The New Jersey arts community has an opportunity like never before. That's what I thought as I left the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel on September 28th. Earlier that evening the Arts Coalition of Asbury Park (ARTSCAP) held an Arts Summit, which was supposed to be for the announcement of the Asbury Park Cultural Arts Plan but wound up being about that and much more. In fact, what transpired that evening was not so much about Asbury Park as it was about the future of New Jersey arts.
While the final plans were being made for the Arts Summit, an opportunity to purchase and save a theatre suddenly arose. Immediately the Arts Coalition had to switch gears to plan a massive fundraising effort. The Arts Summit became a call to action. With precious little time, the young arts organization is faced with the opportunity of a lifetime.
The theatre (the former Walter Reade Savoy Theater on Mattison Avenue in Asbury Park) has long since been hidden from view. It opened in 1911 and originally was built for live entertainment as a vaudeville house. From 1931 to 1950, it served as a movie theater before booking burlesque shows and summer theater in the 50s. The theatre closed in 1976.
The Arts Council has until October 30th to raise $250,000 for the down payment on the theater and the 5-story building that was built around it. The Arts Council sees this as the first hub in an Asbury Park arts district. We see it as something more.
This could be the first step in molding a city into the center point for art in New Jersey. A city with arts as its foundation. A city that could serve as the capital of the arts in New Jersey.
Throughout our state's history, New Jersey artists have always been able to look across the rivers to New York City or Philadelphia, but why must we look outside of the Garden State? There was a period of time when Newark was one of the top 3 places in the world for jazz music. In fact, many of the musicians that helped make Harlem famous actually lived in Newark. Whether or not New Jersey could ever get to that level again is debatable; however, there is no denying the amount of artistic talent that has come from New Jersey and that hasn't stopped. Besides, New York may be known as the pinnacle for the arts in America, but that hasn't stopped cities like Chicago or Los Angeles from creating a theatre scene that rivals Broadway for creativity and star power. With the right resources, Asbury Park could become an arts center to compete on that level.
New Jersey has always been a home to writers and musicians; poets and painters; actors and dancers. We are dreamers in a place where we must leave to see our dreams realized. If the Arts Council of Asbury Park is able to forge ahead with their plan, artists from New Jersey will be able to see their dreams come true in their own backyard. And what better place to do it? Asbury Park already is known throughout the world for its musical heritage. It's history happened without any help, just imagine what could happen with a real plan.
Imagine a city where the local government is actually interested in using the arts as its main industry. The Asbury Park Arts Coalition has a long way to go before the entire city is on board, but the show of politicians at the Arts Summit was a good start. Once the key word of "jobs" starts making its rounds, I'd imagine the movement will almost surely take off in a city where unemployment is a major issue in every election. The arts is the perfect solution to bringing people to the downtown restaurants, filling the hotels and bed & breakfasts, and providing long-term jobs. It is the factory that Asbury Park never had. Asbury Park has never been an industrial town. It was born and has lived on entertainment, the beach and a downtown shopping district.
I see this cultural district as not only a tremendous opportunity for Asbury Park artists, but an amazing opportunity for all New Jersey artists as well. This is a city that has a very proud arts history from Stephen Crane to Bruce Springsteen and one that still has a thriving arts community today. If the Arts Council is able to persuade the right people, we could be witnessing the birth of New Jersey's art capital.
We are asking all of the artists, art organizations, and art professionals who read this publication to help out. Let's help the Arts Council reach their goal of $250,000 by the end of October. Let's give this group a chance to make the dream come true because it's a dream we all have. This is not just the creation of an arts district, it is the creation of a city's identity and a state's identity. No other city has an opportunity like this. Asbury Park has the land, the buildings, and the needs that can be realized through the arts. What it needs is your support.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.