The shows must go on, and with people like Arden Gild Hall’s Ron Ozer they will

Do you know how you can tell which people in this crowd are from Arden?” my friend Jodi asked. She was visiting from Lancaster, Pa., and we were chatting after the opener for the Sinkane concert at the Arden Gild Hall.

“How?” I asked, curious to know.

“Practical shoes,” she answered. “People who live here walk to the concerts.”

Looking around at all the feet in the room, including my own pair of Merrells, I saw that she was right. I had been coming to concerts in Arden since before we moved there in 2013. When we lived in Pennsylvania, it had been worth the hour-plus drive down to attend what felt like a secret music society. So much so, that when the time came to move for my husband’s job, we chose Arden over other, closer burbs because we liked having the arts within walking distance and wanted to have those who appreciated the arts as neighbors.

One of those neighbors is Ron Ozer, who was recently recognized by Delaware Online and The News Journal as one of the Most Influential Delawareans in the area of arts and entertainment. He chairs the Arden Concert Gild with a fervor that borders on obsession. Before COVID, he attended 125 concerts a year (counting festivals by the days attended rather than acts seen) to scout out possible talent for the nearly 20-concert season at The Arden Gild Hall plus the Shady Grove Music Festival and the stage at The Arden Fair.

Ron Ozer was instrumental in the lobbying efforts that resulted in $15 billion being committed by the federal government to help independent venues survive COVID. Photo by Joe del Tufo.

This wide sampling of music up and down the East Coast is evident in the Arden Concert Gild’s lineups, considered to be the most eclectic in the area. In a typical season, pilgrims to the Arden Gild Hall (on foot or by car) can experience a glut of styles — from world music and blues to electronic and folk.

Those who attend concerts at the converted barn will attest to the warmth of both the audiences and the quality of the sound. There is something about all that wood embracing the vibrations — it’s like the Ryman Auditorium in that regard. Add to it the fact that all the concerts are run by a merry band of volunteers, gives the feeling you have bypassed slick commerciality for something truer — the love of music. My first impressions are still right; it does feel like you’ve stumbled upon a secret society (though gone are the days when saying, “Ardenistas,” at the bar would get you a knowing nod and a free bottle of Dogfish Head).

Then came March 2020. COVID. Before we knew all the particulars of our future sacrifices, we knew we could no longer gather in large groups. Concerts were the first casualties of political edicts. Suddenly, being a music venue outlier, operating outside of the music industry machine, felt very much like being a lone puppy without the protection of the wolfpack.

For the Arden Concert Gild, the cancellation of the concert season had even more consequences. For the last several years, The Arden Concert Gild supplied close to 30% of the yearly revenue for The Arden Club, an umbrella group for many cultural gilds (Shakespeare, Dinner, Library, Folk Dancing, Scholars, etc) in the Ardens and the regional community. The bulk of the rest of the club’s yearly income came from Arden Fair, hall rentals, and Arden dinners — three more streams of income lost to the virus. All of Arden’s longtime cultural pursuits were at risk. 

Enter Ron Ozer. Ozer earned his Most Influential Delawarean status by bringing world-class musicians to our state, but the article announcing this accolade didn’t mentioned the work he has done in response to COVID. Arden Club officers quickly realized that with the club’s continued operating expenses, they would need to find alternate sources of financing.  Since Ozer was well-practiced in writing grants for concerts, he got to work.

While Arden Club treasurer Steven Curley obtained PPP loans to pay staff, Ozer wrote several grants that secured funding to buy a two-camera video computer system with the goal of live-streaming concerts. In early September 2020, with said new equipment, the Arden Concert Gild presented a virtual 75th birthday concert by Wilmington musician David Bromberg, selling over a thousand tickets worldwide and making good money for both Bromberg and The Arden Club. These are noteworthy local contributions, to be sure, but Ozer’s commitment to the music scene goes beyond that of a player with state-level sway to someone who is now brandishing national influence.

Photo by Joe del Tufo.

In May, Hal Real of World Café Live, asked Ozer to join the lobbying group NIVA (National Independent Venues Association) that he had co-founded in April. Real specifically asked Ozer to be the Delaware Precinct Captain. Delaware is a small state, but it has big influence in the form of Senator Chris Coons. Ozer’s lobbying of Coons effectively got the Senator to back NIVA’s proposed relief bill, and that support was instrumental in getting senators from other states to fall in line. In the end, NIVA secured 15 billion dollars in funding for small, independent venues. To put that in perspective, 15 billion is 50 times the yearly operating budgets of the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities. Now, Ozer has moved on to a position of outreach, searching out those venues who may not have known about the aid, getting them to join NIVA which will then, in turn, support them through the process of applying for those funds.

Simultaneous to these efforts, Ozer applied for and received year-end grants through the state’s CARES funding which have taken The Arden Club beyond subsistence-level worries to a position of planning for the future with secure financial footing.  Arden Club President Pat Toman sums it up, “Ron Ozer’s passion for live performance is unmatched, as is his dedication to helping the Arden Club survive. His tireless contributions, along with the tremendous support of others within the community, ensure that everything the Arden Club and the gilds have brought to the community throughout the years continues past our current challenges.”

The Arden Concert Gild is currently putting holds on artists for concerts as early as September 2021, though it is unclear whether that is a realistic timeline. But the question of When will we experience live music locally? feels manageable compared to wondering if we will have that experience again. When the day comes that The Arden Gild Hall opens its doors to its first post-COVID concert, I will walk there, wearing my Merrills and sharing in the gratitude for the folks who made it happen.