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All the world's a stage: Theaters will feel any loss of federal funding, but so will their communities

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Adam Neary, executive producer and vice president of the board of directors, Playhouse 22.
Adam Neary, executive producer and vice president of the board of directors, Playhouse 22. - ()

Bonnie J. Monte is not being dramatic. In voicing her concerns regarding President Donald Trump's rumored plans to, among other budget cuts, eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Monte joins most, if not all, of her colleagues and competitors in their nervousness.

“If NEA funding disappears, that will have a massive ripple effect,” Monte, artistic director at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Florham Park, said. “It will impact each state’s arts council funding, which means that every arts organization will find out that they either have no funding or extremely depleted resources, putting all of those institutions in jeopardy.”

According to a 2015 Americans for the Arts report, New Jersey is home to more than 20,000 arts-related businesses — making it a constant struggle to compete for private funding from corporations, foundations and individuals.

Peter Hansen, principal of Hansen Philanthropic Solutions, a strategic fundraising consultancy in Belleville, said the eradication or depletion of the public funding might then decide the educational and economic impact of the arts in New Jersey — and, in some cases, whether or not a performing arts center will keep its doors open.

“Midsize and small theaters struggle to achieve a balanced budget each year under tight constraints with small staffs,” he said. “Their revenue models are much more fragile, and, so, they don’t necessarily have the ability to pivot as quickly.”

Larger theaters that may not be as worried about funding are still as concerned with what the cut would mean for culture.

Todd Schmidt, managing director of the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn — recognized last year with the Regional Theater Tony Award — said it is important to understand why theaters are vital to the community.

“We are there to represent the human spirit in the best ways possible,” he said. “One of the biggest things at stake is the message this sends on a national level — one that diminishes the importance of arts to our society.”

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Stephen Fredericks, executive director, The Growing Stage (The Children’s Theatre of New Jersey) in Netcong, says the arts help a community’s economy just as much as its culture.
Stephen Fredericks, executive director, The Growing Stage (The Children’s Theatre of New Jersey) in Netcong, says the arts help a community’s economy just as much as its culture. - ()

Many theaters, including McCarter Theatre in Princeton, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, The Paper Mill Playhouse and The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, received direct funding from the NEA over the last year, typically ranging from $10,000 to $40,000.

But the public funding New Jersey arts organizations typically rely on most comes from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

NJSCA received just over $870,000 in funding last year from the NEA, in addition to nearly 23 percent of fees collected annually from the state’s hotel/motel occupancy fee.

The organization was then able to award nearly $16 million to those art projects and programs that both met the criteria and were deemed worthy by both field professionals and citizens.

The Paper Mill Playhouse, NJPAC and McCarter Theatre — theaters with operating budgets of more than $10 million — received grants between $600,000 and just over $1 million each from NJSCA for 2017.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood and The Growing Stage (The Children’s Theatre of New Jersey) in Netcong — theaters with operating budgets between $4 million and a few hundred thousand dollars — received under $175,000 each.

Regardless of size or revenue, underserved individuals and communities are the main beneficiaries of the endowment funding, John McEwen, executive director of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance in West Orange, said.

“This funding is there to support organizations so they can offer a variety of programs, but it also makes sure that individuals, regardless of their economic position or geographic area, all have access to the arts,” McEwen said.

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Funds have been cut in more than 80 percent of U.S. school districts since 2008, with the first programs to go often being music, art and languages.

Giving back
Peter Hansen, principal of Hansen Philanthropic Solutions in Belleville, said that, while the new administration has not yet fully articulated its tax policy, the capping of charitable deductions would be even more devastating to every nonprofit organization in the United States than the removal of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“While charitable deduction is not a sole motivation for giving, it does have an impact on the size of donations,” Hansen said. “It is part of the decision process. Therefore, that would pose a risk of potentially significant declines in charitable giving.”
Hansen said members of the Association of Fundraising Professionals plan to speak with their representatives in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 16 in an effort to secure the full continuation and value of the charitable deduction in advance of any proposal.

Performing arts centers in New Jersey have stepped up to fill these voids with in-school residencies, educational programming, professional development training and greater accessibility to their performing arts schools and conservatives.

