This article was originally published in the April 2018 Trenton Downtowner

An archival photo shows the War Memorial under construction in the early 1930s.

Community arts activist Marisa Benson puts it this way: “The Trenton War Memorial is significantly under-resourced and is partly in disrepair. The roof has leaks, the outdoor staircase railings are shaky, and some seats are broken. It is currently managed only as a rental facility, owned and operated by the state of New Jersey. Yet it remains Trenton’s best treasure for presenting the performing arts and civic events.”

Those words were the opening of a study she wrote two years ago, one born from her passion for the Trenton arts community.

The study was no easy task and involved archival research, focus groups, surveys, and interviews with former War Memorial directors and current staff, city planners, elected state and city officials, and the managers of performing art venues in Philadelphia, Prince­ton, Trenton, and Newark.

Her idea was to analyze the needs of both the building and community audiences and to “help ascertain whether the Trenton War Memorial and performing arts centers of its scale can survive today and in the future.”

With a new state administration, Benson’s overview of the ups and downs of one of the state’s great cultural buildings is a timely and important conversation starter. Here are excerpts from Benson’s study:

A study is born

In 2013, at the International Society of the Performing Arts Congress, I witnessed Karen Brooks-Hopkins, then president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), speak about the role of BAM in transforming Brooklyn. When developers build in the Fort Greene area, they know they must invest in BAM.

President John F. Kennedy spoke from steps of the War Memorial to support Richard Hughes’ 1961 gubernatorial campaign. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Library.

Private developers literally make financial contributions to BAM, and some top leaders of their companies may become board members or volunteers in another capacity at BAM. In fact, BAM’s reputation has been so persuasive that the Brooklyn, Fort Greene redevelopment plan was called, “The BAM Redevelopment Plan.”

After hearing Brooks-Hopkins speak, I wondered if the Trenton War Memorial had the capacity to do something similar in Trenton, albeit on a smaller scale. Leadership and political will would be required for such an effort.

Over the years I looked to deepen my contribution to and understanding of the Trenton War Memorial (TWM). I desired to possibly create a “Friends of” nonprofit to support the TWM but wanted to know the sustainability of the venue first. Was a “Friends of” investment worth it, realistically? I found myself in a position where I needed additional time to conduct research, and enrolling in the master’s program at Drexel University made this possible. This time and research has proved valuable since a feasibility study or market demand analysis have not been completed since the 1990s, a state government request for proposals from the private sector to manage the War Memorial failed, and the government seems to have run out of options, leaving the War Memorial as a white elephant of sorts.
The birth of a building

In the early 1920s there was community interest among key stakeholders to create a performing arts center to replace the Taylor Opera House. This impetus for the War Memorial’s creation was initiated in 1924 by the then-Mayor of Trenton, Frederick Donnelly. He conceptualized the idea for a civic center to commemorate the local veterans who fought in World War I.

Donnelly appointed a citizens’ committee to plan the memorial. The committee became the War Memorial Commission (a commission of nine members: two City of Trenton representatives, two Mercer County government representatives, and five laymen).
A public fundraising campaign started Friday, November 4, 1927, and ended a week later. Contributions ranged from 25 cents to $25,000 from Siegfried Roebling, which he later doubled, then tripled. The total amount raised was $418,853. The funding also included $87,000 in pennies raised from contributions made by school children throughout New Jersey.

The architecture firm of William A. Klemann was hired, and Louis S. Kaplan became lead architect. On July 17, 1930, ground was finally broken for the site. The cost of construction rose to about $922,000. The city and county governments contributed $250,000 each (some sources note $235,000 each) by issuing bonds and as noted above the remainder was raised from public contributions and thus inherent co-ownership.

On January 19, 1932, the War Memorial was officially dedicated to honor the lives of veterans from the area who fought in World War I. The following year a bill was passed to set up the partnership between the city and county government to finance the War Memorial. For quite some time the Trenton War Memorial was operated by the War Memorial Commission composed of both city and county officials, as well as community members.

In 1933 legendary performances began to happen. On February 5, 1933, Ignacy Paderewski gave a piano recital of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10. In the subsequent years additional renowned performances included John Legend, BB King, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, Bruce Springsteen, and a series of Tyler Perry’s plays. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Truman spoke from the War Memorial steps. Performances not only included concerts, but plays as well, including Broadway and off-Broadway shows and shows by the top student theater companies of Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania.

