SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – Mark Packer is no stranger to revolutionizing an arts organization.

After joining Elmer’s Appel Farm Arts and Music Center in 1984 and rising through the ranks to become its executive director, Packer expanded the business to make it year-round and created community outreach and therapeutic arts programs. He’s also long been involved in arts advocacy, founding the South Jersey Cultural Alliance, co-founding the Arts & Business Partnership of Southern New Jersey and serving as president of ArtPride New Jersey from 2006-2012.

Now he’s hoping his nearly 30 years of experience will benefit him as he takes on the role of executive director of the South Orange Performing Arts Center. He started his job on March 1, and Packer has clear goals in mind to make the arts center a success.

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“(My) plans are to ensure that the organization is financially stable and sustainable,” Packer said. “Building cash reserves is going to be very important to me. Ensuring that the organization lives within its means is going to be very important to me and to the organization.”

Since its inception, SOPAC has faltered under the burden of a $15 million debt to South Orange, which has still not been paid off. At a meeting of the village Board of Trustees last year, a financial consultant recommended the village take ownership of the building, an idea that Packer welcomes.

“I fervently hope that that happens because I think it is a critical step towards the organization becoming financially viable,” Packer said.

Packer also mentioned that during his time as president of ArtPride New Jersey he’s built a cadre of friends and funders of the arts who could prove very beneficial to the center.

Outside of financial plans, Packer said he’s really interested in building a strong arts education program “to expand SOPAC’s footprint.” Additionally, he said he’s working with a programming consultant to create a niche for singer-songwriters at the center while also providing a diverse array of shows.

Another major component of Packer’s revitalization strategy is for SOPAC to become more involved in the village.

“I hope to build bridges, to make friends, to enlist the opinions and insights from key community leaders and from the public so that we better understand what the interests are of the community and how they’d like to see SOPAC serve as their arts center,” Packer said. “(I hope) they feel a real connection in the sense of pride that this is a cultural icon in their community.”

Excluding his arts advocacy work, SOPAC is only Packer’s second job after his decades at Appel Farm. Though he admits there was a feeling of “shock and dismay” from his former organization when he announced he was leaving, he said he definitely thinks he made the right decision in joining SOPAC.

“I felt it was time for a change,” Packer said. “It was a great opportunity for me, and I’m really excited about this organization. I’m really enamored with the board of governors and of the staff. The physical space, I think, is extraordinary. And I think that the community itself is dynamic and interesting, so I’m really looking forward to it.”   

The reporter is participating in a hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts.