Little by little, over many years, the Performing Arts Center at Richard Stockton College lost money. As of the end of June, the PAC was more than $476,000 in the red. College administrators spent the past couple of years reviewing how the PAC is used and funded. And the proposed FY2014 budget will reduce the deficit by about $50,000.
But Stockton’s PAC is not the only local public education institution struggling to balance the budget for its PAC.
Cumberland County College, and the Middle Township and Stafford Township school districts also shoulder some of the costs of operating PACs as part of their educational mission. And they grapple with how to make the centers profitable enough that they are not a drain on increasingly tight public education funds.
The Middle Township High School Drama Club is currently holding rehearsals after school in the 900-seat Performing Arts Center, providing students with the atmosphere of a professional theater. Built for $7.5 million in 1992 to serve students and the community, the PAC celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.
Drama club adviser Elizabeth Volpe said the professional setup of the PAC gives students an advantage if they are going to study theater and links the school to the community.
“Our students take pride in performing on the stage,” she said. “Some of them started performing there when they were younger, in dance recitals, pageants, community shows, preschool graduations and the middle school musical.”
Middle Township Superintendent Michael Kopakowski said about five years ago, as the recession took hold, they took a hard look at the finances and use of the PAC. They determined that about 70 percent of the time it is used by students.
“To make it work financially, the PAC has to support the other 30 percent of operating costs,” he said. “You do have to look at the total benefit to the community of having a PAC, but we’re constantly watching the expenses. We are in the business of educating, not subsidizing.”
After its PAC suffered operating losses for several years, the Stafford Township School District took over operations of the Stafford Township Arts Center, or STAC, in August 2012 from the Stafford Township Education Foundation. The nonprofit foundation had managed the $11.8 million 800-seat center since it opened in 2006. Tax returns for the years 2009-11 show the STAC’s expenses outpacing revenue each year, including a more than $100,000 shortfall in 2009.
In 2011 the Stafford Township school board approved a policy stating that the STAC’s purpose is to serve as the school district auditorium, but would be made available for a fee to other groups based in Stafford Township. The district also offers courses there through its Stafford Township Arts and Recreation, or STAR, program. District officials did not return calls asking about PAC operations.
Steve Wolff, principal at AMS Research and Planning in Connecticut, which consults with performing arts centers, said virtually all community PACs need outside funding to survive today.
“They are going to require diverse revenue streams and contributed revenue,” he said.
Those diverse streams could come from public funds or grants, private fund-raising and endowments, or most likely, a mix of multiple sources beyond rental fees and ticket sales.
The New Jersey Council of the Arts has provided grants to PACs to help fund programs and operating costs. The George Luciano Theatre and the Frank Guaracini Jr. Arts Center at Cumberland County College are named after local benefactors who donated $1 million and $500,000 respectively to the PAC. The OceanFirst Foundation gave $500,000 to the STAC to pay for professional lighting, sound and seating.
On a more commercial scale, the 2,500 PAC of the Washington Township School District in Gloucester County is officially called the TD Bank Arts Center, after its current sponsor.
The Cumberland County College center is celebrating its 20th anniversary season this year with a mix of programming that includes Les Miserables, the Moscow Festival Ballet, the Bay-Atlantic Symphony, and the children’s musical Junie B. Jones.
Center Director Gregory R. Hambleton, who has been with the center since it opened, said the recession has affected ticket sales, but the college president and board always supported the PAC as a community and educational resource, and not just a source of revenue.
“From day one our mission was to be a community resource for the arts and provide education,” Hambleton said. That means offering affordable programming, being available for use by other arts groups, and maybe introducing a performer or program that might be a little different from what people are used to.
“We take pride in being a public theater,” he said.
All those interviewed said raising prices is not an option because they simply lose audience. They can’t and don’t want to compete with casino shows, and they pride themselves on looking for grants or other ways to lower the cost of programs. Most PAC adult shows cost about $25 to $45 per ticket and children’s and family shows range from $5 to $15. Some try to offer occasional free events as a community service and to increase their exposure.
The PACS are typically also available for rent, with the cost varying for for-profit and nonprofit groups.
Stockton’s PAC also is reaching out, partnering with the student entertainment group on popular programming and offering a free lecture series both on campus and at its Dante Hall site in Atlantic City.
Stockton provost Harvey Kesselman said the goal is to have enough performances and rentals to cover operating costs, while still being available to professors and students. The new, smaller Campus Center theatre adds new program flexibility and options.
“Students and professors use the PAC now, but that is not counted towards the cost of its operations,” Kesselman said. “We don’t look at the PAC exclusively as a revenue producer, but we do look at its costs. It is an integral part of the college. But taxpayers help support the college, so the PAC is one way to give back to the community at a reasonable cost.”
Hambleton said budgeting is a balance of serving the community and paying the bills. He cites children’s programming as one area where he won’t make a lot of money, but will introduce hundreds of children to the arts. He recalls a teacher who brought a group of students for a program, paying for their $3 tickets in cash, including a small bag of quarters.
“She explained that one student had saved quarters from his lunch money to buy his ticket,” he said. “I put in three $1 bills and saved that bag of quarters to remind me why we are here and why we are important.”
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