Arts Organizations Help Drive Downtown Revivals in Garden State Cities

Funding from private, nonprofit and public sources for urban ‘arts districts’ brings influx of visitors and attracts new residents

From left, Chris Daggett, executive director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and Adam Perle, president and CEO of ArtPride New Jersey, a statewide advocacy organization, take part in panel discussion about the impact of arts districts in downtown urban areas.
New Jersey’s cities frequently face funding shortages for education, environmental and other programs, but the state’s relatively small yet steady support for arts organizations continues to attract additional investment and trigger downtown revitalizations statewide. And this trend is only growing stronger as local leaders embrace these ‘arts districts’ as economic drivers.

That positive perspective was shared by participants in “The Arts as an Economic Driver” panel on Friday at the NJ Spotlight on Cities conference, a day-long conversation about the complex issues urban areas face, held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

Moderated by NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber, the discussion included Nick Paleologos, executive director of the NJ State Council on the Arts; Chris Daggett, president and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; Tom Carto, president of the State Theatre in New Brunswick; and Adam Perle, president and CEO of ArtPride New Jersey, a statewide advocacy organization.

The panelists agreed that much of this success stems from the Arts Council’s distribution of some $16 million in annual grants, which help fund as many as 175 artists and arts organizations. New Jersey now ranks fourth nationwide for actual dollars spent on the arts, Paleologos said.

“While we hope it will start ticking up to that high of 10 or 12 years ago” when the budget provided closer to $24 million for the Arts Council, Paleologos continued, “in our world, $16 million isn’t chump change. And it does have an enormous impact.”

Paleologos said this money – generated through a hotel tax – prompts grant recipients to collectively spend another $250 million, while patrons provide $125 million in economic activity. All together, New Jersey boasts some 20,000 arts organizations, both nonprofits and businesses, which employ roughly 75,000 people, Perle said.

State dollars are only part of the picture, of course.

Daggett noted that the Dodge Foundation provides roughly $6 million in annual grants to arts organizations, including nearly $3 million for arts education and a school poetry program that is the largest of its kind nationwide.

Schreiber said NJPAC has a $40 million budget – which involves some $4.5 million for arts education – that allowed it to host 400 events last year.

But both underscored the importance of public funding and praised New Jersey’s longtime leadership on arts funding.

“The real key here is to try and convince legislators and the governor…to fully fund the formula as it could be,” Daggett said, noting that the hotel tax raises another $6 million to $8 million that has recently been diverted for other programs.

While New Jersey’s investment in the arts was once driven by visionary governors, local leaders are increasingly playing a more active role, Daggett and others said. Now known as “creative place making” – a buzzword term Daggett defined as “an intentional strategy to attract financial investment, bring people together and celebrate the assets of a community” – the process actually has a long history in New Jersey.

“Red Bank used to be called Dead Bank,” before the advent of the Count Basie and Two River theaters, Paleologos said, laughing.

But the trend has grown. He listed a dozen examples of local New Jersey leaders who have recently focused on the benefits arts can provide for both quality of life and economic growth. Communities like Millville and Swedesboro created downtown arts districts; Middlesex County and Morristown developed new funding mechanisms for arts; a Union County mayoral candidate even “based his entire campaign on an arts-centric revitalization of Rahway,” Paleologos said.

“I see a lot of potential here and there are towns across the state doing the same thing,” Perle, with ArtPride, added, noting that – in addition to advocating for state funding – his organization helps local communities build alliances to achieve their arts-related goals.

Perhaps the best example of “creative place making” can be found in New Brunswick, panelist agreed. Carto, who ran a premier arts organization in Madison, WI, and joined the State Theatre in April, said he was attracted to the New Brunswick job in part by the city’s history of support for cultural activities. That commitment to the arts helped the city years ago retain corporate giant Johnson & Johnson, which prompted others to invest in the area. There are now more than 50 restaurants in the arts district, he said, and market-rate housing is attracting young people to move into the downtown area.

“It’s very lively and vital in the evenings,” Carto continued, “and the arts were at the core of that revitalization and helped create this wonderful sense of place.

Schreiber, with NJPAC, said the success of New Brunswick and other communities has also sparked conversations among civic and business leaders in Newark, the state’s largest city, which has long struggled from a lack of economic growth. “We are thinking now…to create a cultural district, an educational district in this geography around the (Performing) Arts Center,” Schreiber said. “Prudential is a thought partner in that.”