The Count Basie Center for the Arts (The Basie) is New Jersey’s premier center for the cultural arts, dedicated to fostering powerful, inclusive artistic experiences and creative exchange of ideas. The Basie’s mission is to inspire, educate and entertain through its distinct and engaging cultural and artistic offerings that reflect the diversity of the region.
When most people hear the name Count Basie Center for the Arts, they envision the beautiful, historic theater, but it is so much more. As a nonprofit organization, The Basie is committed to enriching the community’s quality of life by generating opportunities for participation in the arts, partnering with schools, collaborating with other mission-based organizations and driving regional economic prosperity.
Serving the Community During a Pandemic
It was Friday the 13th in March of 2020 and Tony Bennett took the stage at The Basie. All was right inside the theater that night. Even as the COVID-19 news was getting worse and hitting closer to home, no one thought that this could be the last concert for the year. The next day, an artist who was scheduled for a 5pm concert had cancelled. One by one, cancellations were coming in for the rest of March and April…then May and June. As the team looked into the fall schedule, they knew it wasn’t going to happen in the traditional sense. With guidelines changing by the minute, it wasn’t easy to shift plans on a dime as there was so much involved in setting up performances.
At a somber board meeting last May, future possibilities were discussed but one thing was certain – the doors were not going to remain closed permanently. Adam Philipson, CEO and President of Count Basie Center for the Arts said, “We know the power the arts have on mental health and now, more than ever, we need the arts for long-term healing. ” The show must go on, and it did.
Adam, the staff and board members knew they had to go all virtual with as many offerings as possible. Classes, shows, award ceremonies, talent searches – all happened virtually and gave the community a space to enjoy creativity, feel safe and most importantly, feel like they were collectively a part of something again.
As the months went on and the guidelines for indoor gatherings were not changing, The Basie team sat in the trenches and wrote their own playbook on how they could continue living their mission while staying and keeping others healthy.
The Basie isn’t a stranger to tough times and learning how to adapt. When Superstorm Sandy hit, The Basie’s first question was, “how can we be an asset to the community?” They used their space as a charging and warming station and offered free movies to bring some relief in a time of crisis. And today, during the global pandemic, it is no different except now, The Basie is suffering right along with the rest of the world. They decided to change the narrative and used their marquee to showcase inspirational messages, quickly becoming a beacon of hope.
The Basie team stayed on top of the CDC instructions and found ways to creatively host events while adhering to the guidelines. They safely staged the largest drive-in concert in the country with over 900 cars of people in attendance! They also began an outdoor summer concert series that together with the Drive Ins saw nearly 40,000 people come through by the end of the season. It was clear – people were hungry to have a moment of normalcy again.
Adam was inspired by all who continued to show up to the concerts. He knew that if they could keep bringing the arts and entertainment safely to the community while staying within the CDC guidelines, people would be there time and time again.
In October, Adam and his crew figured out how to open a new venue in the Grunin Education building called The Vogel, using part of the Count Basie Center for the Arts campus. The Vogel held 150 people who could safely sit 6 feet apart at tables. They hosted more than 70 sold out shows. Nothing seemed to stop The Basie team from finding new ways to bring the arts to the community. They created a second, 150-seat venue with more sold-out shows. As Adam said, “If you do it right and do it safely, people will come back and stay healthy.”
Last summer, The Basie opened an outdoor venue but they were constantly fighting the weather. This year, they have a beautiful, outdoor, but covered, concert space at Suneagles Golf Course in Monmouth County. So far, they have booked 70 shows and sold almost 20,000 tickets. They hope to have 100 shows this summer.
Today, they are thinking about taking down the pop-up stage in the historic theater to make more room as restrictions ease up. As we move towards the days of zero capacity limits, Adam and his team will continue to work on sustainability and keeping the arts alive at The Basie. Adam is so proud of his team and board of directors who are always strategically thinking and working to figure out the next steps and how to get to the next level. As Adam said, “Whatever comes our way, we will be ready to inspire, entertain and educate.”
We look forward to the day when The Basie can be back to full capacity; however, they have done an incredible job pushing through the challenges and getting creative to make it work. Visit the Count Basie Center for the Arts website to learn more and stay up-to-date on their shows and programs!