Dominic Roncace, CEO and president of bergenPAC, said the current administration’s proposal is in direct conflict with what is integral to many performing arts centers’ missions.

“We should be building more of an awareness on how important arts funding is for our youth to have an arts education and all of the benefits that derive from that, such as self-confidence, teamwork and discipline,” he said.

BergenPAC provides arts education for 88 schools in 61 school districts throughout 10 counties in New Jersey. The organization also does not turn away any children from attending its Performing Arts School simply because they cannot pay.

The financial ability to do that is crucial to developing our future society, Timothy J. Shields, managing director of McCarter Theatre, said.

“(We) have tried to receive grants on our own to be able to be present in the schools to make up for the arts education which the schools can no longer provide on their own,” Shields said. “We think the arts are a terrific way for students to learn about themselves and the world that surrounds them.

“In business today, when you ask many chief executive officers what quality they need most in their employees, they will tell you that they need creative problem solving. Yesterday’s answers to today’s problems are not sufficient.

“One way to think outside the box is to see the world through slightly different lenses.”

Darkest before dawn
Theaters across the country — from Broadway to regional, from high school to community — gathered at 5:30 p.m. on the day before the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump to participate in The Ghostlight Project.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Florham Park was one of them.
“We had a ceremony in which our staff gathered together with members of the community,” Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director, said. “We had long conversations about what we could do to battle back against some of the destructive actions that were and still are being contemplated and implemented.”
Named for the ghost light that acts as a safety measure in a darkened theater, The Ghostlight Project was a collective symbolic vow to support the values of inclusion, participation and compassion and to stand against all aspects of intolerance and discrimination.
The Shakespeare Theatre created a second ghost light to turn on in its lobby at the end of each day.
“What it symbolizes for us is that there is always a light on in our theater for everybody,” Monte said. “We are a safe haven for people of all races, nationalities, cultures, sexual orientations, belief systems and more — nobody is ever turned away.”

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The Ghostlight Project emphasized the arts community’s support for inclusion and compassion and its fight against intolerance and discrimination.
The Ghostlight Project emphasized the arts community’s support for inclusion and compassion and its fight against intolerance and discrimination. - ()

Arts education is most effective when started early.

That is why The Growing Stage — the Children’s Theatre of New Jersey — invested $3 million into the historic venue it purchased in Netcong in 1995.

“Not only do we make a contribution as an arts organization to the culture of the community, but we have also made a significant impact on the economic development of it as well,” Stephen Fredericks, founder of The Growing Stage, said.

“Since our being here, so many new restaurants have opened and there has been a lot more business investment into Netcong.”

The Paper Mill Playhouse, one of the country’s longest-standing regional theaters, also serves as an economic driver in the township of Millburn.

“We have 1,200 seats, which is comparable to many Broadway houses,” Schmidt said. “We’re drawing about 250,000 patrons a year that come to see our shows and participate in our programs that will also shop nearby or grab a coffee.”

John Schreiber, CEO and president of NJPAC, said research has proven time and again that the arts are a major factor in a healthy economy.

“When the arts are part of the life and the culture of a community, everybody benefits,” he said. “You have a local experience in that city or town that has multiple pieces to it, and that includes more than simply attending a performance.”

But it is not only about the patrons of the performing arts centers.

According to a 2015 Americans for the Arts report, New Jersey employs more than 75,000 in arts-related industries.

“In a very direct way, (NEA) and (NJSCA) funding flows through to jobs in the community,” Shields said. “When we have fewer dollars, we are forced to hire fewer people.

“And when we put on shows here, we build them in our community with local personnel. We buy lumber from local lumberyards. We patronize local services and retailers throughout the community.”

Adam Neary, executive producer and vice president of Playhouse 22 in East Brunswick, said even the 200-seat theater in the middle of a field has made a big difference.

“Middlesex County has acknowledged the role that arts play in economic development and has been investing in arts programs throughout the region,” he said. “We have contributed (enough) to East Brunswick that our new mayor is now focused on redevelopment along Route 18 with an emphasis on art.”

