Edifice Complex

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Hang onto your playbills. Sarasota’s arts groups are planning a whirlwind of new construction in the coming months and years, enough to dramatically reshape our cultural landscape. The Ringling Museum expansion, now well under way, and on-again, off-again Florida West Coast Symphony relocation have drawn the big headlines. But, quietly, no fewer than 11 other […]


Hang onto your playbills. Sarasota’s arts groups are planning a whirlwind of new construction in the coming months and years, enough to dramatically reshape our cultural landscape. The Ringling Museum expansion, now well under way, and on-again, off-again Florida West Coast Symphony relocation have drawn the big headlines. But, quietly, no fewer than 11 other local arts organizations are dreaming big dreams of newer, larger, more technologically advanced and architecturally interesting theaters and museums. Faster than you can say "capital campaign," arts execs and their boards are talking about well over $200 million in future facilities.

Among the grand plans: four new theaters at Florida Studio Theatre, a Museum of Asian Art that’s 18 times the size of the current one, and not one, but two brand-new contemporary art museums. And there’s a host of smaller projects as well. This is ambitious indeed, especially at a time when some of the most venerable arts groups in the country-think the Philadelphia Orchestra and Dance Theatre of Harlem, to name just two-are racking up huge deficits. Big new buildings need corporate and individual donors to get off the ground. And once they’re built, they need bigger audiences to fill their seats and bigger budgets to keep them running, since they inevitably require bigger staffs and operating expenses.

Randy Cohen, vice president of research and information at Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C., consults with arts administrators in more than 30 cities a year. "During the economic boom of the late 1990s there were a lot of facilities built," he says. "Now I see a lot of cities really struggling to figure out how to sustain them."

Capital campaign money is "the biggest money, but in a way it’s the easiest money-you’ve got the excitement of naming opportunities, for example," Cohen says. "The hardest part is to remember what’s going to happen after the ribbon-cutting." He says arts administrators have to ask: "Which is the bigger problem, trying to overcome only having 1,700 seats [in your existing theater] or building a facility you can’t afford to run?"

Despite his cautions, Cohen, who conducted this year’s economic impact study for the Sarasota County Arts Council, believes that $200 million in Sarasota building projects in the next five or 10 years "is doable," especially considering the city’s cultural vibrancy, affluence and projected population growth of about eight percent by 2008. Moreover, charitable giving to the arts nationwide was up an unexpected 7.3 percent in 2003, the largest increase since 1996, Cohen says. And a survey of 800 local households conducted by the Urban Institute in 2002 showed that a remarkable 71 percent had attended a live, professional performing arts event that year.

But while Sarasota has many wealthy, generous donors, it does not have the corporate headquarters that help feed the arts in larger cities. And other than the city-owned Van Wezel, our local governments-in contrast to many in Florida and around the country- don’t have a history of funding the arts. The state won’t bail us out, either; after awarding tens of millions of dollars in bricks-and-mortar grants to art groups in the go-go 1990s, the legislature has pulled back sharply. So if these new buildings are to rise, it will be mainly through the support of individual private donors.

The key, Cohen says, is comprehensive planning. "Hopefully people in Sarasota are thinking of this in a coordinated fashion and taking a broader realistic look at where the funding is going to come from. Because it is possible to overbuild."

Good advice, but Sarasota arts groups aren’t exactly famous for collaboration. Many are fiercely territorial, jealously guarding their donors, ticket buyers and places on the cultural totem pole. So far, they’ve failed to reach consensus with the city about plans for a downtown cultural district; and a few years ago, when the arts council did try to address the question of future facilities by creating a task force to inventory existing buildings and prioritize future needs, the effort fizzled out. By and large, the projects arts groups are now planning seem to reflect their individual dreams and aspirations rather than a shared understanding of what’s needed and possible in this community. Still, some seem well thought out and eminently feasible; others appear a little iffier. A few are already funded and ready to break ground, while some are little more than a glint in an artistic director’s eye. Here’s a look at all of them, along with some candid comments from our editors-and a few Deep Throats from the arts community-on which are most likely to succeed.

