Taking the Tour: The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

The delegation.

A16-person delegation from Sarasota boarded a bus for the 2-hour trek to Orlando. The tour attendees included:

  • Mary Bensel, Executive Director of the Van Wezel
  • Steven Brown, Technical Director of the Van Wezel
  • Thomas Barwin, Sarasota City Manager
  • Virginia Haley, President of Visit Sarasota County
  • Shantel Norman, Executive Assistant of Visit Sarasota County
  • John Simon, Governance Officer of the Sarasota Ballet Board
  • Karl NewKirk, Secretary of the Van Wezel Foundation Board
  • Ali Bahaj, Tresurer of the Van Wezel Foundation Board
  • Monica Van Buskirk, President and CEO of the Van Wezel Foundation
  • Anne Folsom-Smith, Board Chair of the Sarasota Orchestra
  • David Steves, Chair- Elect of the Sarasota Orchestra
  • Billy Robinson, Treasurer of the Sarasota Orchestra
  • Cathy Wilson, Vice President of Finance for the Sarasota Orchestra
  • Dan Jordan, Concert Master at the Sarasota Orchestra
  • Jon Thaxton, Senior Vice President for Community Investment at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation
  • Bharat Chandra, Clarinet musician for the Sarasota Orchestra

The mission.

Find out how the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts project was accomplished with the cooperation of the City of Orlando and Orange County and its citizens, take a tour of the facility and get the inside scoop from Kathy Ramsberger, the President & CEO of the facility.

The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization operating the state-of-the-art performing arts center in downtown Orlando. With its opening in November 2014, the performing arts center launched its vision of Arts for Every Life by being a gathering place for creativity and discovery; a vibrant urban destination where artists, audiences and students come to experience, explore and learn. The Dr. Phillips Center is a public-private collaboration with the City of Orlando, Orange County, the State of Florida and generous donors.

The journey.

Kathy and her assistant, Linda Santiago, were very gracious hosts and gave the group some background on the evolution of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

There were three different attempts to build the performing arts facility in 1980, 1992 and 2003, which finally resulted in the first part of the complex.

In the early days of seating a board for the nonprofit, they looked for entrepreneurs and business decision makers – people who were accustomed to success. Kathy stated that they wanted board members who wouldn’t accept failure. The small executive committee was established and a larger 30-member planning board was later founded.

Kathy told the delegation that it was never really about the building. “It’s all about the purpose of the misson and the business,” she said. “We wanted to change the way performance arts was perceived. It was the compass for everything we did.”

For this project, consensus and alignment was key. “You’ll get a lot of ideas but stay the course,” said Kathy. “Persistence and perseverance is key.”

  • Vision: Arts For Every Life.
  • Mission: To be an inspirational, creative place where people love to be and where people love to work.

Nuggets of note

  • The same nonprofit now runs the facilities and schedules programs for both theaters at Dr. Phillips Center as well as the old performing arts hall, Bob Carr Theater. Kathy stressed the importance for the organization controlling the booking of the old facility so it is not in competition with new facilities.
  • Project funding came from 1/3 CRA, 1/3 from Tourist Development Tax and 1/3 from philanthropy. In the previous effort in 1990, $15 million in state funds was secured, and they were able to utilize it.
  • The facility utilizes existing downtown city parking garages with 3,000 to 5,000 spaces. The facility can also valet up to 200 cars a night. There is no on-site parking.
  • The original plan was to build all three theaters at once, but the economic downturn reduced the Tourist Development Tax funding, which meant only the first two theaters could be built. By separating the third theater, this meant $100 million more was needed.
  • Initially, $1.5 million was raised in the private sector funds for the start-up of new nonprofit and its early planning and community engagement. Although the building belongs to the city, the nonprofit board has never been subject to Sunshine Laws but has been very transparent in all of their activities.

The outcome.

Now, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is celebrating its first year in business. During this inaugural year, the facility boasted the following accomplishments:

  • 300,000 people attended shows
  • 287 performances were presented
  • 40,000 students saw shows
  • 900 students attended camps and classes
  • $33 million in gifts were donated

The two-block community destination features the 2,700-seat Walt Disney Theater, 300-seat Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater, Seneff Arts Plaza, Dr. Phillips Center Florida Hospital School of the Arts, the DeVos Family Room, and other event rental spaces. Future expansion, beginning this June, includes Steinmetz Hall, a 1,700-seat acoustical theater, along with rehearsal rooms, office space and commercial development spaces.

The Dr. Phillips Center appeals to a broad cross-section of the region. It is the home of the region’s resident organizations, including the Orlando Ballet and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. Many emerging arts organizations and community organizations are using the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater.

In addition, the facility provides a venue for touring shows, such as Broadway musicals, as well as popular headliners, comedy specials, lectures, musicians, local and emerging artists and much more.

Steinmetz Hall, the acoustic theater breaking ground this year, will be the future home of the Ballet and Philharmonic.