Response to Mayor Fulop’s Huffington Post Op-Ed

The story of the Loew’s Jersey Theatre, including what’s happening now, is very much a study in progressive urbanism and the struggle for the arts in our cities . . . but not necessarily in the way Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop wants you to think. 

In his eagerness to be seen as a progressive reformer, the Mayor wrote an article that repeated many of the points that were first defined 27 years ago by Friends of the Loew’s when we launched our grass-roots effort to save the then-shuttered landmark Loew’s from official City policy that said tearing the Theatre down would be good for Jersey City’s redevelopment.  At the time, we explained that the arts are a pivotal force in transforming a mere locality into a community.  We spoke of the importance of giving residents, especially young people, the opportunity to discover the joy and vitality of the arts in their hometown and of the need to provide diverse and affordable programming for all.  And we pointed to cities such as Columbus, Atlanta and Cleveland, to name just a few, that had sparked urban renaissance by restoring their old theatres as non-profit arts centers. 


The power of our arguments proved persuasive with Jersey City’s people, and so we eventually were able to convince the City government to buy the Theatre it once condemned, purportedly with the goal of reopening it as an arts center.   In the long years since, FOL has determinedly pursued the vision of the Loew’s as a locally managed arts center serving our community and region, but often with little help and sometimes the outright opposition from past Jersey City Administrations.  Fortunately, we have been able to draw on community spirit, grass-roots-type initiative and an extraordinary display of volunteerism to forge a unique path to reopen and operate the Loew’s.

It’s certainly a good thing when politicians like Mayor Fulop adopt the initiatives of community-based groups like FOL.  But it is something else when a political leader uses long-stated goals to promote a decidedly different objective.   What the Mayor doesn’t say is that while he touts as his own the forward looking-ideas for the arts in Jersey City that we first laid out, since coming to office in a campaign in which he criticized the failings and shortsightedness of his predecessor, he has been downplaying or outright denigrating the work FOL did for years to overcome some of those very same failings and pursue the goal of the Loew’s as a nonprofit arts center. 

Fulop’s predecessor simply failed to keep commitments the City had made under his predecessor in 2004 – which are a matter of public record — to find a modest amount of funding to make some basic safety and fire code repairs to the Loew’s that the City itself acknowledged as absolutely necessary to allow for greater use of the Theatre.  Similarly, the administration that Fulop ousted never provided the help the City had promised to ensure FOL could avail independent, professional arts management expertise in planning its own professional development and the further growth of the Loew’s as a non-profit arts center. 

The idea wasn’t that the City would provide all the money needed to renovate the Loew’s or grow FOL.  Far from it.  Rather, the City’s help — both in terms of what it would buy and the commitment it would demonstrate – was to put FOL in the position to begin the long process that other non-profit arts centers have undergone of professional growth, master planning and seeking programming partners, as well as fundraising and grantsmanship to pay both for additional programming and even more building upgrades.  Conversely, the City’s failure to keep its modest commitments to FOL and the Theatre it owns has badly undercut FOL’s case for funding from major donors and grants makers.

In spite of the failures by the City, FOL has kept the Theatre open, albeit in a more limited way than if the City had kept its commitments.  Over the years, we’ve presented local arts, student programming, community service events, multi-cultural programs, classic and independent film, and a limited number of popular concerts, plus revenue generating private functions . As a matter of fact, just a few months ago, “TimeOut NY”, a major A&E publication in our region, called going to the Loew’s Jersey one of the best things to do in New Jersey.

Now that he’s Mayor, instead of seizing the opportunity to build on what FOL has already accomplished with so little help by trying to harness the power of government to work with us — as one might have expected from a progressive leader – or, at the least, merely agreeing to keep the City’s long-standing commitments to FOL that his predecessor broke, Steve Fulop is trying mightily to make people believe that the vision of a locally managed, non-profit arts center can’t work.  Instead, he wants people to think he is demonstrating leadership by abandoning that ideal and proposing to hand control of the Loew’s over to a for-profit consortium along with up to $40 million in public-sourced funding for renovations to support that consortium. 