(Courtesy artist Eric Fowler)

Through the years

In 1962 the War Memorial celebrated 30 years of performances with a concert. In this 30-year time span from 1932 to 1962, the War Memorial hosted 18,941 events for 3,826,323 people.

Despite the frequent performances, the building became deteriorated. Requests were put in for building upgrades, and in 1980 air conditioning and new stage lighting was installed.

In the 1970s and ’80s the county and city governments begin to feud over who would run and pay for the War Memorial. In the mid 1980s the city saw its portion of funding for the War Memorial as a burden.

Around the same time Assemblyman John Watson drafted a bill for a state government takeover of the War Memorial, and War Memorial commission member (and Mercer County Chamber of Commerce president) Edward Meara recommended a small group of local officials approach Governor Thomas Kean’s administration to gauge interest and see if they would be receptive to taking it over.

On January 12, 1988, Governor Kean urged the state to both own and operate the War Memorial. This effort was hailed by both Trenton Mayor Arthur Holland and Mercer County Executive Bill Mathesius.

On August 31, 1988, the War Memorial ownership transferred from the city and county governments to the state. This transfer of ownership was a lease agreement. The next day Kean signed the bill for the takeover, pledging $3 million.

An independent consultant who later became the assistant secretary of the state treasury, (former McCarter Theater managing director) Alison Harris, produced a business plan recommending that a nonprofit entity be created to run the programming and operations. Renovations were also recommended.

The promised face lift began under former Governor Christie Todd Whitman’s watch in 1994. This was when the funding appropriation for the restoration was passed. From 1994 to 1999 the restoration and renovation project took place. The total cost of the renovations was $33,586,014.

On March 7, 1999, the War Memorial reopened with a concert led by the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra. A year or so later the War Memorial presented more acts than McCarter.

Budget blues

During the 2002-’03 season,the War Memorial ran a $450,000 deficit. From 1999 to 2003 the state invested $2.4 million into the War Memorial’s operations. In 2003 the McGreevey administration initially allocated $535,000 for the War Memorial but later froze the funds to help close other state government budget deficits.

Since the re-opening, the War Memorial struggled in attracting audiences to the facility and making it pay for itself. It was at this point the War Memorial staff proposed a bill to provide the War Memorial with presenting authority.

The first show presented in partnership with a promoter was popular singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. Tickets were $37.50, and half the tickets sold out in the first week. With the new presenting law in place, the War Memorial staff also received $250,000 as seed money to start presenting shows. However, the budget allocated from the state government significantly decreased. As a result rental rates were increased to make up for this shortfall. This increase included a higher fee for rehearsals and new charges for lighting, audio equipment, and security.

In 2004 the Patriot’s Theater Foundation was created to be a more autonomous nonprofit entity that supported both presenting and arts education initiatives. The mission was to present a broad range of cultural experiences for the communities served and develop audiences for the future. Through partnerships with the Trenton public schools and charter school students, the Patriot’s Theater Foundation aimed to provide performance experiences for every student in the Trenton schools.

In 2007 the War Memorial celebrated its 75th anniversary. In 2008 there was tension that mounted over the years between the leader of the War Memorial and state officials. Archival research appears to suggest that the executive director stepped down due to this tension.

It can be inferred that, in time, the task of owning and operating the Trenton War Memorial became burdensome to the state and the state (at the start of the Christie Administration in 2010) published a request for information to seek bids from the private sector to manage the venue.

On February 22, 2011, the governor’s fiscal year 2012 budget was published and noted an estimated $750,000 would be saved by replacing current staff with a private promoter/operator and that the name change from War Memorial to Veterans Memorial Arts Center was recommended.

In 2011 a request for information was published to solicit interest from the private sector. And in 2012 Comcast Spectacor (the entity that runs the CURE Arena in Trenton) won the bid. The company entered into negotiations with the state and requested to be paid at least $1 million a year to run the War Memorial (the same level subsidy that the county was paying them to run the arena). The state replied that there was a zero line item in budget, as the state’s intent was to offload the expense of $750,000, not step it up to $1,000,000 or more. The agreement never came to fruition.

Where do we go now?

Today the State Museum oversees the venue, with several of its employees managing both the War Memorial and the State Museum auditorium.

In order for the War Memorial to be sustainable over time, the nonprofit model would be the best option moving forward.

Nonprofit entities that are held in the public trust are able to finance their programming, operations, and facilities costs via a mixture of earned revenue and contributed income. As nonprofits they also do not have to pay a corporation tax or pay sales tax on items that they purchase using their tax exemption certificate. This positions these entities well to meet the complex business models and pressures that are inherent in performing arts centers.

