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State Theatre gala brings arts, business communities together for annual celebration

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Star vocalist Audra McDonald performed at the State Theatre Benefit Gala last week.
Star vocalist Audra McDonald performed at the State Theatre Benefit Gala last week. - ()

It is a rare Saturday evening that the most prestigious business, nonprofit and civic leaders in the state join together to eat, drink, and dance the night away in celebration and support of the arts in New Jersey.

Audra McDonald simply added to the draw.

More than 500 patrons attended the black-tie State Theatre Benefit Gala last week at The Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick to help the historic venue raise nearly $625,000 in support of its mission to present world-class performances and provide arts education especially to the disadvantaged.

“(The) contributions — through the purchase of table and underwriter sponsorships, gala event and performance tickets, and silent auction, 50/50 tickets and Wine Pull purchases — help State Theatre New Jersey continue to provide meaningful arts education programs for over 30,000 students, teachers, families, veterans, seniors and other community members, and bring the finest international artists right here to our neighborhood,” Linda Piscadlo, gala vice-chair and manager, director and shareholder relations, at Johnson & Johnson, said in a statement.

Exceeding its fundraising goal by more than 10 percent this year, the State Theatre New Jersey also featured an intimate concert performance by McDonald, the six-time Tony Award, two-time Grammy Award, and Emmy Award-winning actress and vocalist.

 “We need to take a moment to realize just how important the arts and arts education are,” McDonald said. “We live in a time when the arts are so often being taken away from our schools — but I firmly believe that art is what keeps us connected to our humanity.

“If we are to continue to grow as a nation and as a world, we need to continue to stay connected to each other and to our humanity. The arts can help us get there.”

As the second-largest cultural provider in the state of New Jersey, the State Theatre New Jersey certainly is doing its part. 

The not-for-profit venue draws more than 225,000 patrons each year to experience its carefully curated, diverse lineup of more than 200 performances in its 1,850-seat theater.

It is the State Theatre’s continued commitment to arts education and outreach programs, however, that interests New Jersey’s business communities the most, Tom Carto, CEO and president of State Theatre New Jersey, said.

“The benefit gala is a very attractive event for corporations to be a part of,” Carto said. “Putting their name alongside a premier event attended by luminaries from all over the state puts them in a high-profile position to help their brand and clientele. This and other events at the State Theatre also provide great opportunities in which to network and entertain clients and employees.”

Companies including Aetna, Ernst & Young, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Investors Bank, Prudential, RWJBarnabas Health, Public Service Enterprise Group and OptumRX participated as corporate sponsors, while several New Jersey business members served in even greater capacities.

Scott Fergang, senior vice president and branch director for RBC Wealth Management — as well as the chair of the board of trustees at the State Theatre — served as gala co-chair with his wife, Barbra Fergang. 

Piscadlo, alongside Matt Taylor of Moody’s Investors Service and Tracy Taylor of Plymouth Rock Management Co. of New Jersey, served as gala vice-chairs.

And Shideh Sedgh Bina, founding partner of Insigniam, and Bradd M. Chignoli, senior vice president of national accounts at MetLife, served as corporate co-chairs.

An award ceremony briefly preceded McDonald’s performance to honor those businesses and community members in New Jersey who have made an exceedingly profound difference at the State Theatre.

“This year’s honorees have made a tremendous contribution to the growth of the arts in New Jersey and we applaud them for their dedication and generosity,” Carto said.

New York City-based American Benefits Consulting, a premier benefits consulting firm for large employers, was named this year’s Corporate Honoree.

“Though we are a smaller company, we have a number of large customers in New Jersey, and because the business climate in the state has been so good to us in that sense, we wanted to give back,” Craig Guiffre, managing director and chief operating officer of American Benefits Consulting, said. “We felt supporting the State Theatre was a great way to support cultural opportunities in New Brunswick and more broadly throughout the state.