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The argument remains that the money for such educational and diverse programming can always be found elsewhere in the private sector.

Monte said that is no longer the case.

“With the exception of some wonderful corporations who have maintained their dedication to supporting the arts, we have watched corporate support for the arts in New Jersey (slowly) disappear,” she said. “But that is a battle we are not willing to give up. We continue to try to get corporations to understand what it is that we bring to the families that work for them.”

Fredericks said that it is not simply the publicly funded money his theater receives that is important.

“Corporations that donate to arts organizations take their lead from funding that the state or the federal government does,” he said. “Generally, when this funding goes away, it just doesn’t come back. Even when it does — it certainly takes longer to restore it than it does to eliminate it.”

Hansen said uncertainty is a major factor in why he councils his clients, many of whom typically default to corporate funding or private foundations when public funding decreases, to increase their focus on building relationships with individuals.

“Over 80 percent of charitable contributions come from individuals, either directly as gifts or in their estate,” he said.

Every avenue has its challenges, though.

“There is increasingly a greater concentration of larger, six-figure gifts to nonprofits or foundations,” Hansen said. “While that is wonderful and should be applauded, the challenge is if most of your planned giving is driven by larger gifts, you are not building out a strong base of support that has donors from $25 up to $10 million.

“That is really critical to the future of the arts. It cannot be concentrated in giving and participation among the wealthy. The arts are democratic and should always be democratic.”

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‘West Side Story’ performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.
‘West Side Story’ performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. - ()

Old Library Theatre, the residential theater company of the Fair Lawn Recreation Center, is now in its 50th season.

In its 49th, Craig Tiede, president, directed Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” a play set at the 1960 Republican convention that considers whether the best candidate necessarily makes the best president.

“We did this before the election, when we weren’t quite sure how this was all going to turn out,” Tiede said, adding that Old Library Theatre typically plays to a large conservative and Republican audience in Bergen County.

“What we attempt to do is utilize theater to involve performers and patrons who have an interest in telling stories and expand the boundaries of their knowledge and experience. The arts can give you windows into experiences you might not otherwise have in fairly nonthreatening sorts of ways. It allows people to access those with different viewpoints and experiences, whether that is through the actual text of the piece or through the people who come together to create the art form.”

For this and many other reasons, Tiede said he is in opposition of the possible eradication of the NEA.

“By defunding the arts in schools and communities at large, I think it starts to devalue what it is we spend our time doing,” he said.

Neary echoed Tiede’s sentiment.

“Whether we utilize a performance space to present issues that are not necessarily used to being discussed in different communities, or we open our doors to welcome different views, ideas and perspectives, people can be challenged in their thought processes,” he said.

For Schreiber, the privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will have just as dire an effect as the removal of the NEA on culture and society, he said.

“National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service are above politics,” Schreiber said. “They are invested in objectivity and in the diversity of programming. They also are trusted, objective and essential news sources, especially nowadays when so many news sources are really led by opinion more than anything else.

“If I want to make sure I get the straight story, I often listen to public broadcasting.”

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Ann Marie Miller, director of advocacy and public policy at the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation in Burlington — which received more than $600,000 from NJSCA for this year — said it is still too early to tell considering no reduction to the endowment has been verified.

“We’re trying to get a sense from our national partners of the strategies they are going to take,” she said. “And we’ll probably be following their lead.”

Schreiber said much of the same.

“In the past, when this has come up, Democrats and Republicans have come together to protect the funding. We are hopeful and we will advocate for that to happen again,” he said. “The president was a television producer and an author — he understands the impact that entertainment and the arts can have.”

McEwen went a step further, stating that advocacy is important — even now.

“People in our state who value the arts, we want them to be ambassadors along with us and help us as we keep watch on this budget process,” he said. “Our voices need to be heard.”

They also need to reach the right people, Monte stressed.

“Reach out to your representatives — particularly those who might have some kind of influence upon Donald Trump,” she said. “I do not think that this would have been on the plate were it not for him.

“The ripple effect for a state like New Jersey where the arts represent a large industry is far more profound and devastating than people might see at first glance. That is something that is worrying us all deeply.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
E-mail to: brettj@njbiz.com

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