Other Perspectives on Theater in New Jersey
I spoke with several individuals who possess a broader view of the arts in New Jersey to get a better perspective for myself and for the New Jersey City Series. Here are some thoughts from leaders of New Jersey theater that should illuminate some further context for theater-making here.
Ann Marie Miller, Executive Director, ArtPride NJ
Recession and the Arts in New Jersey
There's a striving for quality, excellence, and identity that's pretty unique to the arts in New Jersey, going back to the 1980s, when [Thomas] Kean [Sr.] was governor. He put about $7 million into groups that could ratchet their way up in terms of artistic excellence—groups including the Symphony, McCarter Theater, Crossroads Theater. That artistic excellence funding disappeared over time and it was left to the organizations to maintain that sense of quality.
But we've all over time had to deal with the economic realities of several recessions, and of trying to maintain a level of support that would sustain that heightened reputation.
If you want to look at an issue, you look at the problems that have surfaced over the years with New Jersey media—how difficult it is to establish and sustain a major television media station or broadcasting authority in New Jersey.
Centralizing the Arts Scene
If there ever were to be an arts capital, if it had the money, and the leadership, it would be Newark. It's the biggest city in the state—size, density, population make it more of a true urban area.
New Avenues for Theater
The infrastructure in South Jersey isn't thoroughly developed yet, but they're trying. There's a growing visual artist population in South Jersey, and they're scattered. We're finding more and more artists down there, because the cost of living is a little cheaper in South Jersey than North. It's a research project that's not yet been done, but we've been trying to connect them, as well.
Now there's a lot of attention in Atlantic City because they’re realizing the casinos in Pennsylvania are drawing the casino customers away, so they're looking about how they can be a destination for someone who wants to stay there for more than just the slot machine. They have a cultural district that they’re working on; they're looking at public sculpture to attract audiences. If Atlantic City were to develop itself as a better tourist destination outside of the casinos, it might draw more to the other cultural districts down in South Jersey. Suddenly, only half-an-hour or forty minutes away, you can explore more cultural options.
John McEwen, Executive Director, New Jersey Theatre Alliance
Rewards and Challenges
We have an artist membership program here, which is just a year old. We have a little over a hundred artists, primarily actors. One of the reasons for establishing it is that we want to keep artists here in our state, and build bridges between them and our theaters. We did a series of surveys and focus groups, and it was determined there was a need for this—there are many artists that live in New Jersey and want to feel a connection to their state, but feel much more of a connection to New York or Philadelphia.
But because the state is so spread out and because they’re coming from different areas, bringing them together for networking opportunities can be a challenge. So you repeat the activities to be in two or three different locations. So to build a community is tough, because you're building a community in one corner of the state, and not the statewide community that we're hoping for. I think the focus is going to be regional. We're going to try to serve the field, but also try as hard as we can to bring the state together.
Competition and Collaboration
New Jersey has a collaborative spirit among the arts community, and specifically among the theaters, which isn't true of all arts communities. One theater's success is another theater's success. I think that's why when people have found a home here, they've stayed.
We've never been an organization that has promoted competition in any way. I've seen awards shows in other communities, and it's beset with many of the problems we foresee.
Having an awards program has come up in discussion numerous times, and each time we've come to the conclusion that the competition of thirty two theaters—which is basically what we have here—the alliance was basically formed with everyone on equal footing, regardless of your budget size. We've never been an organization that has promoted competition in any way. I've seen awards shows in other communities, and it's beset with many of the problems we foresee. The staff time it takes would be better used in other ways, and you don't get the PR push you'd hoped, because the shows have already closed.
The Road Ahead
We don't really have a hub, but we're seeing hub pockets—there's some things going on in the Red Bank/Monmouth County area. Millville in South Jersey has done quite a bit in developing that town for artists. So there are some arts districts that are bubbling up throughout the state, providing opportunity for theater artists and visual artists as well.
I've seen a lot of towns looking to develop arts districts, or arts centers [non-profit presenting houses], thinking that's going to solve their community needs. I'm concerned about how many arts centers are going to be birthed, with towns thinking it's going to be an economic driver. And we do know the arts can be an economic driver, but if there's not a real strategic plan in advance, I'm concerned. And just in terms of the private/public support of maintaining that center, are the dollars really there, when we have a state that's pretty saturated with large and small centers? I think the strategic planning before the center is built needs to be carefully thought out.