The Many Arts Of Atlantic Highlands

April 20, 2018
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The Atlantic Highlands Arts Council recently moved to a larger space at 54 First Ave., where patrons can buy cards, gifts and prints by local artists. In the council’s boutique are president Sally Stopper, left, and exhibits coordinator Caroline Northrop. Photo by Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen

By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen |

ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – There’s a lot of culture packed into this small town and much of it can be found on First Avenue.

The First Avenue Playhouse, 123 First Ave., is a community theater about to celebrate its 30th anniversary of performing comedies, musicals and original work by local playwrights. The Playhouse partners with Kunya Siam Thai restaurant, a block from the theater, to offer a dinner theater package. Dessert is offered to all theatergoers at the Playhouse.

The Paper Moon Puppet Theatre has been using classical marionette, hand, shadow and rod puppets to entertain children and adults since 1989. It shares space with the Playhouse where they also mentor schools that create their own puppet shows with troubleshooting sessions.

The artwork of lifelong Monmouth County resident Andree Benoist, one of four artists being featured this month’s mixed-media show “What’s the Matter?,” is hung by exhibition coordina- tor Caroline Northrop. The show runs through April 24. Photo by Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen

The 10th annual FilmOneFest, which showcases films under two minutes, currently is looking for entries forits 2018 festival scheduled for Saturday, July 21. About 2,500 people gather for this free outdoor event at the base of First Avenue to watch 50 films that, through the years, have come from the United States and more than 60 countries.

The Atlantic Cinemas movie theater, 82 First Ave., is a landmark in town. It offers first-run films, such as “Ready Player One” and “Chappaquiddick.” April 22 there will be a screening of the 1959 film “Some Like it Hot” to raise money for the Atlantic Highlands Ladies Fire Department Auxiliary. For $30, including lunch, viewers can watch this American classic starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis that was voted the No. 1 comedy film by the American Film Institute in the year 2000.

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Making the community stronger in various ways through the arts is a theme here.

“Our mission is bringing communities together through free access to the arts and we certainly do that with this event,” said Corinna Thuss, a founder, along with Robert O’Connor, of FilmOneFest. “Atlantic Highlands, the individuals, businesses and administration have all come together to support this fabulous event.”

The Atlantic Highlands Arts Council, among other things, offers summer camps; classes in creating comics, comedy improvisation, musical theater, collage technique, painting, toy mold making, arts and crafts, printmaking, framing and filmmaking and an open studio after school are all free. The monthly Mercuryan Fest series, founded by a high school student, features short films, performance arts and indie, punk and experimental bands for free or $5.

Adult artists no longer have to pay to enter their art in exhibitions that rotate monthly at the Arts Council. Adults can also get help on their latest artwork Saturdays mornings, listen or play chamber music Saturday afternoons, and practice speaking Italian on Thursdays.

“Our goal is to bring art to the community and give the artist some exposure,” said Sally Stopper, the council’s president. “It’s 50/50.

“The most fun thing we do are the art exhibits, like the one we’re putting up now,” she said about the show called “What’s the Matter?”, a mixed-media exhibition featuring local and New York City artists Alicia Benoist, Andree Benoist, Phyllis Biondolillo and Russell Dian who work in ceramics, water colors, acrylics and photography. It opened Saturday and runs through April 24 at the gallery at 54 First Ave.

The council moved to its current location 14 months ago.

“There was a lot less interest in us then,” Stopper said. “When we had shows, not counting board members, maybe seven or eight people showed up. And we might sell a $10 print.”

In the new space, openings attract about 100 people and sales have increased. The council, a nonprofit organization, gets a percentage of each sale.

“Sales are important to us,” Stopper said. “It’s a lot of work for artists, a big investment for them to do a show, with framing and transportation.

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“So if an artist goes home at the end of the month and hasn’t had a sale, I feel like we’ve really let them down,” she said. “Now we’re actually selling artwork and that’s good for the artists.

Photo by Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen

“After we pay the rent, we put the rest back into the community,” Stopper said.

But a bigger space brings bigger problems. She wanted to create a splash for the opening of the new gallery in February 2017.

“The space cost a lot of money and we’re all volunteers,” she explained. “We needed to raise money. We needed to get more attention. And we got lucky.”

She booked Michael Malpass (1946-1991), a Brick Township-based sculptor known for his large, intricate spheres forged and welded from discarded metal. His widow, Cathleen Malpass, maintains a gallery of his work in his former studio.

“We had almost a million dollars’ worth of his art here and it was absolutely thrilling,” Stopper said. Although transporting it in cars and vans driven by council volunteers up the Garden State Parkway was nervewracking, she added. “We also had a Jon Peter show last year (artist/furniture designer/builder and an owner of the Laurel Tracey Gallery, Red Bank). He has a nice following. Those two shows were a nice kickoff for us.”

Caroline Northrop, the exhibits coordinator and art teacher at the Atlantic Highlands Elementary School, credits Stopper with the council’s growth during her two years as president.

“She won’t say this, but Sally was an integral part of getting this beautiful gallery space,” Northrop said as she hammered hooks into the walls to hang artwork. “And she’s also responsible for our marketing, which we never really had before.

“She puts beautiful receptions together for us that are like nice, sophisticated, cosmopolitan events that draw the largest crowds we’ve ever had,” she said.

Both Stopper and Northrop said they hope the increased interest in the council and its new space will encourage people to join its board and volunteer six to eight hours a week.

“Board members are expected to be hands-on, to be active,” Northrop said. “I do the exhibits, but I also teach classes and manage the volunteers and the gallery space. Coming into this new space put more pressure on us and there’s more work.”

For more information, call 732-291-1260 or visit

This article was first published in the April 19-26, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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