Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Delaware Division of Arts Grants for 2009

Brandywine Hundred, Del. —

Our state's creativity fills our museums, our libraries, concert halls and community theatres, cinemas and retail shops. These works help to sculpt and define who we are. We must nourish creative thinking.

Arts education is not about creating creative individuals--the First State is awash with them. It is about creating more productive individuals. The benefits in doing so are clear. It's no secret that math is linked to music, that fine art is linked to critical thinking, that acting builds self-confidence.

Yet over the last 15 years, the National Endowment of the Arts' budget has been cut from $175 million to $125 million. Many state and local agencies receive direct funding from NEA. The outgoing President speaks of the importance of his signature educational program, No Child Left Behind. However, one of its unintended consequences was a decline in arts education in schools. Barack Obama and Joe Biden have pledged to turn this around.

On a local level, Gov. Elect Jack Markell will introduce legislation for a Delaware Arts Trust, modeled after the highly successful Arts Stabilization Fund. The latter aims to buttress facilities and maintenance of institutions; the former will be for programming.

Outgoing Gov. Minner used a meat cleaver with across-the-board agency cuts to achieve a balanced budget. Markell, who argues that some departments are run more efficiently than others and are not deserving of wholesale and arbitrary reductions, is likely to employ a more delicate and judicious slicing. The Delaware Division of the Arts might not have received the unkind $120,000 cut (5 percent) for Fiscal Year 2009 under Markell's scenario.

Its been a shrinking pie, and further, one that's not been cut justly. An examination of who got what in the Division of Arts Grants 2009 grants shows a disproportionate amount of monies to a few non-profits like Wilmington's Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts (DCCA), the Schwartz Center in Dover, and Yorklyn's Center for Creative Arts (CCArts), who attract few guests and have a relatively negligible impact on the cultural landscape. I think the money could have been better served elsewhere.

Eighty-eight organizations received 118 grants -- the vast majority were small and garden variety at $3,000 - $8,000. The largest grants were given to Delaware's large, recognizable institutions: OperaDelaware, Delaware Art Museum, Delaware Symphony and The Grand – ranging from $83,000 to $107,000.

But the DCCA, which averages 10 guests on an Oklahoma land rush type of day, also received $107,000? They do have an outreach education program, but to receive as much as the Grand? Compare that with venues where people actually attend: Delaware Children's Theatre received $2,500. New Candlelight Dinner Theatre received a paltry $5,000.

Then, CCArts got $68,000? That group reports to serve 10,000 in a year, but it is a limited market in a high per capita income locale.

Other inequalities: the Newark based Delaware Dance Company received $40,000.00, while the First State Ballet Theatre, which travels statewide and has a much higher level of training and personnel, received one-half of that.

The most egregious handout, reminiscent of Treasury Secretary Paulson's bailout to Wall Street execs for their severance packages, is the $62,000 hijacked by the Schwartz Center for the Arts in Dover. Renovated in 2001, the Center is billed as the premiere performing arts center in central Delaware. The Schwartz has been a white elephant since the day it opened after its renovation. It does not have sufficient seats to draw even third tier national talent. Listed on its web site presently are a whopping eight performances for 2009; six of which are one-nighters. The Schwartz board should turn over the center to either Wesley or Delaware State for $1, accept reality and be done with the misery. It will never, ever be a success. It's size and location mitigate against it. Aisle Say's olfactory meter smells a political earmark worthy of Senator Ted Stevens' Bridge to Nowhere.

This is the Aisle Say column of the year. I have greatly appreciated the opportunity to comment on the arts.

One last plug...former News Journal reporter Nancy Lynch's “Vietnam Mailbag” has been reported extensively by Community News and elsewhere. The coffee table book compiles letters home from Delawareans as they served in Nam. The quote below, dated Dec. 23,1972, was never published in Lynch's newspaper column but made her book. Navy Seaman Ed Cycyk, a P.S. duPont High grad of 1971, was channeling George Santayana with this comment: “I know this is the season to be jolly, but how can I be happy with all the hatred and discontent in the world. I'm just praying everything will come out alright.” Mr. Cycyk, this letter could very well be postmarked Dec. 23, 2008...from another foreign land with the same plea for peace.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Tourism Tsar for Delaware

I have been an active member of the Delaware arts community for 40 years and have had the opportunity to report on the subject for 18. With the assets we enjoy in Delaware, our strategic location, and two degrees of separation thanks to our size, I've never understood why our Department of Tourism has been locked away like Rapunzel in a tower.

In the past decade there has been a revolving chain of "Tourism" directors getting on and off the merry-go-round. Some of the recent directors have come from out of state with neither institutional memory nor comprehension of where we've been and who we are. "Tourism," by appearances and action, has been branded a nettlesome step-child of the Department of Economic Development.

Rapunzel, let down your hair! We could be a world-class destination.

The subject is so important that it should become a position directly reportable to Jack Markell, circumventing the stumbling bureaucracy of past administrations. The new division should be called Arts, Culture and Creative Economy, headed by a tourism czar, if you will.

Governor Elect Markell, in his mission statement “Ensuring a Vibrant Cultural Legacy,” states that there are more than 3,600 full-time jobs associated with the arts, bringing in $142 million annually. As a former Treasurer, he gets it. The arts and tourism are green industries. Our beaches and cultural venues are here, no capital investment required. This potential needs to be maximized.

The failure is in marketing and lack of a concentrated effort. Each county has its own fiefdom of Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVB) -- the First State version of the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The manner in which these organizations receive state funds – through a hotel/motel room tax (the hidden tax in tax-free Delaware) is archaic and insufficient.

