Attorney for Van Wezel family members sends ‘cease-and-desist’ letter to foundation, telling it to stop using their name in conjunction with planning for new facility

Van Wezel descendants frustrated by public confusion related to fundraising for Sarasota Performing Arts Center

In late November 2022, Tony Stone, a descendant of the Van Wezel family, sent a letter to Cheryl Mendelson, then the CEO of the nonprofit that still was calling itself the Van Wezel Foundation.

Stone noted that he and his sister, Katherine Van Wezel Stone, had met with Mendelson and Jim Travers, chair of the Foundation board, via Zoom in June 2022, “regarding the status of the Van Wezel Hall and the Van Wezel Foundation.”

He continued, with emphasis, “Among the issues we discussed were the name change of the Van Wezel foundation to Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC) Foundation in 2019 and the SPAC Foundation’s plans to replace the Van Wezel Hall with a new, larger venue in [The Bay Park on the city’s waterfront].” (See the related article in this edition.)

Then Stone expressed concern about, as he put it, “the manner in which our family name, Van Wezel, has been used by SPAC in its on-line and print materials. That is, in much of the material we have seen promoting the anticipated SPAC facility … there is a conflation of the SPAC and Van Wezel Foundation names.”

Yet, Stone pointed out, when the Foundation changed its name in 2019, “[I]t also changed its original mission so that it was no longer committed to the operating and maintaining [of] the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.”

Using the name Van Wezel Foundation, when that entity no longer existed, he added, “creates an unmistakable impression of Van Wezel support for the SPAC plans. The SPAC promotional literature is even more misleading when, as in many of its public materials, the SPAC Foundation name is not used at all, instead substituting the Van Wezel name.”

Then Stone emphasized that he and his sister objected to any SPAC materials that suggested that they, “or any entity associated with the Van Wezel name,” agreed with the SPAC Foundation that replacing the Van Wezel “with a larger performing arts facility” is in the best interest of the City of Sarasota.

“The Hall has not only been a source of pride for the City of Sarasota,” Stone continued, “but also for us, the oldest surviving members of the Van Wezel family and the namesakes of our grandfather, Lewis Van Wezel, and our mother, Louisa Van Wezel Schwartz. … To us, it is particularly ironic and poignant that the name Van Wezel is being used by SPAC to promote a plan that would likely lead to the destruction and likely demolition of our grandfather’s gift and legacy.”

Therefore, Stone told Mendelson, he and his sister objected to the use of their family name “in a way that suggests support for SPAC’s plans to disable, and, we believe, eventually eliminate the Van Wezel Hall.”

Stone and his sister then asked that the SPAC Foundation “take immediate steps to disassociate the name Van Wezel from the SPAC name in all print and on-line materials and from all future public communications stating or implying that the Van Wezel Foundation is supportive of the SPAC.”

The Foundation’s response

On Dec. 7, 2022, Mendelson and Travers, the Foundation board chair, responded to Stone.

They wrote, “We intend to move to the SPAC identity in as orderly and expeditious a manner as possible.

“In the meantime,” they continued, “we wanted to provide a timely response to your letter and provide the following factual context to clarify some of the statements made within the letter:

  • “As you are aware, the City of Sarasota (the ‘City’), and not SPAC, owns and operates the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall (the ‘Hall’). The City engaged national and international advisors to conduct a thorough study regarding the Hall’s feasibility in remaining a competitive contemporary performing arts center for the region. Based on the results of this study, in 2018, the City Commission approved a Master Plan to develop the 53 acres of the Bay Park, including a new contemporary performing arts center. The City intends to continue operating the Hall until any new performing arts center is operational, at which time the City will determine the best long-term use for the Hall.
  • “For 33 years, Van Wezel Foundation (SPAC) has partnered with the City to provide underwriting support for presentations, productions, and educational programs featured at the Hall and contributions for necessary improvements for the Hall. Until any new performing arts center is operational, SPAC will continue to share its mission-driven work to provide support for the Hall consistent with its agreement with the City. This past year alone, SPAC’s board of directors unanimously approved a $600,000 philanthropic grant to the Hall, an amount that is consistent with its past support of the Hall.
  • “SPAC believes that the Hall and its programming are an essential benefit to the quality of life in Greater Sarasota. At no time has SPAC stated that its desire or purpose is to eliminate the Hall.
  • “SPAC’s support of the Hall has long been, and remains, at the core of SPAC’s mission. Its mission, as set out in its current Articles of Incorporation, is to “support … presentation, productions, and education programs featured at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall or any successor performing arts facility. SPAC’s current mission is to create and sustain a vibrant performing arts center, advance education, and enrich communities by inspiring minds through the power of the arts — a mission that no doubt aligns with the vision of your grandparents.”

Mendelson and Travers concluded their letter thus: “We will also be discussing the intended identity transition with the City of Sarasota given our current agreements between the parties that are currently in place.”

