ReEnvisioning the Van Wezel: The Importance of Supporting Sarasota’s New Performing Arts Hall

The Bay Park Conservancy Conceptual Masterplan — Approved by the Sarasota City Commission in September 2018.

By Sarasota Scene | Simone Knego | February 2023

Sarasotans have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to support turning the
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall into Sarasota Performing Arts Hall—a vital gateway to connect community and culture.

The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall has been an icon of the Sarasota skyline for over 55 years. Built in 1969, it was renovated in 2000 to meet the growing needs of the vibrant Sarasota arts and cultural community. With more than 40 arts and cultural organizations, the arts have been an integral part of Sarasota and the Van Wezel has played a starring role.

Like other aging structures, the Van Wezel has weathered its share of issues, including water intrusion, lack of insulation, and outdated HVAC infrastructure. According to the city’s climate adaptation plan, the Van Wezel is among the city’s most vulnerable structures, sitting in a high-risk flood zone with parts of the building below the floodplain. There have been suggestions that the current structural issues could combat rising sea levels, by raising the structure and creating a ten-foot concrete wall around the building. However, this would not guarantee against further water damage and doesn’t even begin to address interior problems.

Beyond the structural issues, according to Mary Bensel, the Executive Director of the Van Wezel, the current seating capacity is a barrier to bringing most major traveling shows to Sarasota. Our current facility has 1700 seats, and some agents won’t even consider a venue if it has less than 2000 seats,” says Bensel.

The Lion King is a recent example of the Van Wezel’s limitations. It took 15 years to get the show to Sarasota, and once the troupe arrived, the hall’s challenges became apparent. According to the show’s head carpenter, “We have had to deal with every one of the problems that you have in this venue…but we have never had to deal with all of these issues in one building, all at the same time.”

Bensel states, “I have many amazing memories here at the Van Wezel, but this facility no longer fits current touring protocols. Let’s cherish the Van Wezel and look forward to an exciting new future for the Sarasota Performing Arts Center (the proposed new theater name). The theater is never about being divisive; it is designed to bring people together.”

Jim Travers, newly appointed Interim CEO and Board Chair of the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation, formerly known as the Van Wezel Foundation, has lived in Sarasota since 2012. He brought his family to Sarasota not only the warm climate and the white-sand beaches, but its rich art scene. “Sarasota is incredibly unique given the impact of the collective art scene here, including the Van Wezel, and what it has meant for the community,” he said. “The current hall has provided 55 plus years of great accessibility for the community to the arts. What we are going to do, in partnership with the city, is build something to provide that next level of arts that this community needs, not just for the now, but for where this community is going.”

The city will create a blue-ribbon panel to determine the future use of the Van Wezel, which will be financially and operationally sustainable for the city. A similar panel determined the future of the Sarasota High School building which, ultimately, Ringling College repurposed to create the Sarasota Art Museum. 

According to Travers, “The hall is city property and It’s the city’s decision as to what happens to the current structure. The Foundation has never advocated destroying the Van Wezel, and we hope it can be repurposed.”

In 2018, the City of Sarasota approved a master plan for the Bay Conservancy with the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center as its heart.  Travers states, “Our vision is to work closely with the Bay Conservancy to activate the entire 53 acres. This will allow the community accessibility to not only the new performing arts center but also to Bay Park and all it has to offer. Our plan is for this to become a destination, a place where families can go to see a show, eat dinner, and visit Bay Park.”

The proposed Sarasota Performing Arts Center will have a 2,200-seat main stage, flexible 300-seat performance space, integrated educational programming, and multiple outdoor public performance spaces, including a Wallcast, to broadcast performances inside to the public outside, at no cost. The contemporary venue, planned for the Northeast corner of Bay Park at the 10th Street Circle, will be environmentally sustainable, resilient, designed to meet future sea rise, and accessible to all.  Enhanced backstage and patron amenities will complete the center. 

For 35 years, the Foundation has worked with the Van Wezel Hall to bring meaningful arts experiences each year to more than 50,000 teachers, students, and their families. More than one million tickets have been donated to veterans, seniors and low-income populations, and this outreach has expanded to victims of trauma, abuse, and those suffering from mental health issues for whom art is expression and relief.

A small but vocal group against the current plan says a new center means higher ticket prices; actually, the reverse will be true. According to Bensel, “The difference is that when I buy a show to bring to Sarasota, we pay the same cost as a theater with 3000 seats. With more seats, we can divide that cost by more tickets, making the individual ticket cost less expensive.” 

The funding for the new center is a 50/50 public and private partnership. Half of the money will come from private philanthropy—fundraising managed through the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation. The other half will come from government sources. Over 80% of that money will come from the TIF, which is tax incremental funding. The TIF sets aside new taxes from both new and current businesses and residents in a TIF district. 

In this case, the TIF district is the area adjacent to and surrounding the new park and performing arts center whose residents would benefit most from the park and the performing arts center. The TIF will not increase anyone’s taxes in the TIF district, the city, or Sarasota County. The TIF only collects the normal annual appreciation, if any, in commercial and residential real estate taxes in the district. A governing board consisting of city and county representatives will determine the best allocation and use of available funds as they are collected annually. The city has publicly stated that it will not raise taxes or issue bonds to pay for the new performing arts center.

According to Mark Cole, Chief Advancement and Marketing Officer of the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation, “Right now, the new performing arts center is budgeted to cost $275 million. Although the half we need to fundraise is around $138 million, we are looking to raise $200 million through philanthropic giving because, in addition to that $138 million, we want to raise money for an endowment and for programming. “ 

On January 21, Paul Seed, Founder and CEO of, announced a $10 million contribution from the Paul Seed Fund at KBF Canada to the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation. The gift will support the architect and design team. “The arts inspire the human spirit in ways that are hard to articulate,” said Paul Seed.  “This project will be transformational for our community and live past this contribution. I’m honored to have the opportunity to make this early leadership investment to catapult the project forward.  I encourage everyone to get involved.”

Recently, more than 47 world-class architects ranging from Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid to Renzo Piano and Jeanne Gang/Studio Gang responded to the city’s RFQ (Request for Quote), an extraordinary response to design an artistic icon not located in a major city like New York or Los Angeles. The Foundation’s Architect Selection Task Force has already narrowed the field to the top 18 applicants, with three to four finalists to be selected by Spring.

“As a once-in-a-generation project, these applicants represent the best of the best firms from around the world, having designed some of the most world-renowned institutions across the globe,’’ said City of Sarasota Manager Marlon Brown. “This remarkable response shows how highly regarded the world views Sarasota’s arts and culture as we look to continue to build upon our future as a cherished destination.”

Foundation officer Mark Cole stated, “Ultimately, here at the Foundation, we want everyone in the community to rally with us to build this space. We call it a place for ideas, a place for arts, and a place for you.” 

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