Delaware holds the dubious honor of consistently ranking last or second to last in tourism funding for the last two decades. Do Rhode Island, Nebraska and North Dakota really have more noteworthy destination points than Delaware? I doubt it.

Decades ago, when Robin Williams filmed "Dead Poets Society" at St. Andrews, the Delaware Film Commission came into being and I was asked to be on it. But after just two meetings, that idea was as dead as Williams' poets.

A film commission under a tourism czar is a no-brainer. We've got beaches, we've got rolling Piedmont mountains, we've got historical venues for period films and we have castles in Chateau Country. Castles you ask? Visit Nemours. That's a venue begging for a period flick.

With the reduced cost of living and a czar to make instant decisions to cut red tape for filmmakers, Delaware is a perfect place. Many Hollywood films are shot in Canada for that very reason.

Stability and maintenance of existing venues is essential. Independent of any discussion with government, philanthropists Tatiana and Gerret Copeland have created Arts For Delawares Future, a campaign with a $12 million goal to stabilize what they saw as the precarious nature of the five largest non-profits in New Castle County. A czar would work to take their plan statewide.

The czar's mission would be simple. Create the perception and reality of Delaware as a world-class destination to non-Delawareans by engaging our corporations and citizens in the task.

That person would: support growth and development of tourism by promoting public and private investment in the creative economy sector; coordinate statewide destinations, CVB's and state and city agencies; serve as the liaison between the state and the cultural institutions and tourism venues; be an indefatigable and impassioned pitchman for Delaware.

It's obvious that Alan Levin, recently appointed as head of the Department of Economic Development, did not take this position for a paycheck. He wants to give back to the state that gave him so much. The czar would accompany him on meetings with prospective companies considering Delaware in their future and present a plan to be part of the cultural scene as well.

This subject will be explored in future columns.

Brandywine Hundred Greer Firestone writes about business and arts. He has been involved in Delaware arts for a half-century and has been the playwright for multiple productions in musical and historical genres.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Three Little Bakers at baby grand

“Ya gotta have a gimmick!” Words of advice that father Hugo Immediato passed down to daughter Vicki 35 years ago. In fact, Hugo and brothers Nick and Al had two gimmicks. Their own father was a first generation Italian immigrant who passed through Ellis Island and established a bakery in Little Italy. The boys grew up as part of the family workforce.
Their second gimmick was their athleticism. The trio became accomplished acrobats and hungered for the heat of Broadway lights rather than that of the ovens . The Three Little Bakers toured on the post-vaudeville circuit and appeared with multitudinous celebrities including Kirk Douglas and Bob Hope.
Injury precipitated a return to Wilmington. But the three weren't done with show business quite yet.
In 1972, theatre, food and their 'patented' desserts were mixed together in an entertainment souflee with the opening of 3 Bakers Dinner Theatre in Kennett Square. Vicki, now part of the growing second generation and still in college, was conscripted and became hat check girl, bookkeeper and hostess – every night!
The move to Pike Creek Valley and a custom designed building followed in 1983. For over 15 years it was almost impossible for locals to book in the 900 seat theatre. 'Bakers' did not advertise locally. Why bother? Five nights a week an observer would see a dozen tour buses in the parking lot with license plates from NJ, PA, MD and VA.
In the late '90's the market began to change. Casinos opened. The entertainment 'pie' was being cut into several slices. The entire mission of 3 Bakers was based on 'family' shows. Broadway was not churning out thematic clones of 'The Sound of Music', or 'The Music Man'.
“We thought it would go on forever,” says Vicki. “For our guests, we considered ourselves the end of a beautiful day.”.i.e....for travelers who had visited Delaware destinations with their tour guides. The theatre closed two years ago.
The second and third generation Immediato family members have for the most part gone their own ways. Vicki, who became President of the business several years ago, continues the torch at the baby grand.
For the second year, her new company VR Hospitality (under the 3 Bakers banner), is presenting 'Home For The Holidays”. Weber-Prianti Productions, a part of Bakers for 25 years, is producing and directing.
Jim Weber is both director and Music Director, creator of the first Bakers Christmas show in 1990. This month's production is not dissimilar from years past. “The Christmas show”, says Weber, “was consistently our most popular. All of the leads this year performed for years at Bakers and are experienced professionals. We're all family.”
This is a production to bring the entire brood, even the aunt you don't really like. She will appreciate your sacrifice and speak more highly of you.
Tiffany Christopher, returning from last year's show, lights up the stage any time she is featured. Her “Santa Baby” song and dance with 8 rollicking and saucy Santas was 'merrymaking'. 8 year old Lexi Saunders has been an attentive student to choreographer and mom Vicki Saunder's instructions.
News Flash: I have received an email from the North Pole reporting that Santa and Mrs. Claus will be in attendance 1 hour before each show for pictures.
Vicki Winton has a fervent and unequivocal belief that the public still wants family fare. “We are continuing a family tradition set decades ago. The Immediato family to your family.”
In one scene a child queries the existence of Santa. An adult then reads the classic 1897 'Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.”. Part of the message to Virginia reads “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS.” In this world cynicism and sarcasm are a high art form unto themselves. But the thought occurred at that moment, the world would be more dreary if there were no Vicki Immediato Wintons.
Home For The Holidays runs through 27 December. Many performances are matinĂ©es – great for grandkids! Group discounts. Call The Grand at 302.652.5577 or