College cuts long-term ties with arts community Shock waves in art comminity

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Westminster Arts Center will now be used only for in-house productions for the college.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Bloomfield College will no longer allow outside arts organizations to use its Westminster Arts Center.
In an April 23 press release, the college said the decision was made because of facility constraints and an increased demand for student events.

“The Center will continue to serve the Bloomfield College campus, exclusively,” the press release said. “We wish to thank all our past partners and wish them continued success.”

The news blindsided numerous arts organization managers that rely on the 290-seat Robert Van Fossan Theatre at the arts center, including Gwen Ricks-Spencer of the Bloomfield-based 4th Wall Theatre.
“I’m stunned,” Gwen Ricks-Spencer said in a telephone interview. “We’ve been at the college since 2007. They asked us to come there. We became the theater company in-residence.”

Greg Allen was managing director of 4th Wall when Bloomfield College President Rich Levao saw a production and invited the group to be resident performers at Westminster. Levao is retiring next month.

“I’m so upset about this for many different reasons,” Allen said in a telephone interview. “Levao saw a production and they specifically hired me to bring in arts organizations.”

Allen was managing director of the Van Fossan Theatre from 2006 to 2014.
“My job was building up these art partners,” he said. “We had music, dance, opera. The 4th Wall use to work with the school giving open forums. Bloomfield College does not have a performing arts department. We were bringing outside arts into the college.”

The Mosaic Dance Company, a touring company based in Glen Ridge, also used the theater. Morgiana Celeste Varricchio, its producing artistic director, considered the Van Fossan it’s Essex County home.
“Why?” she said of the decision.

According to Varricchio in a telephone interview, she was informed of the decision by Nicole Quinn, the interim vice-president for institutional advancement at the college. Quinn was contacted by this newspaper and said the college declines an interview at this time.

“She understood we had arrangements to be in there, but there was a change in policy,” Varricchio said. “And that was that.”
From late 2017 to early this year, the theater was closed while repairs to the roof were under way. The arts organizations anticipated the building would be reopening with their shows. While closed, they found temporary homes. Mosaic collaborated with Mt. St. Dominick’s Academy, in Caldwell. Varricchio will reach out to them again.

“For all the art groups, one needs production values in order to present,” she said. “There’s a perception of value. You can do the same show in a cafeteria with fluorescent lighting, but it’s not the same show. The theater at Westminster is a jewel in Essex County, especially in this area. For those that are based here, it’s like cutting off a limb. There are no other theaters around. You can’t go to NJPAC. We couldn’t afford a 1,500-seat theater.

“When you’re presenting anything, the first question is ‘When is it?’ Now I don’t know. And dance has specific needs. It needs wing space. You can’t do this in a black box. You also need depth and height. Also the floor has to be right. Rehearsals were done with the same in mind.”

The township will feel the loss, too. Ollyn Lettman, director of the Bloomfield Center Alliance, called the decision a big disappointment. The BCA had initiated a dinner/theater program as an attraction.

“If there is no place in the Bloomfield Center area, it’s another loss for the community,” he said in a telephone interview. “The loss just heightens the need for the township and the BCA to bring culture to the downtown area, to create another performance space. We just don’t have it now.”

Allen would agree with him.
“The arts always play a part in economic growth,” he said. “All those restaurants in the area got a boost whenever we had a show. Even that falls off because of this horrible decision. There was no discussion.”
Varricchio’s troupe saw the other end of the restaurant boost.

“I got to know the BCA with its dinner/theater program,” she said. “It brought in people who stayed with us. To make Bloomfield a destination, there has to be a reason to go there. Arts is a reason, but the college didn’t take that under consideration. It’s a private institution and we have been beneficiaries of their generosity. All of us are hoping there is an opportunity to reconsider. Everyone wants to be respectful.”

Aspire Performing Arts Center, based in Wayne, produces children’s theater and also uses the facility. The president and artistic director of Aspire is Lisa Beth Vettoso. She said the Van Fossan Theatre was a well-equipped and affordable venue, a difficult combination to find locally.

“We’ve been getting more popular,” she said, “and would like to do our shows in a legit theater. The amount of money we have to spend, especially for musicals. And you have to pay the musicians. You’ve already put out thousands of dollars. For small companies, it’s untenable.”

She figures her costs will now double or triple.
Ricks-Spencer said 4th Wall had planned on staging “A Raisin in the Sun” in February 2018, for Black History Month, but was told the roof would close the theater.

“We ended up not doing it,” she said. “It had a lot of technical requirements.”
Instead she produced “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf” at the Burgdorff Center for Performing Arts, in Maplewood. For its Black History Month show this year, 4th Wall again went to Burgdorff because the roof at Westminster was still not done.

“There are always overruns,” she said of the delay. “But we were told we could move back March 2019. So we held auditions. And then out of the blue we got this phone call. We tried to be good arts partners. We offered $4 tickets for Bloomfield College students. We did talkbacks with the students.”

She considered the way the college handled the matter as “callous.”
“If you have to fix the roof, fix the roof,” she said. “But theater companies have to plan long in advance.”
Ricks-Spencer wrote a letter to the incoming Bloomfield College president, Marcheta P. Evans, currently the provost and vice-president for academic affairs at Our Lady of the Lake University, in San Antonio.

“I thought she should know,” she said. “We’ve done programs with the BCA and thought we were part of a community. What are we going to do now, I don’t know. We tried finding temporary space. It’s arduous.”
In a social media post alerting local arts organizations of the situation, Ricks-Spencer said its June production of “Bright Star” will be its last at the theater.

“We are a small company of literally six people that have kept 4th Wall running for 23 seasons,” the post read. “We are looking for space but currently have no viable leads. As of right now, we plan to take off next season to regroup and rethink.”
The 4th Wall is in its 23rd season.

Also affected will be two more Bloomfield-based organizations, the NJ School of Dramatic Arts and NiCori Studios and Productions.

Ted Wrigley, the assistant managing director at Dramatic Arts, said the school always had a good relationship with the college, but the school is scrambling.

“We’re not quite sure why they’re closing their doors right now,” he said in a telephone interview. “We used Westminster quite a lot. We had something booked in October.”

Corinna Sowers-Adler, of NiCori, said in a statement, “It is unfortunate for the community that Bloomfield College made this decision. But the arts survive when you are resourceful and creative and so NiCori is going about finding new space.”
In a letter to The Independent Press, Richard O’Connor, president of the Montclair Operetta Club, said the club had produced 22 shows at the theater since 2007.

“We are appealing to the public to show its support for all the arts organizations in the Bloomfield area by asking Bloomfield College to reconsider its decision,” he said. “Ask the college not to turn its back on the Bloomfield community that has come to depend on it not only for education, but for the cultural enrichment that maintains the quality of life in our area.”