Vanel Wezel’s rising rental fees hit sour note

Bradenton Herald – SARASOTA — Most area venues for the performing arts have been forced to raise their rental fees in the past year, but few have caused as much stir as the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

The purple hall has hiked already-high fees by 5 percent next season, forcing ballet, dance schools and chorus groups to take their shows elsewhere.

Manatee Community College’s Neel Performing Arts Hall and the Sarasota Opera House have also raised their fees, but they are still considerably less than the Van Wezel’s.

Some of the Van Wezel’s rates are similar to the much larger Carol Morsani Hall in the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, which has nearly 900 more seats.

Officials at Sarasota’s city-run, 1,743-seat Van Wezel on the bay say fees were raised to cope with increasing maintenance costs.

“It’s everything from the electric bill to the cost of employee heath care,” said Sarasota City Manager Robert Bartolotta. “We have the same type of operation expenses that everyone has.”

The hall’s property insurance has also climbed about 25 percent, said Van Wezel executive director Mary Bensel. And its debt is at $740,000.

The city had two options, Bartolotta said: “Either through user fees or to the taxpayer.”

But upset arts groups say they are being priced out of the hall.

“The higher the fees, the less profitable we are,” said Bernice Ditchfield of the Sarasota-based Ditchfield Family Singers, who left last year after one season at the hall. ”It doesn’t make sense for us to use the Van Wezel.”

The Sarasota Ballet, along with several dance schools — including the Ellenton-based Diane Partington Studio of Classical Ballet — have also left for more affordable venues.

Van Wezel’s fees were too much, the ballet’s artistic director, Ian Webb, says.

“It’s just not economically viable for us to go in there,” he said. “We’re just having to pay huge amounts of money for it. In this climate, it’s wrong, really. It’s frustrating. . . . In this climate, we need every dollar we can get.”

The Sarasota Ballet, which has performed at least two of its programs per season at the Van Wezel, will continue performing at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts and the Sarasota Opera House.

But Webb hopes to return to the venue in the future. The Van Wezel is the only area stage that can host the ballet’s high-profile programs, such as “Two Pigeons” and “Anna Karenina.”

The ballet had to pay nearly $50,000 in fees for its recent production of “Anna Karenina.”

The dance schools, along with the Ditchfield Family Singers, usually perform at the less costly Sarasota Opera House. Though smaller, the 1,174-seat downtown venue costs $2,000 to $3,000 less than the hall per performance. But the opera house’s recent $20 million renovation temporarily moved the group into the Van Wezel. While it was nice being in a larger facility, the fees were a lot to bear, according to Ditchfield.

“We never felt we could afford the rates,” she said. “Despite how helpful everyone was, their hands seemed to be tied.”

If the group stayed, it would have had to raise ticket prices, which start at an affordable $15, or risk losing profits.

Ditchfield also said it was “a major ordeal” setting a weekend performance date with the venue.

“They were holding out to still get a possible Broadway show for that weekend,” Ditchfield said.

The Ditchfield singers were offered a weekday instead. Though ticket sales went well, the group could have sold more for a weekend performance, she said.

The Chorus of the Keys, which has performed at Van Wezel since the 1970s, has also called it quits after this season.

The Sarasota chorus, which performs its well-attended spring concerts at the venue, paid more in fees than it took for profits this year, said Chorus president Tom Hankins. Its fees after one day of performances were “well above $25,000,” he said. In all, it was a 20 percent jump.

“That’s a big bite,” he said. “We don’t plan on coming back.”

The group has been performing in the area for 60 years, raising money for music scholarships. This year, it has no money to give to its cause, Hankins said.

The new fees include a parking rate of $3-$5 per ticket. Other charges that were once waived for the nonprofit group, such as the use of microphones ($150 each), were also tacked on this year. The chorus doesn’t know where it will host its biggest show next season, but is considering area high school theaters and churches.

Bensel said most of the charges, which were in place before she came aboard about 18 months ago, do not reflect on her job of bringing quality shows to the venue and filling seats. She’s been fairly successful with that mission.

“In this economy, to go and have 80, 90, 100 percent of shows sold out — it’s wonderful,” she said.

Since her tenure began, she says, Van Wezel’s debt has dropped from $1.2 million to roughly $740,000 through staff cuts and better marketing. The city subsidy is projected to drop to about $600,000 next year.

The venue’s new marketing included installation of an electronic sign, which cost roughly $140,000. Local organizations, particularly nonprofits, get free advertising on the sign and on Van Wezel’s Web site — a luxury that some venues charge for.

Both Neel and the Van Wezel are essential to the Sarasota Orchestra’s programming, despite the rise in fees, said Joseph McKenna, the orchestra’s president and chief executive officer.

The orchestra’s long-term goals include building a venue of its own, but that’s on hold until the economy improves, McKenna said.

A healthier economic front would spell relief for everyone. And a new venue, dedicated specifically to the local arts community, would be a godsend for others.

“We have often wished that there was a facility that didn’t have the same financial trouble that the Van Wezel has,” said Ditchfield. “One that would make us feel welcome as opposed to being a red-headed step-child.”

published April 5, 2009


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