Our View | Results needed as State Theatre changes course

January 19, 2014 

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Exterior picture of the State Theatre, in downtown State College, October 1, 2013.

NABIL K. MARK — CDT photo Buy Photo

As State College was increasing its contribution to the State Theatre from $2,000 to $10,000 for 2014, Mayor Elizabeth Goreham noted that the venue “contributes mightily to our town.”

That was in December, about a month before the news that the theater’s board of directors was launching a change in leadership to move the theater away from the financial losses that have dogged it for years.

Greg Ray, who has been serving as lighting designer and programming manager, will become the State Theatre’s executive director in March. Richard Biever, artistic director and a former executive director, will step down at the end of February.

Last month, Biever said the State held a debt load of about $800,000 from renovations and a line of credit. As of 2012, the most recent nonprofit tax data filed, the theater was running $290,000 in the red.

This marks the second leadership shift in as many years. In 2013, the State Theatre’s board split the artistic and programming duties away from the business side. That plan was abandoned within a few months.

Ray will be the nonprofit venue’s third executive director in as many years, following Harry Zimbler and Biever.

It’s time for the State Theatre to get it right.

“We really need to get back to a management model,” State Theatre board President Lisa Peters told the Centre Daily Times. “We dearly love Rich, and we’re very sad about this, but we need to put someone in there who can look at it all and the bottom line.”

The State has been reaching for that break-even financial point since reopening in 2006.

The first approach was to sign up as many national touring acts as possible. More recently, Biever attempted to fill dates with more local entertainment, including drama, music and dance groups, and augment with national shows. In the coming weeks, the theater’s lineup will include the band Rusted Root, musician Steve Earl and an Easter Seals benefit show.

Neither strategy pushed enough money to the bottom line.

“It’s no secret that the theater has always struggled financially,” Biever said.

When the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association was raising funds and filing court papers in a bid to save the Garman Theatre there, we warned that simply saving a site isn’t enough.

The preservation must be coupled with a business plan that provides for sustainability.

Running a local arts center is challenging, as many have learned. It involves networking with the local business community as much as attracting quality shows. It requires accounting skills, advertising budgets and a marketing vision in addition to lights, curtains and a stage.

The State dates to the 1930s, when it opened as a movie house. In disrepair and underutilized, it closed in 2001. But within five years, fueled by private and public dollars, the venue was reborn.

Biever, a passionate arts leader who is well-liked, worked hard to make the State successful, and in some ways it was.

“It is worth the time, energy and effort to keep pushing that boulder up the hill,” he said.

Now, it’s someone else’s turn.

The State’s board has once again changed course and captains and should feel pressure to finally get it right.

We urge Ray and the board members to make public their plans for growing revenue, to share often their goals and strategies with patrons and merchants who have invested in the State’s facilities and programs.

Goreham was right. The State does contribute much to our region. But despite the best of intentions, the venue has yet to stand on its own in fulfilling its mission as a regional arts center.

“For starters,” Ray said, “I would like to show our community that we mean business about putting our financial house in order.”

That’s the spirit. But spirit has never been an issue at the State.

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