Photo of Nanci Weaver.

Originally published by the Herald-Tribune.

As a full-time Sarasota resident, I have seen how a performing arts center is much more than a building, and how it facilitates programming that can deeply impact a community.

In this regard Sarasota is like many other cities of the arts, including New York City, where I had the great fortune to live directly across the street from Lincoln Center.

We are all familiar with a performing arts center as a thriving hub of activity at “showtime,” but it can also be a thriving home base for arts education, lifelong learning and community outreach.

I wanted to do my part to promote these efforts, so I joined the board of the Van Wezel Foundation and now serve as chair of the Foundation’s arts education and community engagement committee.

To most of Sarasota and Manatee counties, the Van Wezel Foundation is the organization known for funding Broadway show tickets and school buses for field trips that give children the opportunity to experience theatre.

As life-changing as that experience can be, the Foundation’s arts education programming for children, educators and families actually reaches thousands of residents of all ages, backgrounds and abilities across five counties.

In addition to our 35-year cultural partnership with the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, the Foundation works with teaching artists to bring their unique services to the Sarasota and Manatee school districts. In addition, we work with social service organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, United Way, Girls Inc, UnidosNow, the Newtown Farmers Market and the Early Learning Coalition.

In all, close to 60,000 residents each year benefit from the Foundation’s programs. For example:

  • “Art Self” brings in teaching artists to explore the connection between arts and mental well-being.
  • “Very Special Arts” focuses on students with disabilities.
  • The National Artist-In-Residence program addresses accessibility and the arts through performances, lectures and workshops.
  • The Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education program helps educators learn how to use the arts in their classrooms.
  • Our Appleton Award scholarships give teachers professional development opportunities.
  • “Family Arts Nights” help families learn arts strategies to use at home to support their schools’ language arts and science curriculums.

Also, through our new collaborations with community organizations such as Resilient Retreat and the Haven, we can use arts-based activities to positively impact the mental and emotional wellness of people who have experienced homelessness or trauma.

And we’re just getting started.

The vision for a new contemporary Sarasota Performing Arts Center will have dedicated space to create a learning lab as a model and incubator for collaboration in arts integration and education.

I encourage you to walk around The Bay Park, the planned location of the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center, and just imagine what it will be – a home for these critical community programs to continue to grow while providing public spaces for master classes, art exhibits and artistic exploration.

And outside, just imagine being able to watch an outdoor simulcast of an opera, ballet or concert – activities that will provide free access to the community as a gateway to gather, watch, listen and learn.

A new performing arts center, created in partnership with the city and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, will maintain and grow the important work that is at the heart of our mission together.

A new center will be much more than a beautiful building that brings economic value to Sarasota: It will be a true civic asset that can be the lifeblood of our cultural community.

Nanci Weaver is chair of the Van Wezel Foundation’s arts education and community engagement committee.

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