Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater may finally be realizing its potential. The storied music venue is transforming itself into a multidisciplinary performing-arts center with global reach that could rival such competitors as New York City Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the past year, the theater, best known for its Amateur Night, has doubled its programming—presenting hip-hop festivals and salon series, and producing a major dance work highlighting James Brown’s influence on choreographers around the world. Now the Apollo is planning its first international tour and developing a theater initiative.
“We’re trying to make the Apollo once again a dynamic contributor to global culture, as it was in the past,” said board Chairman Richard Parsons, who recently opened a restaurant and jazz club nearby. “In the 22nd century, we want people to say, ‘The Apollo is a place where stars are born and legends are made.’”
The changes come as the historic house on West 125th Street, once a center of popular culture, turns 80. Executives and the board have been working to figure out how to revitalize the establishment, which launched the careers of such major stars as Billie Holiday and Michael Jackson but has since languished in the public’s consciousness.
A major capital campaign and theater renovation stalled during the recession, with the Apollo Theater Foundation raising $54 million of a planned $96 million, putting the campaign—and initiatives such as the lobby’s renovation—on hold. Now, instead of spending a bundle to upgrade as a way to bring in crowds, as so many arts institutions do, the Apollo has decided to make new programming its main attraction.
Last month, the nonprofit announced a different fundraising effort, the 21st Century Apollo Campaign, to raise $20 million, mostly for programming. Half the funds have been raised to date. Jonelle Procope, the Apollo’s chief executive, said $15 million will go toward large-scale programming, $4 million will create the nonprofit’s first-ever reserve, and $1 million will be for small-scale capital improvements, such as new sound equipment.
Ms. Procope, who quit the Apollo board to run the organization in 2003, said the programming expansion wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago because the theater was just trying to survive. Since she came on, Ms. Procope has worked to expand the board and hire a strong management team, including Mikki Shepard, the theater’s first executive producer. In the past five years, the Apollo has had a balanced and growing budget after years of deficits.
“To be able to focus on content and an artistic vision is a byproduct of all the work we did to right the ship,” said Ms. Procope, who was previously an entertainment lawyer.
The Apollo is clearly on an upward trajectory. The momentum has re-energized the nonprofit, attracting wealthy new board members such as Ronald Perelman and Paul Tudor Jones. Overall, there are 30 trustees now, up from 24 in 2009.
Mr. Perelman joined the board in 2009 after attending an Apollo gala in honor of his friend Quincy Jones. Since then, he has hosted an annual August fundraiser for the theater at his home in the Hamptons that has become one of the biggest social events of the summer. Last year, more than 250 people attended the fete, which raised $3 million, up from $2.5 million in 2012.
“Ten years ago, you never thought of the Apollo,” said Mr. Perelman, who brought on Mr. Tudor Jones last year. “But when I went to that gala, the feeling and pace and energy of the Apollo was so vibrant, I tapped Dick Parsons on the shoulder and asked how to get on the board.”
The board’s support has helped the Apollo increase its annual operating budget to $13.2 million this year from $8.1 million in 2009. Executives expect it to jump to $16 million by 2016.
Currently, 40% of the budget comes from earned income, and 60% is contributed. Executives expect the breakdown to become 50-50 as the theater ramps up its offerings and tours.
The Apollo’s first international tour ever, of the dance production James Brown: Get on the Good Foot, will kick off in February 2015 and will visit Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg. The show opened at the Apollo last October and is now touring nationally.
“We’re looking at activating the brand globally,” said Ms. Shepard.
That may be an easy sell. Some 45%, of the 60,000 people who attended Amateur Night at the Apollo last year were tourists, and the theater estimates that roughly half of those tourists traveled from outside the country.
Supporters of the Apollo say the institution is making all the right moves.
“People don’t come to see the interior architecture; they come to see the programming,” said Ken Knuckles, chief executive of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, which has given the Apollo $2.7 million over the past four years. “It’s the programming that is going to be the strongest magnet for people coming to the Apollo, and it will make it relevant again” (source).