Edgar Herrera gave up a manganese mine to go into the performing arts.
That’s the short version of the journey that brought him to the George Street Playhouse last May as managing director.
Long before the mining venture, the journey began in Mexico, where Herrera was born and raised, and at universities in Texas, where he received a degree in piano performance, and in Ohio where he received advanced degrees in business and arts administration.
Herrera then embarked on a career that included leadership and development positions with orchestras in Philadelphia; Atlanta; Elgin, Illinois; Pensacola; and Syracuse.
In 2009, Herrera became executive director of a private foundation in Mexico City. Now ensconced in his new office in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, he recalled that he was in his mid 30s when he got engaged to Luz, the woman he would marry, and they jointly decided on foray in the for-profit world.
“We both said we actually wanted to make some real money—that was the goal,” Herrera said. “We were living in Mexico City, and I saw so many opportunities for business. So, we started a digital accounting firm, because the requirement for filing your taxes in Mexico had changed. Instead of having to do that once a year, individuals had to do it once a month. That’s still going on now.”
The Herreras’ firm offered taxpayers an alternative to the brick-and-mortar accounting office—namely, an on-line option that attracted more than five thousand clients in three years, each one paying a monthly membership fee.
The couple also got into the export-import business, exporting hundreds of containers of alcohol to far-flung markets such as China and Australia.
“We also had a manganese mine,” Herrera said. “Go figure!”
Their enterprises eventually grew to the point that they had more than 140 employees, he said, and they found the work interesting, including the opportunity to engage folks from other cultures and other legal systems.
“We were making our goals,” he said. “After six years or so, my wife came to me and said, ‘Hey, we have two kids now’”—twin daughters who were about a year old‚—"'but I haven’t heard you play the piano. You’re a pianist. That’s how I fell in love with you. Don’t you want your kids, your girls, to listen, to be involved with music, with the arts?’”
That question hit home, Herrera said, and, within less than a year the couple sold most of their businesses.
“This is 2019,” he said, “and by December, I took my computer and I worked on my resume from Mexico, and I started applying for jobs in the USA. To my surprise, I got some offers, and I ended up working in Annapolis at the symphony,” where he was executive director and chief development officer.
In his new role, at George Street, Herrera said, he will devote a lot of attention to developing a strategic plan for growing and broadening the audience.
Acknowledging the challenges involved in attracting theatergoers, he said he is optimistic. For one thing, he does not accept the assumption that the grey heads prominent in many auditoriums mean that the prospects for live performance are bleak.
Herrera said that while the musicals George Street mounts—at least one a season—attract younger patrons, those attending straight plays tend to be older than 60.
However, he said, “I don’t see it as a problem. I see that these are the people who really enjoy theater and who have the means to enjoy it. They were younger; they were in their 30s and 40s. They just got older, as we all do.”
But he rejects the notion that these folks will move away or die and not be replaced.
“When I see people the age of my mother—she’s 74 now—coming to the theater, I smile and I say, ‘That’s our audience, and that’s great! It’s not a prediction of a failure in the future. And, by the way, they have the means to give donations or planned gifts.
“I’m a very optimistic person. I like to see the glass half full instead of half empty.”
That doesn’t mean that Herrera will depend on the audience to grow on its own. For example, he sees George Street’s education programs as key to developing an appreciation of the performing arts in the potential patrons of the future.
That program now includes student matinees, most with lesson plans for use in the classroom and all with after-show talkbacks with the creative team or scholars on the show's subject matter. The program also includes an “Artist Residency” component for grades 5 through 8. Professionals from many arts disciplines, using George Street’s proprietary lesson plans, collaborate with classroom teachers in integrating the arts into students’ learning experience in a way that helps them to better retain core content.
“My kids are five years old,” Herrera said. “I’m teaching them about theater and music. How can you expect somebody who is now in their 60s, who never had theater in their life, to come and enjoy theater? That’s going to be an exception.”
Herrera said he is also interested in expanding George Street’s audience among the diverse populations of New Brunswick itself and Central New Jersey in general.
According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, for example, New Brunswick has a population of nearly 56,000 more than 46 percent of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino. The region also includes many immigrants from Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
“We’re going to start testing things,” Herrera said, “for instance, putting in open captions in Spanish for a couple of shows for people who don’t feel as comfortable with only English — like my mother. She came to visit. I brought her to ‘The Pianist’”—George Street’s most recent production. “I asked her to watch the movie first, but she speaks no English. So, if there had been no movie, she would have been like, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on.’ But with the open captions, she would have been totally fine.
“So, we’re going to start doing things like that—little things like the pre-announcements, you know, ‘the voice of God’ in the theater, we’re going to start doing those in Spanish as well.”
Photo from The Pianist at George Street Playhouse. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Herrera foresees outreach to other populations, and a broader strategy to intentionally make patrons, especially first-time theatergoers, feel welcome in ways that will inspire them to return. He said he believes that George Street’s new home, the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, is key to a marketing program. He noted that ticket sales “went through the roof” when NBPAC opened for the 2019-2020 season, and he thinks the theater can reignite that excitement by promoting the center’s state-of-the-art facilities and a parking deck that doesn’t require visitors to go outside.
He said he has also begun a collaboration with other entities to jointly promote the performing arts in and of themselves.
Fundraising, of course, is an issue for George Street as it is for all non-profits. Herrera said support from the National Endowment for the Arts is not a significant part of George Street’s budget, and he doesn’t expect that to change.
“Private foundations and corporate support is getting tougher,” he added. “However, we do have enough foundations that support us every year, and we’re just finding a new way to work with them, because sometimes their priorities, the things that they support, are shifting.
“Donations from individuals—I think that’s the way to create the path to sustain giving for us, but that’s a lot of work. So, for instance, our development department used to be only two people. Now we’re growing, and we’re hoping to have five or six people in the next two years with our new strategic plan.
“But you need to put a lot of emphasis and strategy on raising money from individuals now, and that means that you have to give people information about the impact their donation is going to have.”
He said the bare argument that the theater can cover only a percentage of its budget from ticket sales doesn’t work anymore.
“You have to be very specific: We need to cover fifty percent of our budget and ten percent is for education and is going to impact five thousand children, and this is how.”
Six months into his return from the business world to the arts, Herrera said, he hasn’t spent enough time at the keyboard—on the piano, not the computer.
He has a piano at a house he bought in Maryland, and he wants to retrieve another he has in Mexico and, he said, he wants to put one in his office in New Brunswick, “there, or there—an upright, just so I can play sometimes.”
At heart, after all, he is not a mining executive but an artist: “There’s something about the performing arts that’s within me,” he said. “I think about that all the time. I cannot stop thinking about it.”