We Need Affordable Access to the Arts in Jersey City

 

 

Many of you know that last week, some of FOL’s staff took part in the League of Historic American Theatres’ annual conference, held this year in New York City.

 

Parts of the conference were just fun – especially the tours of Broadway theatres.  We’ve posted some photos and stories from the tours on our Facebook and on our blog.

 

But the real purpose of the conference was to gain practical information and insights about theatre operation — and there certainly was a lot of good info in the seminars we attended and in the conversations we had with staff members of other theatres around the country.  We’ll talk about some more of what we heard in upcoming posts.

 

One of the most immediately relevant things we heard was about City Center in New York City — because it gives very useful perspective to something Mayor Steven Fulop has been trying to claim.

 

As you probably know, Mayor Fulop is pushing hard for Jersey City to turn its back on the goal of ensuring diverse programming and affordable access to the arts through working with FOL to expand the operation of the Loew’s Jersey Theatre as a non-profit arts center.

 

Instead, Fulop says he wants to turn management of the Loew’s over to AEG – one of the world’s biggest commercial concert promoting conglomerates.  And the Mayor will use up to $40 million in City money to renovate the Loew’s so AEG can make money here with high priced concerts.  There will also be a high-end fine arts gallery and special events company in the mix.  In whatever time is left over, “local” programming is supposed to be booked by a local university, which is a good school but with little history of involvement in the wider community.  (Fulop also talks in very round terms about providing FOL 20 dates a year to put on shows, but frankly this is meaningless because what he doesn’t understand is that like any arts center management, FOL can’t function when isolated from the overall operation – we need to be able to set programming goals, have in-house tech staff, maintain the calendar and earn income from the larger operation to help support our programming.)

 

In a recent blog post, Fulop tried to equate his scheme for the Loew’s with how NYC’s legendary Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia tried to give all New Yorkers access to the arts: “LaGuardia, believed that art was a concern of government and should provide as many opportunities as possible for all city residents, especially those less well-off, to experience the joy of taking in concerts, shows and exhibits. Of course, he was right.” Fulop said.

 

The trouble is, what Fulop is trying to do with the Loew’s is the OPPOSITE of LaGuardia’s approach.  And that’s where City Center comes in.  

 

City Center was created by LaGuardia to be New York’s first performing arts center, a kind of Everyman’s Carnegie Hall where drama, music and dance would be affordable and welcoming to all . . . so LaGuardia certainly did not put a commercial company in charge of the place.  Why?  He understood the very basic fact that when the drive to make money is paramount, affordability and diversity in the arts get pushed aside.  He had a higher vision.

 

City Center is run by a non-profit that rents space to some of the City’s best and most innovative dance and other arts organizations; presents some programs with other arts organizations; and produces several theatre and dance series of its own with the goal of creating high quality and affordable programming that will attract more people – especially young people – to the performing arts.  Always, the emphasis has been to make the best in music, theater and dance accessible to all audiences.

 

A large percentage of City Center’s income comes from rentals to arts organizations, and is augmented by some commercial rentals. The Center raises private donations and seeks grants.  And New York City contributes some funding and also covers at least some utilities.

 

And when City Center undertook a major restoration and renovation a few years ago, New York City was a lead contributor.

 

If anything, City Center is far more analogous to the goals FOL outlined when we began the fight to save the Loew’s – and which, by the way, Jersey City formally adopted as its own in our lease ten years ago — than to the commercially driven operation Fulop has in mind.

 

The analogy, of course, is far from exact. For one thing, many of our local arts organizations are younger or smaller than those that use City Center, and therefore find it harder still to afford even reasonable rent. But this is all the more reason why the Loew’s must be guided by a mission that’s about more than just making a profit; and even City Center does find it necessary to work with organizations that can’t afford its rent. Another big difference is that the Loew’s and FOL’s vision have unfortunately never benefited from the kind of support New York has given City Center over the years – support that helps attract even greater support from private funders. 

 

Considering Jersey City’s lack of follow through on the modest commitments it made to FOL and the Loew’s in our lease, FOL’s operation of the Theatre has at least demonstrated in microcosm what would be possible with greater support from the City:  affordable programs, festivals of local arts, programs with City schools and colleges, some multi-cultural programs and community service events, and a few commercial concerts.  As at City Center, rentals have been a major source of income.

 

Like all arts centers, the Loew’s presents its own challenges and opportunities.

 

There’s never been a question that the Loew’s will have to book some commercial programming – more than City Center – to help generate income to support other programming.  And with the Loew’s even larger seating capacity than City Center (once Jersey City takes care of the code violations that prevent us from using the balcony) this is viable.  But this MUST be done in a structure that keeps the mission to promote diverse and affordable arts and server our community in the forefront, not an afterthought. 

 

One part of the plan for the Loew’s that Jersey City government agreed to, but has ignored for 10 years is to allow FOL to use independent, professional arts management expertise to help create a practical, reliable structure to keep the focus on serving our community with affordable, diverse arts while also including and taking advantage of opportunities for commercial programming. Like his predecessor, Fulop is ignoring this. But even worse than his predecessor, Fulop is trying to press ahead with an approach for the Loew’s that has no independent, expert arts management input or assessment. The result would not be good.  

 

If Mayor Fulop really wants to follow in LaGuardia’s footsteps and ensure access to the arts in Jersey City, he needs to work with FOL and ensure real arts management planning. We’ll talk more about that in our next post.

 

We’ve included a few photos of City Center that we took on our tour; the results of the recent restoration are impressive.