Musical Theaters for FST

Several developers have approached Florida Studio Theatre about the Gompertz Theatre property (the former Theatre Works) it acquired a year ago on First Street between Cocoanut Avenue and Tamiami Trail, says artistic director Richard Hopkins. "The height restriction is 18 stories," Hopkins says. "It’s a very valuable property. Our assumption is we’ll partner with a commercial developer and put the theaters downstairs."

Theaters plural? Yes, says Hopkins. After forecasting FST’s future needs, the board decided to build two 300-seat theaters-one to open "right off the bat"; the other a shell to be furnished and equipped later. The cost estimate, says Hopkins, is $3 million per theater. Further down the line will be two 200-seat cabarets. When the new theaters are built on the Gompertz property, the Stage III series will move to FST’s current mainstage Keating Theatre in the old Women’s Club building on North Palm Avenue, and the existing cabaret next door will become a cabaret for young audiences.

Anybody confused? "This is all shooting down the road," Hopkins concedes. "It sounds grandiose, it sounds undoable, but twin theaters are the way to go for us."

Our call: Hopkins, a master of grantsmanship, has always known how to find new funding; and with downtown property so hot, teaming up with a developer makes perfect sense (that’s what the Sarasota YMCA did with downtown’s Kane Plaza). In fact, it’s a growing national trend for theaters to occupy office buildings they’ve helped construct. Besides, FST has a strong track record, a business-savvy board and an influential subscriber base that keeps growing.

The Players’ Big Secret

Plans are afoot for a big new Players Theatre on its longtime site at 10th Street and North Tamiami Trail-a campus that will include a 750-seat main theater with balcony, a black box experimental theater, and space for a scenery shop and The Players Performing Arts School. The complex will be built closer to the Trail, and the old building will be demolished.

"We’re working with an architect right now," says producing artistic director Burton Wolfe, "but I can’t tell you any more detail without giving away a big secret." The project will commence in two to three years, he says. Can we expect a capital campaign soon? "I can’t tell you," Wolfe says enigmatically.

Our call:

The project is long overdue; the Players sells out lots of shows and needs to bring its school, now located downtown, into its main facility. And although its donors aren’t known for their deep pockets, remember that, like FST, the theater is sitting on some very valuable property. Wolfe may not be talking, but we wouldn’t be surprised if his group follows FST’s lead.

An Expanding Museum of Asian Art

A six-acre site at 46th Street and North Tamiami Trail is targeted for a greatly expanded Museum of Asian Art, which has rented 2,000 square feet in the Sarasota Vault Depository since it opened in April 2000. Currently the museum is only open Wednesdays through Fridays, and its limited space allows display of just a minuscule part of its permanent collection of 400 to 500 pieces of art from China, Thailand, Khmer, Nepal, Vietnam and Myanmar.

In 2003, the Museum of Asian Art had just 800 visitors, a disappointing number, its founder and benefactress Helga Wall-Apelt acknowledges. The new property, which Apelt owns, lacks the necessary commercial zoning, but she’s asked the city for rezoning. She says the new 36,000-square-foot facility will be "a real museum with an auditorium, Asian gardens, galleries for our permanent collection and collections on loan, and also modern Asian art." The museum board will launch a $20 million capital campaign if the property receives the necessary zoning. But the complex hasn’t been designed yet, and board member Tony Falcone cautions, "We are so far away from the reality of this happening."

Our call:

The art is museum-worthy and the concept makes sense for Sarasota. It would add something fresh to the area’s other museums and botanical gardens. But the administration of this little vanity museum has been spotty; assuming she can raise the money, it will work only if Wall-Apelt can relinquish some control to a professional museum administrator.

Backlot Takes Center Stage

The brainchild of civic activists Carol and Harvey Vengroff, the Backlot lists on its Web site (www.backlotarts.com) 21 possible uses for its future complex-everything from theatrical and musical productions to outdoor art shows, street fairs, worship services, DJ’ed dance parties and Olympic weight training. Ground is expected to be broken this month for phase one-a 58-by-62-foot black box theater that will seat150-at the old Stottlemyer and Shoemaker Lumber Company site on Fruitville Road and Shade Avenue. Besides flexible performing space, managing director Mark Marvell says the Backlot will offer administrative resources to smaller arts groups, including Theatre Works, whose sale of its First Street theater to Florida Studio Theatre a couple of years ago was the original impetus for the project.

