Mary Bensel: I strongly endorse the need for a new world-class performing arts center as a symbol for the future of Sarasota

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Performing arts have expanded and evolved in many ways since the 1970s when the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall opened on the Bay in Sarasota, and I have had a front-row seat in watching its evolution while serving as the Executive Director for over 14 years.

The Hall is loved by everyone, myself included, but I believe the time is now for our community to come together to create a new, contemporary performing arts center, complete with the amenities that audiences have come to expect. 

While some have suggested the existing Hall be renovated or upgraded to suit contemporary needs, that is just not an option. The existing Hall was identified in the 2017 Climate Adaptation Plan as among its most vulnerable structures. We cannot renovate the current structure to address its vulnerabilities because FEMA compliance codes preclude structural modifications that exceed more than 50% of the building’s value.

Additionally, the reality is the existing Hall will not be capable of serving our community in the same way it does today 10 years from now. Our community is growing, and part of what makes Sarasota an attractive destination on Florida’s Gulf Coast is its art and cultural offerings. It is vital that the infrastructure remains responsive and grows responsibly with the community.

A new Sarasota Performing Arts Center would be capable of becoming a cultural beacon that expands access and unique arts experiences to give the people the experience they want at the theater on the Bay by creating a smart, clean building with a full complement of amenities.

A few notable advancements expected in the Sarasota Performing Arts Center include:

  • 200,000 square-foot venue committed to universal design and accessibility
  • 2,250-seat main stage including center aisle(s)
  • 400-seat flexible performance space
  • Education and lifelong learning spaces, including classrooms, rehearsal and meeting spaces
  • Multiple outdoor public performance spaces


While expanding amenities to its patrons, a new performing arts center will attract a wider array of shows, performances and tours. In recent years, we were not able to secure performances due to the size of the Hall including some notable shows, such as Phantom of the Opera and Wicked. By increasing the seating capacity from 1,741 to over 2,000, the new performing arts center would be capable of competing with other large venues to secure the most desired talent, while simultaneously making tickets more affordable by spreading out the cost.

The opportunity to create a stunning icon with the Bay as a backdrop will solidify the performing arts center as a centerpiece within the park with the opportunity to truly activate our community. I envision our community gathering around the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center and expanding out from there.

Fortunately, the Van Wezel Foundation has been a gracious nonprofit partner to the Hall for over 30 years. It has established itself as a cultural leader and educational collaborator, serving students, teachers, families and our community at large with their mission-driven work, alongside the Hall.

Through this demonstrated commitment, paired with its nonprofit status that can nimbly adjust to the changing needs of our community, the Foundation is well positioned to lead the vision for a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center through a partnership with the city of Sarasota.

The community wants and deserves a state-of-the-art Sarasota Performing Arts Center, and I strongly endorse the need for a new world-class performing arts center as a symbol for the future of Sarasota. I encourage the commission to move forward now and approve the partnership agreement between the Foundation and the city of Sarasota to realize the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center together to keep the best of Broadway, music and dance alive for our community. 

Mary Bensel

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