With the purple cow put out to pasture,  all eyes turn toward its effective replacement, The Sarasota Performing Arts Center, and the woman placed at its helm, Van Wezel Foundation CEO Cheryl Mendelson. Former executive vice president with the Harris Theatre in Chicago, Mendelson brings “the speed of the east coast and the pragmatic abilities of the mid-west” to this new endeavor—a state-of-the-art, multi-venue performing arts center smack dab in the heart of the Bayfront development—as well as a veteran hand with the nature of public-private partnerships and an innovator’s eye for cultural programming.

Why is the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall no longer sufficient to the needs of this community?  Mendelson:  The Van Wezel Hall itself has been an enormous anchor for the performing arts and arts education for 50 years, but there is a reality that a 50-year-old building cannot continue to compete and meet the demands of a vibrant world-class performing arts center.

What will be the overarching mission of the new Sarasota Performing Arts Center?  The civic mission is to ensure that Sarasota remains in an elevated role as a cultural mecca. Contemporary performing arts centers are now really about gathering places for the community, not just a place where people come and buy tickets. Our concept is to build a performing arts center that becomes a place for ideas, a place for arts and a place for everyone. As part of that, we’ll be taking a look at ways we can expand education opportunities, lifelong learning in the building, in addition to structurally creating flexible spaces within the building to be able to do a variety of performances 12 months out of the year. 

The Van Wezel stage was often criticized for being inflexible. Will the new center improve upon this?    There’s an enormous amount of precedent around the country taking a look at flexible spaces that have movable seats, the ability to transform theater spaces into multi-use activity spaces. There’ll be a main hall for our mainstage performances, and that will have state-of-the-art technology to to attract the best performers and Broadway shows. Then, in addition to that, we’re looking at a 400-seat flexible space, and an additional 125-seat education opportunity space. We currently serve 30,000 students a year and our goal is to be able to increase that.

What does your experience with Harris Theatre bring to this mission?  The Harris Theater was intentionally designed as sort of a blank canvas, with the idea that it’s art on the stage that brings life to the organization. And we had over 30 resident companies that called the Harris home. They were small and midsize music and dance organizations that were operating in storefronts and didn’t have a place to call home. Once they anchored at the Harris Theatre, it was a game changer for their organizations. We were able to provide infrastructure and experience to help them grow. That could be something really exciting for the future here.

Any ideas for these educational opportunities or new programs you’d like to see attempted here in this community?    At the Harris Theatre, I founded a program called Access Tickets. Chicago was fairly robust, with many organizations doing arts education with the public school system. So I didn’t feel it was necessary to reinvent the wheel, but what I did see was a lack of partnership with health and human service organizations. And so that was the basis of what Access Tickets did.

How did that work?    We partnered with a range of heath and human services—hospitals, Gilda’s Club for cancer treatment, Brain Injury Clubhouse, Lighthouse for the Blind—to be able to make performances and interaction with artists accessible to them. The key idea was that it was less about education, as empowering the human spirit, using the arts in a healing capacity and a way to bring families together.

What kind of opportunities are you looking at here?     I would love to focus and work with our director of education to create a space for social service organizations to be able to participate. The other place for expansion is that so much in Sarasota is focused around in-season. Over the summer, social service organizations are really in desperate need, wanting to have more programming to enrich their mission. There’s a place for us to grow there. 

Will programming see any drastic change?   We’ll be in a position to be more competitive. The Lion King was an enormous success because of the ability to take on a larger performance, have it run for three weeks and allow for educational programming, community outreach and people just to come and enjoy the performance. It’s that multi-tier approach to be able to mount larger programming that we’ll see the biggest dynamic shift on. There’s also having a building where we can do multiple performances at the same time, which help with the idea that you can dabble in risk. And having a state-of-the-art performing arts center will significantly increase our competitiveness with Tampa for the bigger shows and the bigger names.

“A place for ideas, a place for arts, a place for you.” What does that mean?   Engaging the community to find out what they envision for a performing arts center: accessibility for everyone; more variety of pricing; artistic programming that meets multigenerational needs. This is a community that’s thirsty for intellectual stimulation. We can incorporate the arts and integrate it into key areas to solve problems in our community. Sarasota is known as the cultural coast, and we believe it’s part of our responsibility to continue to make that thrive. This is a really incredible opportunity for this community to invest in the legacy of Sarasota, of their families, of the next generation.