Schwartz Center weighing options for future

 

The Schwartz Center in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — A year after a public-giving campaign raised more than $10,000 in one day for the Schwartz Center for the Arts the downtown Dover-based nonprofit is once again considering its future.

Tracey Miller, president of the Schwartz Board of Directors, said Tuesday, “At this point the board and the center are weighing all of our options and taking a look at what our future looks like and how we can go forward at this point.”

She would not elaborate on details, declining to discuss the center’s financial situation, factors causing the board’s consideration or a timeline for making any decisions on future operations.

All scheduled performances posted on the center’s website will be held and ticket sales will continue, she said.

“We still have a lot of folks to talk to. I wish I had more definitive answers at this point,” said Ms. Miller, who has taken on additional roles since former executive director Sydney Arzt left last year after 18 months in that position. In addition to the volunteer board, there are five paid employees, some full time and some in part-time positions.

Delaware State University, which owns the Schwartz building with Wesley, would not comment Wednesday and Wesley College President Robert Clark was unavailable.

Both institutions last year stopped donations to the nonprofit center.

Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, said Tuesday that he had not heard any news regarding the Schwartz’s operations, but would not be surprised if the center was facing closure given its financial struggles.

The 550-seat center has received $47,500 in state funding in recent years.

The General Assembly gave the Schwartz $12,500 in the current fiscal year, as well as that amount in both fiscal years 2015 and 2016 and $10,000 in fiscal year 2014.

Prior to that, the center had not been funded through grant-in-aid spending since before 2006.

The state’s Joint Finance Committee, which drafts spending bills, has been working this month to reduce spending and members cut state arts funding in a session this week. Final budget decisions must be approved by the General Assembly by June 30.

Ms. Miller said the Schwartz’s 14-member board will meet June 8.

The United Way’s Do More 24 campaign is underway today and the Schwartz Center is again a participant in the donation drive.

Community challenges

The Schwartz Center has a storied past. The building on South State Street was built in 1904 as The Dover Opera House. George M. Schwartz expanded it into a movie theater in 1923 and renamed the venue The Capitol Theater. It fell into disrepair in the 1970s and closed its doors in 1982.

After a dedicated community campaign, the Friends of the Capitol Theater renovated the building and reopened it in 2001. Wesley and DSU became involved as partners in 2004.

Ms. Miller said the biggest challenge for the Schwartz Center today is attendance — “100 percent.”

“We’ve done our best to widen our appeal and try to listen and know what our community wants. It’s still tough to get Dover out to shows unless it’s a community-based show, like ‘The Nutcracker’ or ‘Seussical’ or The Children’s Theatre shows,” she said.

And while ticket sales were up 99 percent over last year, she said, that’s not enough to secure success.

“No theater ever makes it on ticket sales. Not when you are selling a $15 ticket. There are a lot of things that come into play here. It’s not all about ticket sales,” she said. “There are a lot of layers that go into running a theater and getting the community involved is the biggest part of this.

“We’re just like any other small community theater in the country. We depend on the community,” she said.

Erin Rich, who is the publicist for The Dover-based Children’s Theatre, which stages its plays at the Schwartz, said she has been hearing rumors that the center was in trouble since early May.

“I would imagine The Children’s Theatre would be ready and willing to do anything that they could to try and help the Schwartz stay afloat. We have benefited from our partnership for many years,” she said.

Ms. Rich first became involved in the theater program when her oldest son, now 13, was 8 years old. He tried out for “Oliver” on his birthday and got the lead role.

Her 12-year-old son also has been involved in productions. She became the publicist in 2015.

“As a resident of downtown Dover, I would be heartbroken to see it close,” she said. “It’s a great building with a lot of potential. We would hate to lose it. It’s a great asset to children’s theater.”

The Schwartz Center’s June performances include a zydeco show which was held Wednesday night and the Mrs. Delaware Pageant this weekend.

That event is handling its own ticket sales through Event Brite, which was the pageant organization’s decision unrelated to the Schwartz board’s current operations discussions.

Ms. Miller said often groups renting the venue opt to handle their own ticket sales.

The New York hit musical, “ALIVE! 55+ and Kickin,’” which was set for June 24, has been rescheduled for September, she said, because the musical is being hosted in Philadelphia a week prior to the Schwartz show, which would have hindered ticket sales.

“We draw from Philly and we draw from Baltimore, so we rescheduled it for September,” she said. Otherwise, “everything on our website will go on as planned,” she said.

The other two shows in June are a “Snow White” Dance Showcase and the premiere of the film “Jason’s Letter,” the majority of which was filmed in Dover, on June 11.

Annual campaign support

Ms. Miller said last year that the loss of financial support from DSU and Wesley was “not something that caught us by surprise. We saw it coming and we understand that they’re doing what all colleges and universities are doing — directing their dollars to where they will benefit the students most.”

The Schwartz board was reassessing its finances at that time and operating on funds donated through the 2016 United Way’s Do More 24 statewide campaign.

Of 200 Delaware nonprofits that participated in last year’s Do More 24, held June 22, the Schwartz Center earned the most, receiving $9,398 from 86 donors. For coming in first place, the Schwartz received a $2,500 bonus.

In February, the center held The Battle of the Schwartz,” a sold-out lip-sync contest showcasing local celebrities, that organizers reported raised $64,700.

Its board, which transitioned from an advisory board to a working board last summer, had solicited community input and tweaked program offerings this year based on feedback.

“We’re doing really, really well this year. The theater’s done better programming than it’s ever done,” Ms. Miller said. “I think we’re listening to the community more. We brought movies back. We’re getting more involved with educational programming.”

“It’s just that we’ve run out of runway. We need more time. I’m hoping to have more concrete answers after next week,” she said.

Staff writer Matt Bittle contributed to this story.

 

Ashley Dawson is managing editor of the Delaware State News. Email adawson@newszap.com.

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