neil Diamond and Rod Stewart.

Owned by Sarasota Public Schools, VPAC serves as the education and performance center for Venice High School students. It also provides performance space for a trio of longtime area arts companies: the Venice Symphony, the Venice Concert Band and the Venice Chorale. All told, it hosts about 300 events a year, said Blankenship.

The Venice Concert Band, under the artistic direction of Bob Miller, has six performances scheduled at the Venice Performing Arts Center between November and April.
Courtesy photo

The Venice Concert Band, under the artistic direction of Bob Miller, has six performances scheduled at VPAC between November and April. The Venice Chorale, led by new Artistic Director Brent Douglas, will stage three concerts during that time.

VPAC is also the semi-permanent home to one of only three mobile carillons in the western hemisphere. Five performances of the 48-bell Andrew W. Crawford Memorial Carillon are scheduled between December and March. 

Because of the carillon's construction and placement, the bells are fully visible during concerts, which is quite a sight since the largest bell, called the bourdon bell, weighs one ton. All 48 bells have a combined weight of 13 tons. Together, they produce four full octaves of sound.

The Venice Symphony celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023-24 with six concert weekends at VPAC, in what Music Director Troy Quinn predicted will be its “biggest and boldest season” ever. 

Highlights include the symphony’s season opener Nov. 17-18, “A Symphony Fantastic!” with guest artist Andrew Bain, principal horn with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and “Disney’s Maestro: A Tribute to Alan Menken” Feb. 23-24, with guest artist Key Chorale of Sarasota.

Michael Feinstein will perform with the Venice Symphony when his "Hooray for Hollywood" show comes to the Venice Performing Arts Center on Feb. 9.
Courtesy photo

In what promises to be an outstanding special event, “Hooray for Hollywood with Michael Feinstein" is at VPAC Feb. 9-10. 

“The symphony has never presented a guest artist of (Feinstein’s) caliber before,” noted Kasten, the Venice Symphony president and CEO, who added that other milestone celebrations are in the works.

In April, the Venice Symphony hopes to present a free concert in a downtown Venice location featuring a chamber ensemble of its musicians. 

"We are looking forward to our 50th anniversary celebration and fundraiser Venetian Nights, when the Venice Community Center will be transformed into the streets of Venice, Italy,” she added. Venetian Nights is scheduled for Jan. 5. 

Venice also has attractions for visual art aficionados. The Venice Gallery & Studio owned by Clyde and Niki Butcher, features the large, black-and-white works of renowned environmental photographer Clyde, as well as the candy-colored hand-painted photography of Niki. 

Clyde Butcher, whose work has been likened to American wilderness photographer Ansel Adams, is primarily known for his evocative photos of the Florida Everglades, Big Cypress Preserve, the Myakka River and other Florida landscape treasures.

The Venice Art Center has served Venice artists and art community for more than 65 years. The organization hosts a dozen exhibitions, mostly year-round, that feature local and national artists, plus hundreds of classes for the community and special events.

Want to get outdoors in Venice? Five thousand years of Florida history is ripe for your exploration at Selby Gardens Historic Spanish Point. 

The 30-acre campus is located just north of Venice on Little Sarasota Bay in Osprey. Visitors can opt for a guided walking or tram tour or wander on their own to discover archeological, botanical and history-based exhibitions that include a prehistoric shell midden and a pioneer homestead.

Long in the shadow of arts and entertainment powerhouse Sarasota, Venice is finding its own place in the A&E sun. “We see more and different types of people coming from Sarasota, Fort Myers and elsewhere,” said Blankenship. 

“Come by and see for yourself,” he added.


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