Feature

Arts Destination: Venice

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As the curtain opens on the upcoming season at the Venice Performing Arts Center, not only can audiences look forward to a diverse array of performances, but also to witnessing bold plans to use the state-of-the-art facility to ensure Venice’s place on Florida’s Cultural Coast.
The team at the Venice Institute for Performing Arts (VIPA) is entering its second season as the three-year-old Venice Performing Arts Center’s (VPAC) nonprofit management company. It is moving forward with a clear dedication to its mission “to sustain the local arts community through innovative educational programs, and inspire the community with first-class entertainment” along with a devotion to delighting its audiences.
“We are passionate about making sure that everyone in the community has access to the arts and is given the opportunity to connect with the performing arts on a personal level,” says Becca Eldredge, Managing Director and Associate Producer. “Performing arts education is our focus, and one of our long-term goals is to make Venice an arts destination for tourists.”
VPAC (941.218.3779|veniceperformingartscenter.com) is adjacent to Venice High School and near historic downtown Venice. It is the permanent home of three resident performing arts companies – the Venice Symphony, Venice Concert Band, and Venice Chorale, as well as the Venice High School Performing Arts Department. In addition, VIPA is mounting 17 performances this season and also rents the facility to other organizations.
Having the luxury of a new facility means enjoying a host of features and amenities. All of the theater’s 1,090 seats were designed to deliver good line-of-sight and acoustics. “The stage is built like a Broadway stage,” says Sterling Phillips, Production Manager and Assistant Producer. “We have a hydraulic orchestra pit that can accommodate more than 60 pieces and a fantastic sound shell for the symphony that matches the wood used for the theater.”
The $15 million VPAC building was a unique joint project of the Sarasota County School Board and the City of Venice, which directed local sales tax dollars toward its construction. “Our mission is currently focused more specifically on education and the community,” Eldredge says. “We have an internship program for high school students to earn class credit for working in our administrative offices, and an apprentice program after school for seniors who are paid to work alongside professionals. Those educational programs are really important to us, and we’re working to expand them.”
Last year, six apprentices were in the program and all went on to college with three choosing to study in the performing arts field. Having the opportunity to participate in the apprenticeship program helped Venice High School graduate Anthony DeSalvia make an important career decision. “I would most definitely not be attending the University of Central Florida for a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Stage Management if it weren’t for the lessons you’ve all taught me,” DeSalvia wrote in a letter to VIPA. “By continuing with theater, more specifically stage management, I aim to inspire young minds like my own who didn’t know where to turn in a time of need and to continue inspiring myself by bringing productions with great meaning to life. I want to be part of teams that showcase works with the intention of educating people of all walks of life by raising awareness of the great diversity in this world.”
In addition to these two programs for upper classmen, VIPA is working to expand its educational offerings to residents throughout the county. This season, students will have the opportunity to work with the cast of The Broadway Boys, consisting of six versatile Broadway singers. While here, they will conduct a master class on auditioning. “We want to make sure that no matter their background, anyone with a passion for the performing arts is given every opportunity to succeed in this field,” Eldredge says. “By participating in this free master class, students will be given a leg up when it comes to college acceptance.” Several other opportunities for master classes are planned during the upcoming season, and connecting more with elementary school children is also an objective this year. Programs have been developed for lifelong learners as well.
“Our educational programs are the meaning behind what we do. We’ve gone through one season successfully, and we’re excited to be able to expand the program,” Phillips says. “We’re going to try to offer as many opportunities as possible during the season, and we will be adding more. It’s important to us to give back to the community in the same way it gave to us.”
Once the building was completed, a Joint Management Advisory Board was established to set policies for managing the facility. It became clear to board member Mike Hartley that a broader range of programming beyond that of the three resident companies was required along with a mechanism for making the venue sustainable for the long term.
“I proposed to the school board that a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation be formed to meet the specific needs of area residents and students for a wide variety of programming and that the net proceeds derived from those programs be invested back into the operation of the VPAC,” Hartley says. “In early 2016, my wife, Bonnie, and I formed and funded the Venice Institute for Performing Arts as that nonprofit corporation. The City of Venice directed local option sales tax funds equal to nearly half of the $15 million cost of the VPAC. I wanted to make sure that the citizens in the Venice area got a cultural and educational return on that investment.”
With a background in education, Bonnie Hartley immediately saw the potential for area students as well as the community. “Mike and I share a long commitment to the performing arts. In Oregon, I served on the Board of Eugene Opera for many years. When Mike discussed the opportunities and challenges the VPAC faced, I agreed enthusiastically to focus our philanthropic efforts on building a support system to sustain the performing arts faculty and students at VHS and on enhancing our community’s opportunities to experience high quality musical and theatrical performances right in Venice in our beautiful performing arts center,” she said. “I come from a family of teachers and have been an educator all of my professional life. I have seen repeatedly the value of providing students with experiential education opportunities.”
VIPA brought Eldredge and Phillips on board to manage the day-to-day operations of the performing arts center. Eldredge focuses on operations, including hiring and finances, while Phillips has responsibility for working directly with the groups that use the VPAC, does the hiring for the shows, and coordinates VPAC’s 175 volunteers. “We have one of the best volunteer corps in the area, and many have been with us since the building opened,” Phillips says. “We love to talk with them about their background and give them the opportunity to do what they like to do. That way they can connect to the art at a personal level. That’s important to us because we connect with our community through them, and they can help us see things we might not be able to see without them.” Eldredge and Phillips take a team approach to VPAC management. Along with the volunteers and several part-time staff, everyone pitches in as needed to ensure the job gets done.
“Because we are brand new, fundraising and development are very important at the moment. We want to do as much as possible to support our educational components. We also want to keep prices at a level the community can afford and with production costs so high, there is a pricing gap that we hope donors and sponsors can help bridge,” Eldredge says. “Our future is expansive. We are a young company with so much potential to grow. I don’t think there’s anything we can’t do. We will give the community a fantastic venue and set of performances, but also give them something to be proud of in the performing arts. We really want to make Venice that performing arts destination.”

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