Dovetailing with efforts to boost the region's image as a tourist attraction, the SJCA tries to get the word out about the area's rich arts and cultural offerings.
By Ray Schweibert
Thank the casinos and local restaurants for bringing in the tourists to our region. Thank the developers of recent projects like The Walk and The Quarter for boosting Atlantic City's image, repositioning the formerly "summer-only" resort into a year-round destination, and much more than just a place to gamble. While you're handing out praise, save a few pats on the back for the South Jersey Cultural Alliance (SJCA), a non-profit organization that for nearly 15 years has been working diligently to strengthen the region's evolving arts and cultural community and get the word out about what -- other than casinos and beautiful beaches -- our South Jersey region has to offer.
Cynthia Lambert, the SJCA's executive director, believes that the variety of local cultural attractions in the tri-county region -- be it a museum, a performance space or an annual summer concert series -- plays an important part in getting more tourists, some of whom seek more than a casino show and a few days of playing the slots, to our area. After taking in some local culture, Lambert says, visitors are likely to patronize the area's many shops, restaurants and hotels.
"I think there's a new awareness that that's an essential component to making this a destination," says Lambert of the region's cultural offerings. "Atlantic City [for example] is unique. I think new kinds of visitors are coming. My daughter lives in NYC and is in her late 20s and her friends think that Atlantic City is now a cool place to come, which they may not have 10 years ago. And what we really want to do is get the region's cultural resources out there as a key to enjoyment of this experience."
Lambert, a visual artist herself, enthusiastically lists the many cultural attractions and entities in the region, many of which are located within the majestic natural settings of South Jersey.
"I mean there's beautiful nature all around us," says Lambert. "We are unique. Look at the Atlantic City Art Center out on the pier and the Historical Center there. There's the elegant Noyes Museum, which just takes your breath away when you look at the water out of the back window. And Dante Hall has become such a little jewel for Atlantic City."
The success of Dante Hall, Atlantic City's performance space antithesis to the casino show rooms, which opened in Oct. 2003, not only demonstrates the need for a good menu of cultural offerings, but also that visitors desire such a fix during their stays. The SJCA has been working to make visitors -- and potential visitors -- aware of the rich cultural resources that exist here.
"I don't think there are ever enough people that know," says Lambert. "But I do think that families and business people that travel here are looking for things to do that might be a little off the beaten track and less obvious. That's what we do day and night -- try to get people aware of them and support them."
Through a variety of funding sources, from the NJ State Council on the Arts to several foundation and corporate sponsors, the Linwood-based umbrella organization utilizes the Internet, print and radio advertising, as well as a variety of distributed brochures (some in conjunction with the statewide Discover Jersey Arts program) to get the word out about South Jersey's cultural offerings.
Ken Locicero, the SJCA's manager of marketing and tourism, runs the alliance's pressroom. Aside from traveling to consumer and group travel shows around the country, Locicero organizes local arts event calendar mailings, reaches out to tour bus operators and makes sure that all of the rest stops in New Jersey are stocked with brochures about local cultural and arts attractions. Teacher's Guides are also made available to teachers at the annual New Jersey Education Association conference. It is there where the SJCA trumpets the cultural resources of the region directly to members of the education field, encouraging the engagement of schools and children in the many local arts and cultural offerings.
The SJCA doesn't take the notion that it's the "voice of the arts in southern New Jersey" lightly. Aside from diligent advocacy for the arts in our region, the SJCA offers its 100-plus members marketing assistance, mentoring workshops, co-op advertising opportunities, representation at group travel shows, and even discounted office supplies.
Furthermore, the SJCA gives its members the opportunity to honor their many generous contributors at its annual Paul Aiken Encore Awards Dinner held each spring in Atlantic City. Over the years, government officials (Rep. Frank LoBiondo, Sen. Wayne Bryant) have been honored for their legislative support, corporations have been honored for their financial support and volunteers have been honored for their dedication and hard work. This year, the SJCA board will honor corporate sponsor Bank of America.
Along with huge support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and funding from the State Council on the Arts ($234,900 total for Fiscal year 2005), a number of corporate sponsors within the state such as Sun Bank, Lockheed Martin, Subaru, PNC Bank and Campbell's help keep things in motion for the SJCA and, in turn, the local arts community. Lambert acknowledges that the search for corporate sponsorships is an ongoing issue.
"Typically, southern New Jersey doesn't have the foundation or corporate base that perhaps more urban northern New Jersey organizations may have," says Lambert. "So it's always a challenge to identify corporate and foundation support for our various organizations."
Lambert praises the work of the Arts and Business Partnership of Southern New Jersey, an organization whose mission is to find and engage corporate leaders in supporting the arts and local cultural organizations. She says that ironically, the local arts community as a whole has been strengthened in recent years in part by the many funding challenges it has faced. Former governor James McGreevey's proposed drastic statewide budget cuts in 2003 unified the local arts community and its supporters in ways it never had been before.
"The outcome was actually very positive on a lot of levels," she says. "The first positive outcome was that funding was restored at a decreased level that next year -- to the arts, history and culture. And the recommendation for the development of a continual source of support was also suggested."
This support, via the state's 7 percent hotel/ motel tax, helps fund cultural organizations statewide.
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"The ideal situation for any city is to create a place were people want to live, work, learn, and enjoy their surroundings. That in return will make the Atlantic City arts and education District a must see destination for visitors and tourists."
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