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The Curtain Rings Down On a Cultural Center

Poor attendance halts an effort to bring the performing arts to the Camden waterfrontCamden

This is not the finale Mark Fields wanted. The executive director of the South Jersey Performing Arts Center (SJPAC) in Camden is ticking down the days to June 30 when he and his staff of 11 will vacate their offices and turn out the house lights.
What began as an effort to bring culture to Camden and help make the benighted city a tourist destination ended with a unanimous May 17 vote by the board of trustees to shut SJPAC down. Poor attendance and a tight state budget made the arts center economically impractical.
The cultural facility had an operating budget of $1.4 million last year, including $1.1 million from state sources. Other backers included Bank of America, Comcast Cable and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. The season ran from September to May, with recent concerts and dance performances playing to mostly empty houses.
?We are in a tough budget year,? says Judi London, president, of the South Jersey Tourism Corp., a regional tourism marketing organization in Camden. ?Some organizations don?t rise to the top.?
With the May 17 vote fades another opportunity for Camden to re-imagine itself. ?The belief was that this region deserved a regional performing arts center that was state-of-the-art and could be home to the emerging professional arts companies that are in South Jersey,? says Fields.
SJPAC was founded in 1996 to give groups such as the Haddonfield Symphony, the Greater South Jersey Chorus and Ballet NJ a home to entertain lovers of the arts. ?None of them has a place in residence or if they do it?s at a high school or middle school somewhere,? says Fields. ?That isn?t the same kind of professional environment.?
Getting SJPAC operational was a challenge. ?The board had to borrow money to hire the first executive director,? says Fields. ?It took a lot of lobbying to make that happen.?
The SJPAC occupied space in the waterfront Tweeter Center, a 25,000-seat open-air rock concert venue owned and operated by promoter Clear Channel Entertainment of Houston. The arts center hosted shows at the center?s 144-seat Studio Theatre and the 1,500-seat Walter Rand Theatre.
The public-private partnership seemed plausible on paper, but failed in practice. ?The model never really worked as it was intended to,? says Fields. ?The facility was built primarily with the needs of the big pop and rock acts that play here in mind.?
Fields says the size of the space made it difficult for performing groups to use the facility effectively. ?Everything had to be amplified,? he says. ?There isn?t a huge amount of sound and lighting equipment in inventory.
?The first years after opening, a number of the region?s organizations for which the facility was intended used it only once,? Fields says. ?It was too expensive or too daunting and there was resistance to working in Camden.?
SJPAC tried to build more interest in its shows by collaborating with the Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts (RCCA) under a partnership started last September called CityArts On Stage. The partnership pooled resources to promote both venues.
The tactic worked for a while, with the annual combined attendance rising from 6,000 in 2002 to nearly 10,000 in the 2003-2004 season. But the state faces a $4 billion budget deficit, dooming the art center?s life support.
The RCCA is expected to continue promoting shows on its own, but the CityArts partnership is over. ?They are going to have to make some adjustments without SJPAC involved,? says Fields.
?You never want to see anything you promote go by the wayside,? says London of South Jersey Tourism. ?Perhaps this incarnation will open the door for something that is bigger and better for the arts in the city.
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