This is not a LaGuardia-esque government approach to promoting the arts in the lives of Jersey City residents by ensuring access to diverse, affordable arts programming.  It can’t be:  The lead partner in the consortium is AEG, one of the nation’s biggest commercial, for-profit promoters.  Another partner is a privately owned for-profit art gallery that specializes in very high end, expensive fine art shows and private events.  Their main objective is to make money – it has to be, because they are organized on a for-profit basis. 

To try to attach a non-commercial element to this primarily for-profit structure, the Mayor’s plan purports to require 30 “community/local performances/events” a year, although no dates, times or lengths are prescribed.  To accomplish this, the for-profit consortium has involved a local university, which is a fine school but which, over the years, has had only limited involvement in the larger Jersey City arts scene (one exception being, ironically, the annual student film showcase FOL co-presents with the university at the Loew’s).  Let’s be clear:  Programming and internships from the university in a nonprofit-led arts center would be very welcome indeed, but the university’s focus must quite properly be on its distinct mission.  But the mission of supporting the local arts scene and providing diverse, affordable arts programming to our wider community is something quite different.  That is the mission of a nonprofit arts center .

I should note that the Mayor’s plan also suggests it will allow 20 performances a year by FOL.  But this just shows how little his approach understands arts management: FOL is a non-profit corporation whose mission is the management and growth of the Loew’s as arts center in a landmark theater.  Like other non-profit art center managements, we support ourselves though donations solicited for this larger purpose (including large amounts of volunteered time), and by presenting some events which do earn income (including sponsorships) to help support other programming that does not,  as well as providing some support for the overall operation. 

It doesn’t take an expert in arts management to anticipate that even under the best of circumstances, the for-profit imperative of the consortium Mayor Fulop wants will inexorably push all other kinds of events to the margins, especially if, as the Mayor has suggested, the consortium will be under pressure to give the City money to pay back the tens of millions he anticipates providing.

Artistic diversity, affordability, support for local arts, community interest are all goals that spring from something other than the profit motive.  Put simply, it’s the difference between public TV and commercial TV, between the Beacon Theatre and BAM.  And it’s why so many of America’s most vibrant arts centers are run as non-profits. 

Which is not to say that many of those non-profit arts centers do not partner with commercial promoters like AEG to provide a certain amount of their kind of programing.  Most – including FOL – do,  but in the larger context of our broader mission.

In his article, the Mayor talks about wanting to foster vibrant arts opportunities, create a hub focused on broad community programming for our diverse city, and give everyone, especially those less-well off, the joy of taking in concerts, shows, exhibits.  Interestingly, those are pretty much the objectives outlined in the plan to run the Loew’s as a non-profit arts center that are contained in the lease between FOL and the City.

Mayor Fulop’s excuse for abandoning the plan of operating the Loew’s as a non-profit arts center is his claim that FOL has not done what we were supposed to do.  But frankly, the record does not support this. At the least, in the light of the City’s failure to uphold its end of the plan, our work has shown the strong potential for the goal of a nonprofit arts center to succeed if the City works with us.   And there’s even a safety net in the plan for the City.  In the 63 months after the City finally provides the support it is supposed to, FOL is expected to meet a variety of benchmarks; if we do not, the City can look to another approach. 

FOL asked Mayor Fulop why he isn’t willing to at least try the ideal  of City government  helping a locally rooted non-profit develop our iconic landmark Loew’s as a nonprofit arts center with strong local management and programming that ranges from local arts to major concerts.  His answer to us was that he didn’t have the time.  Perhaps that’s because the Mayor is trying to attract developers to Journal Square, and thinks that being able to talk about such a marquee name as AEG will help his cause.  But the Mayor should look to cities such as Cleveland, Columbus, Providence and even Newark, where urban  revitalization has been sparked around successful nonprofit arts centers.  Because such centers offer the greatest diversity of programming, they attract the widest diversity of people to the areas around them, and this creates the most vitality. And as noted, a company such as AEG can certainly be a part of that larger mission.  A more progressive approach, therefore, would be for Jersey City to introduce FOL to interested developers, and encourage those developers to find ways to support our work to make the Loew’s the world-class nonprofit arts center, attracting even more people to Journal Square and therefore further assisting the area’s revitalization.  

Colin Egan, Director, Loew’s Jersey City / FOL
(Full disclosure:  I am a founder of FOL and one of  two paid employees FOL currently has; my salary is $45,000 a year; no benefits.  The other employee has the same compensation.)

