Better economy, chilly winter packing Sarasota arts venues
An improved economy, a miserable winter in the North and a series of dreary days at home are contributing to some dramatic attendance increases at Sarasota area arts organizations.
The packed parking lots at The Ringling and Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the sold-out signs at theater box offices are visible proof of the impressive numbers that arts leaders are reporting.
“The cold winter has driven people off the golf courses and into the theater,” said Richard Hopkins, artistic director of Florida Studio Theatre, citing gray days and a chilly winter in Sarasota.
Attendance at FST venues is up 15 percent overall and 31 percent for single ticket sales for its two mainstage theaters, and 23 percent for its two cabaret spaces.
The single tickets represent the last-minute business that patrons seem to prefer today, especially visitors who find themselves in town with free time. For years, theaters had fewer single tickets available because of the high number of advance subscriptions sold. FST emphasizes subscription sales to support its operations.
Hopkins said FST also is benefitting from the expansion of its operations, which now accommodates more than 750 people per night across the five-theater complex.
“The synergy between our multiple stages is paying off in return visits,” he said.
After a relatively weak fall, sales have taken off at the Van Wezel, said executive director Mary Bensel.
“January 1 came and it’s like a light bulb turned on at the box office,” she said. So far this season, the hall has sold $4.1 million in tickets, compared to $3.2 million last year, when there were fewer performances in the same period. Bensel said an increasing number of tickets are sold at the last minute compared to years past.
Ticket sales are up 16 percent at Asolo Repertory Theatre and 15 percent at the Manatee Players, which opened a new two-theater performing arts center last spring. The Sarasota Ballet is seeing a 16 percent increase in attendance, and sales are up overall for the Sarasota Orchestra, which has seen a 6 percent increase in subscriptions to its Masterworks series.
Attendance at the Ringling Museum is up more than 10 percent compared to the same time last season, according to Mark Morgan, assistant director for visitor services. He said there were nearly 50,000 visitors in February alone. That has caused some parking headaches this winter, particularly on days when the Asolo Rep has matinee performances. The two organizations share a parking lot.
The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s production of “Harry and Lena” was sold out weeks before it opened, and “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” which opens in mid-April, is already 87 percent sold.
Subscriptions for the troupe’s four-show season have jumped from 750 in 2009 to 3,646 this year, leaving roughly 1,200 seats to sell for each show, said executive director Christine Jennings. The high sales are a mixed blessing. The theater does not have to worry about marketing extra tickets “but we want to be able to get people in who want to see our terrific shows,” she said.
Only the Sarasota Opera reports sales as relatively even with last season. Executive director Richard Russell said that subscriptions are up by about 12 percent this year, but single tickets are down slightly, primarily because the company had a blockbuster hit last season with “Turandot,” which sold out 11 performances. This year’s “Il Trovatore” is not selling as well, but sales are stronger than last year for the season’s three other winter productions.
Most arts leaders cite the economy and their own product as reasons for the positive winter numbers.
“I can definitely see a shift with expendable income because of our single tickets at the door,” said Michelle Bianchi Pingel, executive director of the Players Theatre. Her company raised prices by $5 for seats in the first five rows of the theater “and no one even balks at paying more. They’d rather pay for a single seat at the last minute than book it in a subscription in advance.”
Pingel reports that single ticket sales are up about 7 percent so far this season.
“The economy is steadily improving and people are willing to spend some of their discretionary income on the arts again,” said Mary Anne Servian, managing director of the Sarasota Ballet. The company also has received significant national and local attention which “has put us on many people’s radar that hadn’t considered the Sarasota Ballet in the past.”
Michael Donald Edwards, producing artistic director of Asolo Rep, agreed, adding, “I like to think it’s the shows we’re doing and the way we’re doing them. But people also feel a little more free with their money now. You can feel it.”
At the Sarasota Orchestra, executive director Joseph McKenna said interest has been high in this season’s limited debut of new artistic director Anu Tali, who has conducted two Masterworks programs before beginning a fuller schedule next season.
“We attribute much of the success to quality programming, the excitement about our new music director, and strong marketing,” he said. Though ticket sales have been uneven for some concerts, the organization sees a “need to continue to be open to change and to challenge ourselves and our audiences with ever more innovative, creative and high quality programs.
At Venice Theatre, executive/artistic director Murray Chase said revenue is up $300,000 for the same period of time, from September to February 2012-13 to 2013-14. Ticket sale numbers were not immediately available.
“Our ticket prices haven’t gone up substantially and we’ve had roughly the equivalent number of performances,” he said.
While the Van Wezel saw mixed results for its fall programs, both FST and Asolo Rep saw big attendance spikes from the mid-November openings of two musicals. “Monty Python’s Spamalot” at FST and “Show Boat” at Asolo Rep broke attendance records.
A sizzling winter season
Asolo Repertory Theatre
Single ticket sales are up 22 percent
Florida Studio Theatre
Overall attendance is up 15 percent, single ticket sales are up 31 percent for mainstage shows and 23 percent for cabaret productions
Single ticket sales are up 15 percent in the new mainstage Stone Hall.
Single ticket sales are up about 7 percent
Ticket sales are up 18 percent in the Historic Asolo Theater
Museum grounds attendance is up more than 10 percent
Ticket sales are up 16 percent over last season
Ticket sales are generally even with last year
Masterworks subscriptions are up more than 6 percent; Pops series are up 35 percent and Great Escapes are up 5 percent over last year.
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
Ticket revenues jumped from $3.2 million from October 2012-March 6 2013, to $4.1 million in the same period this year.
Revenues are up more than $300,000 over same time last season (ticket sale numbers not available)
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe
Subscriptions are up about 15 percent