Arts & Culture

A Place to Play

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A Place to Play

by Steven J. Smith


After playing musical chairs at numerous venues for years, Sarasota Orchestra President & CEO Joseph McKenna seeks a lasting performance space  it can call home.

“The orchestra uses multiple venues for our Masterworks and Pops programs,” McKenna said. “These primarily take place at the Van Wezel. We also use the Neel Performing Arts Center at the State College of Florida campus. Then we have Holley Hall, which is at the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center, where we do virtually all of our chamber music activity and our Great Escapes music series. We also perform at Riverview High School with our youth program and the Sarasota Opera House for our music festival in June.”

Two additional venues, he added, are Ed Smith Stadium for the orchestra’s spring concert and the North Port Performing Arts Center for youth concerts in the early fall.

“In order for the orchestra to deliver its mission to the greater Sarasota-Manatee County region, we need the collection of all of those venues in order for us to deliver all of our programs,” McKenna said. “We’ve been working for more than a decade to address having a long-term facility.”

According to its website, the Sarasota Orchestra’s mission is “to engage, educate, and enrich our community through high-quality, live musical experiences.” Now celebrating its 68th season, the orchestra has become the longest continuous performing ensemble in the state of Florida, playing more than 125 classical, pops, chamber, education and community engagement concerts per season. The orchestra also manages the internationally renowned Sarasota Music Festival under the artistic leadership of Robert Levin and is one of the world’s finest teaching festivals for pre-professional classical musicians.

McKenna said the orchestra’s educational activities include a youth program featuring seven ensembles, Young Person’s Concerts for all area fourth and fifth graders and a summer music camp — and that program is growing, further pressing the need for a permanent home.

“About five to seven years ago, our youth orchestra enrollment was 168 students,” he said. “Today, it’s at 347. We’ve had robust development in our education program.”

McKenna added several years ago the orchestra engaged the Arts Consulting Group, a culture and planning firm, on a five-phase planning process to address its growing pains.

“We’ve completed two phases to date,” he said. “We’ve done a needs assessment and then a market analysis and a scientific look at the demography of the Sarasota-Manatee region — the nature of the population and how many people attend performances. The purpose of these phases is to see if the community can sustain and support a new facility. There have been very positive insights gained from that, confirming we’re on the right track; that Sarasota is an iconic arts destination.”

Phase three, McKenna added, is currently underway and helping to affirm what the orchestra will look like and how it will operate in a new facility.

“Today the orchestra’s budget is about $10 million a year and we employ roughly 250 people,” he said. “Musicians, staff, educators, festival staff and faculty. Phase three will help us establish what kind of space is needed for us to deliver our mission along with a pro forma business plan that would be able to sustain that operation.”

Phase four will focus on community engagement in the process and phase five will launch fundraising efforts to make the project happen and continue on into the future, he added.

“We believe the general size of a concert hall for the orchestra will require 1,600-1,800 seats,” McKenna said. “We’re still in the early stages of planning that, as we are for the spaces we need for education-related activities to support the youth orchestra program and the Sarasota Music Festival, along with rehearsal space, offices and storage. We also have no hard number for what it will cost. That will come about in the work that’s ahead.”

As for location, McKenna said he believes the orchestra’s new home could be a part of the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 initiative — a 2007 cultural district master plan encompassing the 42 acres from Boulevard of the Arts to Payne Terminal, surrounding the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Also, parcels of land on the east side of Tamiami Trail are also under consideration, bringing the entire area to almost 75 acres.

“The orchestra really championed the Bayfront 20:20 initiative, which has transitioned into the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization,” he said. “They are right now charged with a master plan for the bayfront and they will play a critical role in moving that vision forward.”

For more information about the Sarasota Orchestra, visit

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