With its iconic architecture and exceptional performance lineup, the city-owned Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is known far-and-wide as Southwest Florida’s premier performing arts hall. In fact, in 2017 it was ranked the No. 1 Performing Arts Hall in North America in the 2000-seat category of “top spots” for the sixth time in Venues Today magazine.
The Van Wezel offers Broadway musicals, popular comedians, world-class symphony orchestras, top international performers, and classical, ethnic, and modern dance. With over 100 of these events per season, the Hall also hosts close to 50 events presented by the Sarasota Orchestra, Sarasota Ballet, the Sarasota Concert Association, and the Ringling Library Town Hall Lecture Series. In addition, what many may not realize is that the Van Wezel runs an educational program that brings over 30,000 of our youth (K–12) to the Hall for special performances, and sends visiting artists into our local schools and community. Through a partnership with the Sarasota County School Board and the John F. Kennedy Center Partners in Education program, teachers also have the ability to participate in development workshops, learning to teach through and about the arts.
Like so many organizations in the Sarasota community, the Van Wezel depends on volunteers to assist in offering the finest performing arts experience. Resident Don Fosselman was introduced to the Van Wezel by friends shortly after he moved here. Today, he has been volunteering as an usher for nearly 15 years. His love of the arts and the Hall’s variety of performances has kept him there.
In 1987, the Van Wezel Foundation was formed to support the overall mission of the Hall. Established as a charitable non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, the Foundation operates independently, but as a partner, of the city-owned and-operated Hall. Since then, the Foundation has directed millions of dollars in support of the Hall’s capital improvements, programs, and ongoing educational efforts, like the initiatives described above. Resident Karl Newkirk has been a member of the Van Wezel Foundation Board since 2007.
According to Karl, an important focus of the Foundation Board today is the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 initiative first started by Michael Klauber, the restaurateur, some three years ago. This is an independent group working to plan the future of 42 acres of mostly open, city-owned Bayfront land. The vision is to support the creation of a long-term master plan for the Bayfront area that will establish a cultural and economic legacy for the region, while ensuring open, public access to the Bayfront.
There are over 50 community stakeholder organizations involved in Sarasota Bayfront 20:20, including Plymouth Harbor. In 2016, based upon the recommendation of Bayfront 20:20, the City Commissioners formed the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization, an independent, privately funded, 501(c)(4) organization with a nine-member board, whose objective is to ensure the delivery of a professionally-prepared master plan to the City. Representatives of the Van Wezel Foundation Board regularly attend the organization’s meetings, providing input as requested and advocating for the Hall’s needs, which include a vision of a brand new, state-of-the-art iconic facility replacing the nearly 50-year-old Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Karl stresses, however, that this does not mean the Hall’s beloved purple building would be torn down, but rather more likely repurposed. That said, decisions are yet to be made and planning is expected to continue over the next year.
“All of us are proud of, and value, Sarasota’s recognition as the arts and culture center of Southwest Florida. The Van Wezel is clearly the centerpiece for that Brand,” Karl says. “Fully developing the 42 acres for use by the community at-large is a once in a generation opportunity and I cannot stress how important this will be in maintaining Sarasota’s leadership and commitment to that Brand.”
To learn more about the Van Wezel, visit www.VanWezel.org/support/ or call 941-955-7676. You may also place a note in Karl’s mailbox (T-25A) and he will be glad to get in touch with you.