Continued use of the Van Wezel name leads to ‘cease-and-desist’ letter

Yet, on Dec. 17, 20922, an email went out to subscribers to City of Sarasota press releases, with both the City of Sarasota logo and the Van Wezel Foundation name on it. As The Sarasota News Leader reported at the time, the email advised readers that a campaign that had been organized called Keep the Van Wezel, with a website and petition drive, had nothing to do with the city or the Foundation.

“The individual or individuals soliciting signatures do not represent us and we disagree with their assertions,” the email pointed out. “We all agree that Sarasota needs and deserves a new, state-of-the-art performing arts center on The Bay Park and the current Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall cannot be upgraded to meet the needs of the ever-growing community’s demands or host modern Broadway shows. At no time has the City, the Hall or the Foundation suggested that the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall be torn down,” the email added.

It was signed by Mayor Kyle Battie and City Manager Marlon Brown, along with Travers, the Foundation chair, and Mendelson.

Subsequently, in late December 2022, the Foundation still was using the Van Wezel name. Atop a holiday greetings email blast distributed on Dec. 23, 2022, the heading said, “Van Wezel Foundation,” followed by “A Vision for Sarasota Performing Arts Center.”

The email was signed, “With gratitude, Van Wezel Foundation.”

Finally, on Dec. 29, 2022, Sarasota attorney Morgan Bentley, of the Bentley Goodrich Kison firm, sent a formal letter to Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier and attorney Michael Wilson of the Williams Parker firm in Sarasota, which represents the Foundation.

Making it clear in the first paragraph that he was representing Tony Stone and Katherine Stone, Bentley wrote, “My request is that you direct your colleagues and constituents to cease using the Van Wezel name in relation to the construction of the new Performing Arts Center. More specifically,” Bentley continued, “please remind your respective boards that the new facility will not be called the Van Wezel and is not a ‘new Van Wezel’ in any shape or form.”

Bentley called it “wholly inappropriate” for the Van Wezel name to be used “to promote a new facility or to fundraise for a new facility …”

He also noted that, as of that time, the Foundation’s website still had not been modified “to reflect the new name of the Foundation.”

Bentley added, “Lastly, cease using the Van Wezel name in any materials or public statements by the Foundation that disparage, [denigrate], or [question] the viability of the current Van Wezel Auditorium.”

On Jan. 3, attorney Dan Bailey of the Williams Parker firm responded to Bentley’s letter.

“It is not accurate to state that the Foundation has not been known as the ‘Van Wezel Foundation’ for almost three years,” Bailey wrote. “In fact, it has been registered under the Florida fictitious name statute since August of 2019.”

Bailey added, “I do not detect … that your clients object to the continued use of the Van Wezel name to the extent it is used to raise funds for the existing Van Wezel Hall.” The ongoing obligation of the Foundation to raise money for the Van Wezel is noted in “a 2021 Memorandum of Understanding between the Foundation and the City,” Bailey pointed out. “Importantly, this obligation is in addition to, not in substitute for, its efforts to raise funding for the new performing arts center.”

Nonetheless, Bailey continued, “We certainly concur with your statement, as we surely must, that the new center will not be called the Van Wezel and will not be a new Van Wezel. It will indeed be a new performing arts center and will bear a new name of its own.”

Bailey further reiterated the statement that Mendelson and Travers made in their Dec. 7, 2022 response to Tony Stone: “[T]he Foundation does intend to move exclusively to the SPAC identity for the purposes of fundraising for the new performing arts center in as orderly and [expeditious] manner as possible.”

‘They’re getting better’

Subsequently, on Jan. 9, Travers sent out a new email blast, with a block at the top that said, “Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation aka Van Wezel Foundation.”

He was announcing that Mendelson, who became the Foundation CEO in January 2019, was “stepping down from her position in March to relocate to Palm Beach County.” Travers cited “family reasons” for her decision.

After expressing gratitude for Mendelson’s leadership, Travers wrote, “Now we have a road map in place to deepen our 35-year cultural partnership with the City [of Sarasota] and the Van Wezel Hall and to realize the promise of a world-class performing arts center at the heart of the Bay Park master plan — A transformational legacy project for Sarasota and the region for generations to come.”

When the News Leader contacted Bentley for a comment on the continued use of the Van Wezel name, he said during a Jan. 11 telephone interview, “I feel like I have to be on alert” about the use of the Van Wezel name in the context of any fundraising for the SPAC. However, he added of the Foundation’s leaders, “I think they’re getting better.”

He explained that the primary impetus for the Stones’ initial request to the Foundation, and then his letter, was the fact that “people [were] literally calling [the Stones],” expressing delight that a new Van Wezel Hall was going to be constructed.

“I don’t think the Van Wezel board wants that [confusion], either,” Bentley said.

“The good news,” Bentley said, is “I think people have gotten a little bit better about articulating what the differences are” between the effort to construct the new SPAC and the continued use of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, until its future has been decided.

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