Appel Farm puts festival on pause to reevaluate mission

Appel Farm is "standing back and taking a deep breath," says interim director Lawrence Schmidt.
Appel Farm is "standing back and taking a deep breath," says interim director Lawrence Schmidt. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff)
Posted: February 04, 2014

In Upper Pittsgrove Township, a rural, agricultural outpost, Appel Farm has served as a cultural oasis for decades.

In 1960, Albert and Clare Appel, musicians and art teachers, converted their Salem County poultry farm into an arts camp to give their four children something to do besides inspecting eggs as a summertime activity. Over the ensuing years, the site has evolved into a major regional arts center.

Chicken coops were converted into dormitories for the overnight campers, who range in age from nine to 17. A theater, pool, and other trappings of a camp were built on the 176-acre property, which straddles Shirley Road, giving the place a kind of artsy, rustic charm. Newer buildings to house the campers, plus a dining hall and ceramics studio, were constructed over the years.

Its vast reach has attracted the likes of Paul Stookey, Itzhak Perlman, Alan Alda, and other notables who send their children to the camp to dabble in pottery, dance, drama, and classical music. The camp also maintains a steady tie with the local population through in-school arts programs and an annual folk festival that has been dubbed "South Jersey's Woodstock."

Almost annually since 1988, thousands crowd the center's vast fields for the daylong festival, with performances ranging from Randy Newman to Mary Chapin Carpenter to Arlo Guthrie to Iris Dement to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.

So as the nonprofit arts farm has hit a few speed bumps in the last few years - including funding cuts, staff layoffs, and the decision to put the beloved music festival on hiatus this year - the surrounding community has grown concerned.

"To have a cultural gem like Appel Farm tucked into the middle of all of this is a real plus for this community . . . it means so much to the people, who may not have the opportunity to go Philadelphia or elsewhere to experience live performances or take a class in ceramics or dance," Upper Pittsgrove Township Mayor Jack Cimprich said.

"When they see some of these financial difficulties happening, naturally they become concerned," said Cimprich, whose wife, Ronnie, a veterinarian, is vice president of Appel Farm's board of trustees.

But Appel Farm's stewards - Clare Appel, a Holocaust survivor, died in 1990, and Albert Appel, 92, is retired but helps maintain the operation with the 14-member board of trustees - contend it is continuing well on its mission to provide children of all ages, cultures, and economic backgrounds with an opportunity to explore the fine and performing arts.

Last summer, as in previous years, as many as 400 children participated in the overnight summer camp, which costs about $5,800 for a four-week stay. About 25 percent of the campers who attend receive tuition assistance provided by the center's Rising Young Artist Scholarship Program, said Lawrence Schmidt, interim executive director and director of development for the center.

Schmidt said the center was in the midst of a nationwide search for a new executive director after Mark Packer, who had been there 30 years, left in January 2013 to take a job as director of the South Orange Performing Arts Center.

There have been a few stumbles in recent years.

The annual folk festival was canceled in 2008, just as the economic downturn was occurring nationally. Public funding and corporate sponsorship for the programs at the center, including the festival, were drying up. Several longtime staffers were laid off, Schmidt said.

The festival returned for the next few years. And then, just as things were beginning to look up financially, Appel Farm entered into an unsuccessful management agreement with the Landis Theater in Vineland in April 2012. Appel's role was to book and manage the performances at the refurbished art deco movie house, which was being operated as a public/private foundation.

While under contract, Schmidt said, Appel Farm shifted its entire performance calendar to the theater and hired extra staff to work exclusively on the project. But the agreement ended when its contract expired in September 2013, because Appel Farm said Vineland city government failed to pay more than $225,000 in operating expenses accrued during that year. The Landis has since ceased operations. Michael Testa, president of the Landis Theater Foundation, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.

"I think that now it's a matter of us standing back and taking a deep breath," Schmidt said. "It wasn't an easy decision for the board to make to put the festival on hiatus, but that is what we felt we had to do."

Appel Farm board member Nancy Burd, who is heading the search for the center's new executive director and is also president of the Burd Group in Philadelphia, a national arts-consulting firm, concurred.

Burd said the center, which operates on a $2.6 million annual budget, had a successful business model for running its summer camp and schools outreach art program, which provides classes in 14 schools. The art center generates funding through its self-sustaining programming as well as through grants and private and corporate donations, she said.

But the festival cost overruns made the board want to take a second look at its operations, Burd said.

"As a new executive director comes on board, probably by June, we want to work with that individual to find ways to make the festival a stronger component within our business model," Burd said. "We think the festival could really subsidize itself."

She anticipates the festival will be back next year, but perhaps in a different format.

"We are certainly well-positioned as an organization, but the only way we could ultimately save the festival for future years was to hibernate it this year," Burd said. "This is a camp and a place with so much history . . . there's a deep love of the place among its alumni and within the surrounding community. It is really a part of the fabric of the surrounding area."


"Downashore" at @JacquelineUrgo

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