“Because the business community in Central Jersey is so close-knit, we also have been able to make fantastic connections this way. Our support of the State Theatre not only has allowed us to more often visit with our existing clients, such as Johnson & Johnson and Prudential, but also the various events and galas that the State Theatre hosts gives us the opportunity to be exposed to businesses we currently do not have relationships with.”

Susan Podlogar, vice president for human resources, medical devices and corporate groups at Johnson & Johnson, and her husband, Brent Podlogar, an organic chemistry professor at The College of New Jersey, were named this year’s Patron Honorees after helping the State Theatre raise $1.25 million as chairs of the 2015 and 2016 benefit galas.

“We relish the responsibility to cultivate and share our appreciation for the performing arts with others,” the Podlogars said in a joint statement. “Our two children, extended family members and many friends are now burgeoning arts patrons themselves.

“We have sought to bring the power of live performance and arts education to those that may not normally have such exposure. It has been at the State Theatre of New Jersey where we have found it to be energizing and rewarding to work with the board, staff and the State Theatre community, to collectively pursue this mission.”

Lastly, Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios and the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders were named this year’s Leadership in the Arts Honorees after allocating $10 million annually for the last two years to develop and maintain cultural and arts facilities and arts education programs in Middlesex County.

“If you look around the country, it is almost unheard of that a county will have a line item, a trust fund, dedicated to helping arts organizations within that county,” Carto said.

The freeholder board established the Middlesex County Cultural and Arts Trust Fund in 2015 after Middlesex County voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of establishing such a fund on the 2014 general election ballot.

State Theatre education and outreach

The State Theatre New Jersey makes multiple arts programs accessible to more than 30,000 children and families annually by offering admission at little to no cost.

Here is a small selection of the programs it has to offer:

  • Performances for Schools: Introduces nearly 20,000 students from more than 200 schools across New Jersey to live theater.
  • Symphony Scholars: Free in-depth introduction to classical music for New Brunswick middle school music students.
  • Relaxed Performances: Enables children on the autism spectrum or those with sensory sensitivities to experience live theater with modulated lighting and sound, designated quiet areas and a relaxed attitude toward theater etiquette.
  • Scientists Exploring the Arts: Brings college students majoring in STEM fields together with employees of Ingredion Inc. for a free evening of dinner, networking, lectures and a performance.

“I think everyone was surprised that there was so much interest in taxpayer money going toward keeping the arts vital and important,” Carto said. “The inception of something so extraordinary is certainly worth the acknowledgment that Middlesex County really appreciates and cares about the arts’ impact on the community.”

Rios said the honor is reciprocated.

“We are dedicated to making Middlesex County a destination for people from all over the Northeast region for top-quality arts and cultural programs and performances,” he said. “We encourage awareness of and enjoyment of the arts and we support cultural initiatives designed to preserve and promote the history of the county. Why? Because in doing so, we are celebrating this county’s diversity and preserving our heritage. We are also creating a shared experience and appreciation for the arts and showcasing our talented residents.

“It is with the help of our artists, our cultural and arts centers, our local arts and cultural groups and their patrons that we can achieve this. So, on behalf of the entire freeholder board, we thank State Theatre CEO and President Tom Carto and the State Theatre board, staff and patrons for their help in making the arts accessible to all our residents.”

Credited as a major factor in New Brunswick’s return to economic vitality, State Theatre New Jersey generates more than $36 million for the regional economy annually while working with community partners to provide more than $650,000 in free and subsidized tickets, arts programs and services for underserved and special-needs members of the community.

With the success of this year’s benefit gala — and the continued support of New Jersey’s business community — the organization is that much closer to being able to continue to do so again next season.

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Meg Fry

Meg Fry


Meg Fry writes about women in business, millennials, food and beverage, manufacturing and retail. Meg joined NJBIZ with past production experience in the arts, film and television and continues to write and perform in theaters around the state. You may contact her at megf@njbiz.com.

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