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Curtain call Nonprofit theaters around N.J. are working #8212 and working together #8212 to attract corporate sponsors

rom left, Steven Schultz, board member; Carol Stillwell, board member; Adam Philipson, CEO and president; and David Springsteen, board member, Count Basie Theatre.-(PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank announced a $20 million dollar capital campaign in October to improve and expand its current location on Monmouth Street.
Upon completion of the anticipated renovations within two to three years, theater executives believe its regional economic impact would rise from $17 million to $30 million.

Now they’re going all out to get big business to feel the same way.

“While we’ll never leave the name of the Count Basie Theatre, we would (build) the ‘Blank’ Center for the Arts,” CEO and President Adam Philipson said. “That is the type of brick-and-mortar commitment that will help us move this project forward.”

Corporate support is key: For all that a vibrant local arts scene can do for a community, the business still relies greatly on contributions from companies to survive.

And the state’s five biggest theaters — the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark; the State Theatre in New Brunswick; Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank; the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown; and Bergen Performing Arts Center, bergenPAC, in Englewood — are competing for dollars as much as they are for acts.

But this isn’t your normal business battle: They work collaboratively to collectively help the arts scene in the state — one that, with an abundance of historic venues and one of the largest performing arts centers in the country, has quickly shaped up to make New Jersey the new “off-Broadway.”

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While four of the five largest performing arts centers in the state operate within $8 to $12 million annual budgets, NJPAC allocates nearly 5 percent of its $67 million endowment each year toward an operation budget of some $40.5 million.

That may seem one-sided — but regardless of size or scope, Thomas Carto, CEO and president of the State Theatre, said all five still must rely on 25 to 35 percent contributed income.

“That’s the only model that really works with not-for-profit performing arts centers because of our mission-based programming, education and community engagement,” he said.

The funding the centers receive from donors, annual galas, foundations, government grants, corporate sponsorships and capital campaigns adds to their income derived from ticket sales, parking fees, program guide advertisements, private event and space rental fees and tuition for their performing arts schools.

All in an effort to not only cover operating costs, but to raise capital to make the theater competitive into the future — an effort the state pays close attention to.

“The New Jersey State Council on the Arts funds quite a bit through occupancy tax, for example,” Carto said. “That’s a very interesting model. I’ve never heard of a state using its occupancy tax to fund the arts. … That money might make the difference in surviving as a small arts organization.”

Allison Larena — CEO and president of Mayo Performing Arts Center, or MPAC, and an NJBIZ Best 50 Women in Business honoree this year — sees value in New Jersey theaters working together to make the most of that funding.

“The great thing about having multiple venues in New Jersey who work in tandem with one another is that we can host the same artists and fill up their schedule quite nicely,” she said. “A lot of times, these artists don’t want to do one-offs — they really want a full week of performances and we’re able to do that with the other theaters.”

John Schreiber, CEO and president of NJPAC, also sees statewide arts collaboration as good business.

“How do we, as New Jersey’s performing arts center, take a leadership role in creativity and development of new works? For one thing, we do a program called Stage Exchange,” he said. “That program enables us to commission works from several nonprofit theater companies: They’ll do their stage readings here, and they will do those productions as part of their next season.

Education
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. Each of the Top Five largest performing arts centers in New Jersey has stepped up to fill these voids with in-school residencies, educational programming, professional development training and greater accessibility to their performing arts schools and conservatories. They have even created specific programming to increase youth diversity — such as the Women in Jazz summer camp at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center — and outreach, such as the State Theatre’s autism-specific programming and the Special Needs Limitless Arts Program at the Bergen Performing Arts Center.

“We can turn up the volume on our brand presence via local theater companies and nonprofits while adding to their creative works.”

So can businesses around New Jersey: Contributing to performing arts centers not only increases the philanthropic value of one’s company and energizes the local economy, but also takes advantage of brand recognition opportunities.

However, despite MPAC’s $15 million economic impact in Morristown and its surrounding areas, Larena cites corporate sponsorship as one of the main challenges her nonprofit performing arts center faces today.

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Lack of business partnerships hasn’t slowed MPAC down — it’s just that, with corporate involvement, the performing arts center could be doing that much more good for its community.

“It has been difficult for us to garner the corporate sponsorships that we have in the past, especially during economic downturns — but we certainly do still have great supporters through our Business Circle membership program,” Larena said.

For example, Florham Park-based BASF — a corporate sponsor for the last four years — enables MPAC to present free programs for adults and children for Earth Day.

“That school event is already sold out this year,” she said.

Educational funding is a top priority for the five largest performing arts centers in the state — but even after adding 24,000 square feet to house studios and classroom spaces at MPAC, it’s still not enough for the more than 600 children enrolled in its instructional programs throughout the year.

“We have over 250 kids enrolled per semester and many are on waiting lists for our classes,” Larena said.

Schreiber has also seen an increased demand for such programs at his facility.

“NJPAC has delivered to nearly 80,000 kids and families through our arts education and community engagement programs in the last year,” he said. “That kind of melding of mission and business is something that we are constantly working on.”

It’s actually the name of the game. Carto said the success of the State Theatre is not only contingent upon the partnerships it creates with state government, but also, with other nonprofit organizations.

“We work with New Brunswick Tomorrow and the Puerto Rican Action Board, for example, to help us reach into segments of the community that wouldn’t normally be reached via our regular channels of marketing,” he said.

Partnering with nonprofits for good causes is another effective way to get involved with performing arts centers, said Steven Schultz, executive managing director of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank Capital Markets and board member of the Count Basie Theatre.

“(After being) diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2009, I partnered with the Basie last year to create ‘MS Rock for a Cure,’ a benefit concert,” he said. “We raised over $300,000 (for the National MS Society).”

It’s a give and take some businesses in New Jersey may simply be unaware of — but it makes both fiscal and strategic sense for more businesses to get involved with performing arts centers to help create healthy local economies and support other organizations as well.

It also makes for great networking, said Carol Stillwell, CEO and president of Stillwell-Hansen, a top HVAC manufacturers’ representative, and board member of the Count Basie Theatre.

“The intimate nature of this theater allows local businesses such as mine to use the entertainment provided as a means to network with other area business owners and to connect with clients on a much deeper, personal level through a shared love of the arts,” she said. “These connections encourage collaboration and shared business efforts, which then ripple through other ventures, leading to increased tourism and sales and tax revenues, which increase the business viability of the region as a whole.”

Dominic Roncace, CEO of bergenPAC, sees great opportunity for a particular industry in New Jersey to do the same.

“One area that I would like to get more participation and financial support from is technology,” he said. “I just think that there is a whole new generation of young, successful tech entrepreneurs that don’t currently participate in bergenPAC.

“We want to tell our story to them and ask them to contribute.”

 

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David Springsteen, partner at WithumSmith Brown and board member of the Count Basie Theatre, sees it as his firm’s responsibility to embrace Count Basie’s mission and capital campaign.

“We want the Basie to be a world-recognized regional arts and entertainment venue, but it’s also about what we’re creating for the kids and students to pursue what they are passionate about,” he said.

Philipson said the Count Basie Theatre has developed a vision that will effectively deliver what Springsteen is asking for: more classrooms for its Performing Arts Academy, upgraded facilities and backstage capabilities, ADA-accessible elevators, and a second, multiuse, 500-plus capacity performance space in order to bring in new types of artists and programming.

“We are looking for partners that want to invest in the future of this region, that really want to see the quality of life expanding and aligning themselves with this brand that we created,” Philipson said. “We are a change agent and we want to be involved with corporations that want to support us.

“Help us build a better Basie.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

Meg Fry

NJBIZ Business Events