Clarifying a few points based on recent forum discussion:

Does FOL Do Everything With Just Two People?

A recent comment suggested that FOL is really only two people – an Executive Director and Program Director who currently are the organization’s only two paid full time employees.

Considering the volume of events that the FOL has accomplished in the last year alone, this theory could not be further from the truth. Over 80 events have been at the Loew’s in the last year, including…

  • Two pop concerts that included Neutral Milk Hotel 
  • Loew’s Jersey Theatre Film Series from September to June
  • Local arts programs that include our annual three day StageFest Showcase
  • Programming with community partners that have included the JC Board of Education, Art House Productions and NJCU
  • Various service programs including our Annual Volunteer Expo and a wellness open house
  • Private events, including but not limited to weddings and special events

Along with this roster of events, the FOL has continued renovation and maintenance work to a large physical Theatre space.

To do all this, FOL has an executive staff that includes:

  • Director of Operations
  • Technical Director
  • Business Administrator
  • Building Infrastructure Manager

All executive staff members are professionals in their fields and work at the Loew’s without a salary.

We also have a production support staff that includes an audio technician, production manager, two projectionists and a head usher who work without compensation, except for larger rental shows.

Other support staff includes an IT technician, web designer, email manager and photographer who also donate their services.

And of course, FOL has a corps of volunteers who support all aspects of our operation, from shows to maintenance to ongoing renovations.

All these people give their time and talents because they believe in FOL’s mission and vision for the Loew’s.   They also understand that without the critical repairs that Jersey City has failed to fund, the Loew’s can’t operate in such a way that it can sustain a larger paid staff.

In 2013 alone, a total of 5,107 hours of volunteer labor were donated to FOL.

In early June, FOL hosted our Annual Volunteer Expo during which hundreds of people got info from 50 Hudson County non-profit organizations that use volunteers.  FOL signed up more than 30 new volunteers, and we look forward to their help with projects this summer and in running programs in the fall.

To suggest that FOL is only two people is not only inaccurate, but dismissive of the hard work, dedication and professionalism that our supporters have contributed to ensure the Loew’s Jersey Theatre’s continued success.

 

“Professional” vs. “Paid”

But what about the suggestion that FOL isn’t “professional” because it uses so many volunteers?

To begin with, “volunteer” doesn’t equate to “amateur”.  “Experienced” doesn’t necessarily mean “commercial”.  And “professional” isn’t just a synonym for “highly paid”. If some of the people whom FOL welcomes as volunteers do not bring a specific background in theatre or in renovations and maintenance, that’s no different than some new employees in a typical company.  All of FOL volunteers are directed by our executive and support staff of professionals in their fields, with a breadth of experience that would be hard-put to duplicate even at top salary.

The best proof of FOL’s professionalism and ability comes from the experience of our audiences and of the organizations and individuals that have put on programs at the Loew’s.  Ask Art House Productions, promoter Todd Abramson, the JC Public Schools Art High School, the Golden Door Film Festival, the Media Arts Department of NJCU, the Garden State Theatre Organ Society, more than a few brides and grooms, and most audience members, to just name some.  No business satisfies 100% of its clients and customers, but FOL comes as close as any.

And finally, TimeOut NY – one of the leading entertainment publication in our region – recently called going to the Loew’s one of the best things to do in New Jersey.  That makes it kind of hard to make a case that FOL doesn’t know what we are doing.

 

FOL, GSTOS and The Loew’s Organ

A recent post implying that Friends of the Loew’s claims credit for the restoration of the magnificent Wonder Morton Pipe Organ in the Loew’s is wrong¸ and frankly dishonors the close working relationship FOL has with our sister non-profit organization the Garden State Theatre Organ Society.

When Jersey City purchased the Loew’s at FOL’s urging, the Theatre’s original organ had been completely removed years before.  A twin to the original was located by an early member of FOL who was also a founder of GSTOS, the late Bob Balfour.  Bob donated the funds to GSTOS to purchase the organ and bring it to the Loew’s.  For eleven long years, while FOL volunteers worked to make the Loew’s minimally functional and then open and operate it despite many remaining limitations, GSTOS volunteers labored to restore and re-install the 1,800 pipes, miles of cable and tens of thousands of other parts of the organ.  GSTOS continues to maintain the Organ, which the Village Voice called “The Best Theatre Organ in New York” just a year or two after calling the Loew’s “The Best Movie Theatre in New York”.

