Organization’s leaders point to supporters’ view that it cannot wait on build-out of amenities proposed for the bayfront
Given the years-long process that likely will be needed to create new amenities on the Sarasota bayfront, the leaders of the Sarasota Orchestra have decided to proceed with an endeavor to secure a new site elsewhere in the city that they can call their own.
Joseph McKenna, president and CEO of the Sarasota Orchestra, announced that decision during a Sarasota City Commission workshop held on June 25. “We don’t want to have sites potentially foreclosed by waiting.”
Major supporters of the organization have been using the word “urgency” in discussions about the necessity of relocating to a facility where the orchestra will have both rehearsal and performance space with the desired acoustical quality, he pointed out. Continued growth of the programming at the venues the Orchestra has to share also has underscored the need to move to a new facility, McKenna said.
“The good news,” he noted, is that all the data collected by an Orchestra task force focused on the initiative has shown that support exists for another performing arts hall in the city.
In late April, he continued, the Orchestra conducted four “listening sessions” with 35 donors, who offered “very good insights” into how it should move forward with its plans.
Before the end of the year, the leaders of the Orchestra hope to complete all the studies necessary to begin their formal search, he continued, and then they can launch their fundraising campaign.
It is too early to say how much a new facility might cost, McKenna pointed out, because features of the site chosen and parking considerations will be major considerations.
Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie thanked McKenna for his candor and asked that he keep the board members apprised of the Orchestra’s plans and, especially, its ultimate decision about a new location.
Building to this decision
At the outset of his presentation, McKenna pointed out that Sarasota Orchestra began its internal planning process in 2012, “following the Great Recession.” In 2014, it assembled a team of expert consultants to assist with that process.
Orchestra leaders know, he said, that their decisions “will stretch into the coming decades. … Concert hall planning, like we have undertaken, is a 100-year vision …”
McKenna noted that the Orchestra was established in 1949 as the Florida West Coast Symphony. It is the oldest continually performing orchestra in the state, he added.
Its annual operating budget is more than $10 million, and its endowment is about $27 million. The organization’s major programs are the professional orchestra, the annual Sarasota Music Festival, and the Youth Orchestra and educational initiatives in the community.
Sarasota Orchestra employs 201 musicians and 21 educators, and it has a staff of 62, McKenna said. The Sarasota Music Festival faculty numbers 40, he added. The total annual payroll is about $6 million.
During the 2016-17 season — the most recent for which statistics are available — the Sarasota Orchestra held a total of 1,155 performances and rehearsals for its own programs. Its collaboration with other arts entities — such as the Sarasota Ballet and Sarasota Opera — added 85 to that total, McKenna told the board.
Those figures, he pointed out, “more than [justify] the need for a dedicated concert hall … in the city of Sarasota.”
The six venues the Orchestra utilizes are the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Hall in Sarasota — located at 709 N. Tamiami Trail — which the Orchestra owns; the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota; the Neel Performing Arts Center at the State College of Florida in Manatee County; the Sarasota Opera House; the Riverview High School Auditorium in Sarasota; and the North Port Performing Arts Center.
The Friedman facility, he noted, includes Holley Hall, David Cohen Hall and practice rooms.
Only 25% of the ticket revenue the Orchestra receives from performances comes from those in the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Hall, McKenna said.
One of the major findings of the Orchestra’s internal studies, McKenna told the commissioners, is that the area’s cultural venues are at full capacity. “[There are] no growth opportunities for venue-dependent organizations,” such as the Orchestra. “The ability to attain additional space” at the venues it does not own, he continued, “actually each year restricts,” as the programs of those organizations expand. “It’s a very, very important point driving our work.”
Additionally, he said, each of the six venues the Orchestra uses has a variety of acoustical problems, as determined by experts on that subject during visits to the facilities.
The deficiencies include echoes; dead areas, which result in distortions and harshness of sound; and both internal and external noise intrusion. For example, he said, heavy rain hitting the roof of Holley Hall interferes with the sound quality.
Yet, he pointed out, “It is sound that we sell.” When the music consistently becomes “rich and vibrant and touching to the soul, we are able to have a more vibrant and successful future.”
Additionally, he continued, “As we get crowded out at other venues,” the Orchestra has come under “substantial pressure” to achieve its mission.
The Sarasota Orchestra mission statement says, “We engage, educate and enrich our community through high quality live musical experiences.”
“We have the best orchestra in the United States,” McKenna said, “and it’s in a constant state of adjustment.”