Marvell says the black box theater shell will begin construction immediately after the Backlot’s kickoff event, the Hands of Heritage cultural festival, Nov. 13 and 14. Phase two will be a traditional 250-seat proscenium theater. No timetable is set for that. "We’ll add as the need and the financing warrant," he says.

The Vengroffs are leasing the nine-acre site to the nonprofit organization and were among the small group of donors of what Marvell calls "well over $1 million" to build the theater shell. The heavy-hitting board includes Mary Ann and Robbie Robinson, Margaret and Bill Wise, B.J. and Jerry Creighton, Joy and Don Rowe and Brett Rees. The next goal is raising $300,000 to $400,000 to furnish the interior with essentials like sound and lighting equipment.

"Until the shovels go in the ground, a lot of people are cautious," Marvell admits. "The amorphous nature of it is hard for some people to grasp, and some funders will have difficulty with it. But that’s the beauty of this thing. It’s meant to be organic. What do you need? We’ll look to see how we can fulfill that."

Our call: This project will get built, but will it ever be self-sustaining? Thinking linearly instead of organically, we doubt if Sarasota really needs another 250-seat theater when we have the Sainer Pavilion at New College, the Glenridge Performing Arts Center and soon to come back online, the old Asolo. Where’s that priority list when we need it?

Getting Modern with SMOA

Founders of the future Sarasota Museum of Art (SMOA) say they’re filling in the big missing piece of the local culture puzzle: a contemporary and modern art museum. In less than a year, the group has landed an anonymous million-dollar donor, lobbied the city for space in the future bayfront cultural district and hired two national arts consulting firms to help guide issues of space, programming and funding. More than 100 people attended a public meeting sponsored by SMOA at City Hall last April. By late summer, 64 donors had contributed more than $100,000, which was matched by part-time Sarasota residents David and Liz Kruidenier. (He is the former publisher of the Des Moines Register and former president and CEO of Cowles Media Company.)

The museum initially will host traveling shows. As to a permanent collection, "it’s premature to say exactly what will be in there," says board chair Wendy Surkis, "but we are turning to experienced professionals to form the collection." Meanwhile, a site committee is seeking administrative quarters, ideally downtown, "so we can be visible," says vice chair Dottie Baer Garner. (Besides Surkis, Garner and her husband, Bob, the other founding committee members are Bill Hartman, Irene and Mark Kauffman, Linda and Dick Dickinson, Elaine and Ed Keating, Liz and David Kruidenier and Peppi Elona.)

The national consultants estimate a price tag of $40 million, half of it for endowment. "This will be in stages," Garner cautions. "Rome wasn’t built in a day." "We have to do much more information gathering, and raising dollars, before we talk about a timetable," agrees Surkis.

Our call:

The board’s super-methodical approach and close local ties are in its favor. But we’re not sure Sarasota is all that hungry for a modern art museum. Whenever the Ringling Museum has mounted modern shows, visitor response has been underwhelming.

Not Your Grandfather’s Art Museum

Meanwhile, Dr. Charles Reich, a periodontist who splits his time between Sarasota and New York, is working to establish another contemporary museum with "iconic architecture that will make Sarasota a destination point."

The Florida International Museum of Contemporary Art & Design, or FLIMOCA+D, would be for "people who don’t know a bloody thing about art," says Reich. "It will be related to everyday life. We’ll bring in all levels of school involvement; we’ll have an artist-in-residence, for example, so visitors can even smell the paint and see him in performance. Hanging art on the wall and putting a plaque in front of it is intimidating; this museum won’t intimidate anybody."

Reich has assembled a board that includes art book author Dr. Michael P. Mezzatesta, former Guggenheim curator Craig Houser and Paul Robeson Jr. They’ve determined that the museum will need about 90,000 square feet and will take about $40 million to construct. He says the board is seeking donations from major corporations and "high-target individuals from outside the region." He estimates the museum will open in 2008 or 2009, or three years after they’ve raised the first $5 million. It may be located in the city’s bayfront cultural district, or in a commercial complex, "or joined, say, to a condominium. We’ve talked to developers who want to hear about that."