The magnitude of what GSTOS volunteers accomplished and the quality of their work could not have been exceeded by the highest paid organ installation company.

But it is certainly true to also note that FOL works closely with GSTOS, and vice versa, in regard to the organ and the Theatre as a whole.  Most obviously, if FOL didn’t save and now maintain and operate the Loew’s, there would be no Theatre for the organ to have been installed in.  FOLvolunteers worked alongside GSTOS volunteers to unload two tractor trailer loads of parts when the organ was brought to the Loew’s.  FOL also supports the infrastructure necessary for the organ. For instance, FOL paid for installation of heating in the two organ chambers when it became evident that the lack of heat – a mistake dating to the Loew’s construction – was damaging the pipes and other parts of the restored organ.  FOL has also repaired the organ lift when it was damaged, twice.  We work with GSTOS to plan the organ’s use, and especially to support GSTOS’ two annual events at the Loew’s.  And the crew chief for GSTOS at the Loew’s and another key GSTOS volunteer are members of FOL’s Board of Trustees.

The President of GSTOS and the President of the national American Theatre Organ Society have both praised FOL as being one of the best theatre managements their organizations work with in terms of appreciating and supporting their mission.

The fact is that what FOL and GSTOS have accomplished, separately and together, at the Loew’s is an extraordinary example of the dedication, professionalism and ability of non-profit, volunteer-powered organizations, and Jersey City can be proud of that.

 

FOL Over The Years

A few posts show confusion about what FOL has done at different times in the course of the Loew’s project, and why.  Let’s talk about that.

FOL literally came into being, and has since been shaped by the need to deal with the extraordinary short-sightedness of successive Jersey City governments in regard to the Loew’s.

In the beginning, our work was almost all advocacy:  we worked to remind the people of the City of the value of the Loew’s and led a campaign to convince the City government to reverse its foolish policy that the Loew’s should be torn down in the name of redeveloping Journal Square. What we did in those days included researching the examples of other cities and theatres;creating posters, flyers and informational brochures; mounting displays at fairs and festivals all around town; speaking to neighborhood groups; collecting thousands of petition signatures and bringing supporters to countless meetings.  In the process, we built the case and consensus for the Loew’s.

It is, however, also true that even in those early days we did very basic maintenance at the closed theatre, including improving security against vandalism and patching the roof and clearing drains to prevent leaks and further decay.

1991:

FOL presented a variety of small performances and functions in the lobby to give people a chance to rediscover the Loew’s and see what was at risk of being lost. Because the water had been disconnected, we had to truck water in for cleaning and set up portable toilets in the alley alongside the Theatre to support those events.

But even after the City bought the Loew’s purportedly with the goal of reopening it as an arts center, the City was not willing to commit the necessary resources.  It never even followed up on plans to form blue ribbon panels and steering committees to try to make plans and raise money for the Loew’s.  FOL had helped win a state grant for work to stabilize the Loew’s – i.e., keep it from falling apart; and we convinced the City to grudgingly match it.

NO MONEY was available to reopen the auditorium – and perversely, the City said it wouldn’t even consider providing more funding until the auditorium was open, thereby creating an impossible Catch-22.

1995:

FOL took the unusual step of turning our advocacy into action by creating a volunteer construction team. We didn’t expect to be able to do everything to fully restore the Loew’s; rather, our goal was to do what was necessary to make it possible to hold at least some events in the auditorium – and we hoped this would convince the City to step up and help some more. But even our limited goal was a Herculean task, so in those years FOL’s focus was almost exclusively construction: FOL’s volunteer management had to plan, sequence and supervise a myriad of repairs, big and small; raise money to pay for the tools and supplies needed; and procure those supplies.  Volunteers worked on Saturdays, Sundays, and even some weeknights.  One advantage, if you can call it that, was that because it was still impossible to use the Theatre during this time so show operations and major renovation work did not coincide.

