Bob Kull will be the first to tell you, it isn’t always easy getting audiences to come out to the historic church venue, the 1867 Sanctuary at Ewing. As a volunteer events manager, Kull, a retired environmental planner, seems to do yeoman’s job of promoting the historic church and performance venue on Scotch Road, not far from the Mercer County Airport in Ewing Township.
He uses a combination of Facebook, emails, the venue’s website, and good old fashioned paid print advertising to get the word out about concerts here.
His wife, Helen, who works at the College of New Jersey, is also involved at the nonprofit performing arts facility.
“In February, we will have completed four years of concerts in this space under Preservation New Jersey,” says Kull during a recent interview, “and we’re thrilled about that.”
Preservation New Jersey is a nonprofit organization founded in 1978 that advocates for and assists New Jerseyans in the preservation of historic buildings and sites. As it says on its website, “Until 2010, Preservation New Jersey had never been directly involved in the preservation of a bricks-and-mortar building. Stewardship of the 1867 Sanctuary offered PNJ the opportunity for a ‘hands-on’ preservation project.”
Getting healthy crowds out for all shows is a difficult goal — not everyone likes chamber music, or classical, or jazz — but, “by and large, we’re trending in the right direction,” Kull says. “Some people say it can take five or six years, other people say it takes longer, but we’re hopeful about continuing to build new audiences.”
Kull says the first concert at the historic church was held Thanksgiving weekend, 2015, when they held a community-wide Thanksgiving service that was both secular and sacred.
“In December of 2015 we had different types of bands, and we found out what the acoustics were like. We found out the only kind of performance that doesn’t work here is hard rock,” he says, noting the distortion on guitars and basses is just too much.
“It’s not a matter of volume; it’s a matter of tones,” Kull says, adding that jazz, folk music, and softer rock groups have worked out in the venue.
Heady with success from their initial efforts, Kull says, “We continued to do community events and the concert series formally began in February, 2016, with Jerry Rife’s Blue Skies Band.” Kull describes Blue Skies as a band who perform New Orleans-flavored, country, and Americana tunes.
Since they began a dedicated program of bookings in 2016, 2017, and 2018, Kull says word has gotten out about 1867 Sanctuary — locally, regionally, and internationally.
“We’ve found great demand from performers to play here. They love the acoustics, they’re able to hear themselves well, and they have an audience that is attentive. Even though it looks like a church, we try to keep the vibe informal,” Kull says, adding they encourage performers to talk, tell stories, and take time introducing each tune.
Like the Record Collector in Bordentown, which serves no alcohol, the 1867 Sanctuary serves coffee, tea, snacks, water, and juices. Sound is indeed exquisite in the church. In fact, the acoustics are so good inside the 1867 Sanctuary that two albums have been recorded there. Trumpet player Danny Tobias recorded a live album at the venue and the Jack Furlong Quartet recorded its album, “Opportunity” here — sans audience — over the course of four nights.
Anyone who works in jazz, as a club owner, a player, a booking agent, and most especially vocalists, will tell you, jazz can be a tough sell.
But Kull and his wife, Helen, and others involved at the Sanctuary have forged a path in the jazz world. They say their biggest draws include Bucks County piano player and composer Eric Mintel and his quartet, trumpeter Tobias, baritone saxophonist Furlong, Brazilian jazz specialist Luiz Simas, bassist Alec Hile, and the Paris Jazz Combo. Kull and others are looking forward to a March Sanctuary show with renowned jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini.
Kull says the venue is also becoming known to contemporary folk singer-songwriters — some as far away as Australia. And the venue has hosted local Irish-born singers Helen O’Shea and Fiona Tyndall, classical musicians from Italy, and singers and songwriters from Canada, Argentina, and Australia.
While musicians come from around the globe, Kull was born and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, and majored in environmental science and policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He got his masters in regional planning from Rutgers in New Brunswick. He and Helen are part of the Voices Chorale and have been in Ewing Township since 1976. He worked in planning and environmental planning for the State of New Jersey and for Burlington and Mercer counties.
Helen is on the staff in the Biology Department at TCNJ, where she assists students looking to go on to medical school. A graduate of Beaver College, now Arcadia University, in Glenside, Pennsylvania, she did additional work for her masters in environmental science at Rutgers University.
Kull’s father was a mechanical engineer and his mother was a housewife. Helen’s was a surgeon and her mother was a housewife.
“My career as a professional planner in the environmental area led me to working with communities, people, and what they wanted to do,” he says. He was also involved in setting up America’s Scenic Byways program in New Jersey.
Now retired from his time with the state and Burlington and Mercer counties, Kull has time to devote to programming concerts and a range of other arts-related activities for surrounding communities.
Talking again of community programming and audience development, Kull says, “We have a monthly open mic and a monthly poetry cafe organized by Todd Evans. We have a lot of student recitals for piano and voice, we support the community with weddings, memorial services, bar mitzvahs, and history lectures.”
As far as their audiences, who are invited to sign up for Sanctuary’s e-mailed newsletters, they come mostly from Mercer, Middlesex, Hunterdon, and Monmouth counties as well as from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Patrons tend to be people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, “So we’re trying to grow our college audiences with $5 cover charge events,” says Kull.
The audiences are as diverse as the people that make up Mercer, Bucks, Middlesex, and Monmouth counties.
In April the Sanctuary will host its third annual Young Talents World Festival of Performing Arts for chamber musicians from 6 to 30 years old.
“It’s a very high-powered chamber music event we have here, and our venue was chosen because of the acoustics here.”
Kull, who attends church across the street at the Presbyterian Church of Ewing, said the challenges of presenting so much programming at the venue are significant, but he and Helen and a team of dedicated volunteers press on.
To keep the Sanctuary — which seats 200 patrons comfortably — on an even financial keel, costs of about $5,000 a month must be met. Heating has been a significant challenge. In past years, the heat bill at the church could run as high as $3,000 a month, just for concert nights.
“We don’t get any sustaining support from any organization at this point, so everything we do is from fundraising, but over the summertime we were able to make some changes in our heating and AC systems,” he said.
“The church is in pretty constant use now, so we lower the temperature between events but try to keep it a relatively stable temperature so we don’t have to retune the piano, organ, or the harpsichord.”
Since the seating consists of pews designed for people in 1867, not 2019, all concerts have an intermission where the audience can get up, talk amongst themselves, walk around, and stretch their legs.
Most months they get 500 people in the seats, he says, but the venue is looking to grow even more.
“The artists who perform here have said such wonderful things about the place, even when I’m not looking,” Kull says. “They tell other musicians about how nice it is to play here, so they’re willing to abide by us as we try to build more of an audience because they’re generally not getting paid as much as they should be, but they accept that as part of supporting the efforts here to keep this going as a venue.”
1867 Sanctuary, 101 Scotch Road, Ewing. $5 to $20. 609-392-6409 or www.1867sancturary.org.
Upcoming shows include: Independence String Ensemble, Saturday, February 1, 2 p.m. Debra Devi, Language of the Blues Talk and Band, Saturday, February 1, 8 p.m.; and Luiz Simas, Brazilian Jazz, Sunday, February 2, 2 p.m.