Reich’s wife, abstract artist Andrea Dasha Reich, has been in conversation with the office of architect Frank Gehry-he of the sensational Bilbao Museum and Disney Concert Hall-and Reich says other world-renowned architects are also interested in the project.

Our call: Reich has great enthusiasm and vision, but he’s myopic in failing to work through Sarasota’s established arts community. Plus, his definition of modern art may be more cutting-edge than conservative Sarasota can handle. Feelings are anything but friendly between these two groups, but unless they start talking to each other, we could end up with nothing.

The Symphony Fine-tunes Its Concert Hall

Possibly the most controversial project under discussion is Florida West Coast Symphony’s plan to build an approximately 1,600-seat concert hall in the city’s proposed new cultural district-a few hundred yards from the similarly sized, multipurpose Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

Seemingly destined earlier this year to move east to Lakewood Ranch, FWCS is now committed to remaining downtown in the 42-acre cultural district, says executive director Joe McKenna-specifically, on the northwest bayfront corner where the old Coast Guard building stands.

Gone are the original plans to build an education center, and instead FWCS is working with national consultants in the "very, very preliminary stages" to design its own concert hall, McKenna said last summer. They would move education and rehearsal space from the existing symphony center into the new building. That would keep "the great synergy of an environment where education and performance are constantly co-mingling with each other," McKenna says.

Putting a price on the new building is premature, McKenna says. "The initial education wing was estimated at $9 million and we have half of that." In addition to presenting its own concerts, the symphony plans to rent the hall to community groups and bring in touring orchestras and soloists, which would put it in direct competition with the city-owned Van Wezel. Meanwhile, Van Wezel executive director John Wilkes, who believes Sarasota’s growth over the next decade will outdate his facility, has suggested building a much-expanded Van Wezel elsewhere in the county, perhaps near I-75, and selling the current building to the symphony.

But a concert hall must be "designed for acoustical purposes first and foremost," says McKenna. (Since its recent renovation, the Van Wezel has been criticized for its acoustics.) With the area growing and arts programming at both the symphony and Van Wezel becoming more year-round, McKenna contends that it’s "a logical next step for an international arts destination such as Sarasota to consider a project of this magnitude."

Our call: The symphony is one of our oldest and most successful institutions, but gee, guys-this is huge. Rumor has it that the price tag has escalated to close to $100 million and that the board is split on whether it can-or should-raise money for such a monumental project. Some proponents may be hoping a new hall would keep popular conductor Leif Bjaland here for the long-term, but chances are the right offer would lure him to a larger city, anyway. And the prospect of dueling halls hurting each other’s business is not a happy one.

Lakewood Ranch Picks a Golden Apple

The venerable Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, a downtown Sarasota fixture since 1971, will open a smaller 8,000-square-foot satellite theater at the soon-to-be-built San Marco Plaza shopping center at Lakewood Ranch. With a maximum capacity of 200 people, the new theater will cost an estimated $1.5 million, says general manager Ben Turoff, a relatively low price tag because it will incorporate the seats, sound and lighting equipment from the now-defunct Venice Golden Apple, which closed in 2003.

Turoff concedes the Golden Apple relied on the San Marco Plaza developer’s demographic studies instead of its own to make the decision to build in Lakewood Ranch. "We’ll skew a little younger in our programming out there," he says. "Avenue Q and Forever Plaid, those kinds of shows. The stage will not be big enough to support the big-budget Broadway musicals we do in the downtown theater."

Unlike other cultural organizations planning new facilities, the Golden Apple is a for-profit business. So instead of courting donors and grant-makers, Turoff says, "We have to worry about investors and banks." At press time, the timetable was not set, he says. "It could be the fall of ’05, but I doubt it."

Our call: The Golden Apple has been successful for a long, long time. But we’d like to see those demographic studies. And come on, Ben-

aiming young with Forever Plaid?

Sarasota Film Society Rolls ‘em at Lakewood Ranch

Lakewood Ranch will be home to another longtime Sarasota cultural institution when the Sarasota Film Society builds its second complex at the recently announced Main Street project.

