March 31, 2014 at 4:21 PM
SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – One year ago, Mark Packer faced an uphill battle. He had just become executive director of the South Orange Performing Arts Center, a struggling venue.
It was about $15 million in debt to the village of South Orange for the construction of the building, attendance was down and many local residents were calling for its closure. Simply put, he had his work cut out for him.
But Packer was no stranger to managing an arts center, having served as executive director of Elmer’s Appel Farm Arts and Music Center for 24 years. More than that, he had a clear vision of turning SOPAC into a successful brand, one that he continues to carry out.
“I wanted (SOPAC) to be about artistic excellence,” Packer said. “What we want to do is continue to refine the way in which we interact with our patrons, how we deliver the artistic experience to them, so that when people are thinking about SOPAC, they’re thinking about a great experience all around.”
The plan worked. On the one-year anniversary of Packer’s arrival, attendance has improved, and he believes programming is better and the public’s perception has changed.
He said the turnaround started after the village council voted unanimously in June to take control of the SOPAC building, absorbing the debt. Packer, who supported the decision, said the takeover was “an enormous game-changer.”
“With $15 million in debt appearing on our balance sheet, it was really impossible for the organization to obtain any kind of institutional support,” he said. “(After the village transferred the debt), we were able to obtain our first general operating support grant – that’s a pretty instant indicator of how that debt forgiveness could impact SOPAC.”
Packer’s not the only one who thinks the takeover was a good idea. South Orange Trustee Steve Schnall, the council’s liaison to SOPAC, said it was only logical because the village was responsible for the debt regardless of whether the center could pay. Schnall called programming under Packer “a significant step up,” especially considering the number of big-name performers he has brought in.
Packer credited this improvement in show quality to his hiring programming consultant Steve Lurie. With Lurie on board, SOPAC has hosted numerous notable names including Paula Poundstone, Colin Quinn and the Cowboy Junkies.
And people are taking notice. In the first half of the current season, Packer said, 5,000 people visited for the first time, the center’s Facebook likes have doubled and SOPAC has made around $650,000, which is more than it earned in 2013.
Also taking notice are members of the SOPAC board. Board member David Stone said he is already looking toward the future.
“I hope he’s here for many years to come,” Stone said. “There’s so much more greatness he has within him to bring to SOPAC.”
Indeed, Packer said he has more plans to improve SOPAC, including expanding its arts education program. He said he also wants to make it a destination for the entire state.
“(I want SOPAC) to become a cultural icon,” Packer said.