2001:  When FOL’s work succeeded in making it possible to reopen the Theatre for special events, the City pressed us to do as much programming as possible despite the fact that important additional repairs still needed to be made.  FOL reshaped itself from being primarily a volunteer-based construction company to also being a theatre management company, but with a twist:  Some of the repairs that were not yet made meant it was not possible to operate the Loew’s like most other theatres, and among other things this made it impossible to be able to afford the kind of staff most theatres have.  FOL then created a unique operating model custom-tailored to the condition of the Loew’s and out of necessity, a volunteer infrastructure was created.

2004:

FOL was able to organize 30 events a year at the Loew’s, and the City seemed to finally be willing to join us in a partnership that would allow us to do much more.  The City praised what we had already done and admitted that before FOL (or anybody else) could do more, additional repairs that couldn’t be performed by volunteers would have to be made to bring the Loew’s into compliance with the City’s own safety and fire codes.  So the City leased the Loew’s to FOL, and as part of that lease committed to finding the necessary funds for those repairs – plus money to allow FOL to work with independent Theatre management consultants to help plan expanded operations.

But the City never kept its commitments, and even spent almost four years trying the break the lease.

So instead of preparing for expanded operations, fundraising, negotiating with promoters and working to bring even more local programming into the Loew’s, FOL was left holding the bag in having to try to maintain, if not expand, operations in a theatre that wasn’t able to function normally.

2014:

Even though we’ve been forced into what is essentially a holding operation, FOL has managed to increase programming and other functions to over 80 a year. Keep in mind, this is over just nine months since due to the lack of air conditioning, the Loew’s cannot be open for shows in the Summer. To do this, FOL has had to focus much of our attention on operations.  Volunteer renovations have continued, but have been limited by time constraints and the need to focus our forces and resources on operational concerns during much of the year.  For example, the Loew’s is busy many weekends from September to June, so it’s not practical to undertake a lot of repair projects in the public areas.

The focus of much of our renovation work has changed:  Aside from the work to re-install seating in the balcony, we’ve decided to concentrate on stage-related technical upgrades to make it easier to present a wide range of live programming.  This is more specialized work than many of the projects we tackled earlier, often needing smaller crews and sometimes particular skills.  And it required FOL to use a lot of our funds to purchase lighting and sound equipment instead of supplies for other kinds of work.   A few examples of the programming this emphasis has made possible are StageFest, “Guys and Dolls”, the City’s Christmas Show, PonyCon, “The Music Man”, and more.

We also had to begin maintaining the massive physical Theatre, not just renovate it.  That’s an enormous job, and frankly the manpower and resources to do just that are sometimes stretched thin.

Beginning in 2002, FOL found that the daily requirements of operating the Theatre and also managing volunteer maintenanceand renovations required some full time management. After providing this on a volunteer basis for quite a few years, economic gravity eventually required paying a salary, starting in 2007.  And expanding operations needed an additional salaried position by the end of 2012.

Over the years, the volunteer corps has seen inevitable changes.  Volunteers have sometimes had to move on because of paid work or other commitments.  Some did not understand the changes required by the need to focus on operations or did not agree with the emphasis on technical upgrades; a few were uncomfortable with the transition to have a paid staff position.  On the other hand, many people have joined our volunteer team over the years.  In 2013, FOL benefitted from over 5,100 hundred volunteer staff hours.

Throughout its history, FOL has mobilized to overcome the various effects of City neglect, inaction or sometimes even hostility to the Loew’s and FOL.

But what will happen if the City FINALLY keeps it commitment?  We’ll be able to increase the size and number of shows.  From a practical standpoint, that will require more paid staff.  But the additional income from the shows will make that possible.  The critical code-related work the City will fund will have to be done by contractors. In fact, a lot of the additional work the Theatre eventually needs will have to be done by contractors either because of its complexity or scale – such as scaffolding the entire auditorium to repair and repaint the high ceilings.  FOL will have to fundraise and seek grant for this – but that will be possible if the city has finally kept its commitments, since we will finally be in a position to credibly explain to other funders why they should consider supporting the Loew’s.  But in such a major undertaking and big building, there will always be the need for volunteer construction projects.  And since the Loew’s has such a successful volunteer usher and show staff program,  FOL would be foolish not to continue it for some programs, at least, as the Loew’s grows.  FOL’s volunteer program may have begun as the only available means to try to accomplish our goal for the Loew’s, but it’s become an important way for FOL to keep the Loew’s connected to its community.