Managing director Dick Morris says the five-screen theater complex will cost about $3 million to build. He built the Society’s Burns Court Cinema without a capital campaign, but he plans to launch one this time. "It’s about time we ask the community to support us," he says.

Morris also says to expect "a little more variety" in programming out east: "You can expect to see the Mystic Rivers and Masters and Commanders, the more sophisticated Hollywood product mixed in with the art-house fare."

Our call: Morris is shrewd about the movie biz, the bottom line and local audiences. He’ll get the attendance he needs, and if he can duplicate the intimacy and pride of membership he’s created at Burns Court, film society fans may even help him build the thing.

New Role for the Opera and Golden Apple at Plaza Verdi

Farther in the future, at least until 2007, is the relocation of the original Golden Apple and part of the Sarasota Opera complex to the big Plaza Verdi project on North Palm Avenue. Last summer, the two arts groups were in negotiations with Plaza Verdi developer Ersa Grae Corp., says Golden Apple real estate broker John Harshman, and no one could discuss specifics. But "it’s very exciting," says Turoff, "and we’re tremendously looking forward to an upgraded space."

Ersa Grae has notified the city that phase one of Plaza Verdi, which includes relocating the dinner theater and opera pavilion building, will be complete by the end of 2007. (The entire $141 million project, including a hotel, condominiums, offices, retail space and 840-space parking garage, is expected to be completed in 2009.)

In anticipation of the move, executive director Susan Danis says the opera will launch the silent phase of a capital campaign this season. "We’ve finished the feasibility study and are starting to put the numbers together," she says. Integral to the process has been master planning. "We’re looking at what we want the theater to become, what the rehearsal space will be, for example," she says. "The library may end up in the old theater and vice versa. And we’re also looking at programming. We need to take the long view, to look at what the organization will be in 10 or 20 years." And what do they see? "We’re only a couple of years away from presenting a fall opera season."

Our call: The Plaza Verdi project looks far from certain; but regardless, the Sarasota Opera has longtime, very loyal patrons with lots of money. Count on some expansion there; the question is, how much and where?

A Performing Arts Center for Bradenton?

Rita Bullock, the determined founder of the nonprofit Performing Arts Downtown, says her group is still searching for a site. They’d first pinned their hopes on vacant land at the downtown Bradenton "Sandpile," which was subsequently sold to real estate developers, then eyed the parking lot behind Manatee Memorial Hospital only to see the hospital last summer announce a major physical expansion.

Performing Arts Downtown last year got a $10,000 grant from Manatee County for a feasibility study. "We got a great report," says Bullock, "but it was not specific enough as to how long it would take or the costs involved." Just as the Van Wezel was the catalyst for development on U.S. 41 in Sarasota, Bullock says, "I am convinced a performing arts center would be the catalyst that makes it happen for Bradenton. We wouldn’t be the unmentioned community anymore when WUSF [the classical music radio station] says ‘Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota.’"

Don’t discount the 88-year-old Bullock’s resolve; it was she who, as choral director at then-Manatee Junior College in the 1960s, got Neel Auditorium built.

Our call: This project is well meant, but presenting concerts is risky business. A performing arts center must be considered regionally, and this group needs to take a hard look at the glut of performance spaces across Tampa Bay.

On the Waterfront with the Manatee Players

The city of Bradenton is requiring the Manatee Players to raise $6.5 million in order to keep its lease on the downtown riverfront site it has occupied since 1953. The community theater embarked in August on a $4.5 million Act II of a three-act capital campaign. The city is mandating that the money be raised and ground broken on the new theater complex by Dec. 31, 2006. (Act I raised $1.1 million-plus by the end of 2003, says executive director Jody Huebert-Hamm.)

One million dollars will be the goal for the final phase, Act III, all earmarked for an endowment and building maintenance fund. "The board feels very strongly that we need to insure the building over time and make sure we are here and available to our community," says Huebert-Hamm.

Our call:

There’s big money in Bradenton, but it hasn’t stepped up to the plate for this theater yet. But we’re betting an earnest new administration and civic pride-plus the reality that they have to do it or lose their lease-will push this through.