Practical steps

Creating the nonprofit entity and associated policies and procedures; negotiating with the Department of State; creation of initial marketing materials; securing pledges of a minimum of $2 million; hiring initial staff; creating and executing a memorandum of understanding between the nonprofit entity and the Department of State.

Here are nine more recommended steps (most of which should be done concurrently with the others):

  1. Organizational restructure with the focus based on customer experience. The War Memorial is also in a unique position having only two staff members. This means that the entire staff structure could be examined, innovated, and designed to reflect the needs of experience rather than a hierarchical structure.
  2. Restoring market demand. Assess the market, then produce and distribute marketing materials to complement fundraising efforts.
  3. Raise adequate funding resources. Prospect research can start with nearby organizations and similar organizations both statewide and nationwide can be gathered (both performing arts organizations and veterans organizations) and fundraising should begin with the goal to raise pledges of $2 million.
  4. Building political will. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with state government should be created with roles, ownership, and responsibilities well defined, and relationships should be cultivated with local, state, and national political officials.
  5. Fostering and recruiting leadership. Strong, transparent leadership is essential for the War Memorial to move forward, positions should be well defined, and recruited employees should reflect excellence in leadership regardless of their position. Processes and policies should also be in place for both internal and external communications and reporting structure.
  6. Creating and implementing an artistic plan. A four-year artistic plan should be created with a mixture of genres and disciplines that respond to the following areas: international, community inspired, immersive, and tech-based.
  7. Facility maintenance and repairs. First and foremost, the facility needs required maintenance done and maintained. Leaky roofs must be repaired, along with the steps, railing, and some seating. Secondly, options to rent out the facility to community members, companies, government agencies, arts groups, and other civic groups should be explored. Accessibility improvements must also be made, particularly getting the freight elevator working again.
  8. Brand/identity promotion. The name must be secured along with the associated copyright and trademark rights. Institutional marketing plan for two years should be developed, including media that focuses on the rich history of the War Memorial and its current place in its role to further economic development and tourism in Trenton and present meaningful, memorable performing arts experiences. Print, web, and social media coverage with targeted advertisements are necessary.
  9. Tracking and measuring improvements to Trenton’s image and economy. This effort can also be tied to the brand/identity, promoting Trenton as a destination for the performing arts and civic engagement.

The Trenton War Memorial is Trenton’s treasure of a performing arts center and will require these steps and their support to move forward and not become a relic of the past. Preservation will require market demand, political will, funding resources, strong leadership, and breaking convention.

If the community/state government aims to preserve the War Memorial there should be an immediate capital campaign to fix the hole in the roof, shaky railings, and broken seats.
In order for such a campaign to be in place, there needs to be an entity established to accept the funds, preferably a nonprofit or nonprofit fiscal sponsor.

Rental rates also need to be restructured to account for the current realities of the situation and to open up increased access for the community. Programming from rentals should be marketed aggressively to increase the audience. A request for information/request for proposals should be released at some point for a non-profit entity to manage operations, and the state should come up with a process to streamline payment processes for facility repair and other expenses.

Once operations begin to improve the War Memorial can play a vital role as a place for community, citizen engagement, and economic development in Trenton.
In the long-term operations at the War Memorial can provide jobs, a stage for performance, memorable experiences, and a reason to visit, stay, and shop in the city of Trenton.

About the writer

Marisa N. Benson’s professional and academic background includes her current position as grants manager for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and past activities as a member of the International Internship Program at Princeton University and cultural program specialist for the U.S. Department of State.

In addition to being a board member of Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum, she has produced festivals and cultural events in various New Jersey locations, including Trenton; presented the multi-year Trenton series ArtsSpeaks and ArtsTechNJ; and manages the Mercer County Teen Arts Festival. She is also a practicing spoken world/rap artist.

She also provides consulting services for small and mid-sized arts organizations within the U.S.A., Africa, Latin America, and Middle East, and was recently selected to by the European Festival Association to participate in their atelier program held in South Africa.

Raised by two parents employed by the state, Benson, a Ewing resident, holds a master’s of science degree in arts management from Drexel University and a bachelor of science in diplomacy and international relations from Seton Hall University.

The Art

The War Memorial cartoon is by former Trenton artist Eric Fowler who captured many of the city’s buildings in paintings and drawings. Now based in New York City, he kindly allowed his work to be included in the article. His website is ericfowlerstudio.com.