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.

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.)