Some of the world’s greatest performers have taken the stage at Newark Symphony Hall – the Metropolitan Opera, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis and the Rolling Stones to name just a few. But the century-old venue in the heart of downtown Newark has seen better days, and Taneshia Nash Laird is in charge of returning it to glory.
Nash Laird is the president and CEO of NSH and is overseeing a five-year, $50 million renovation project and the fundraising to make it all happen. She recently spoke with NJBIZ about the project, how the pandemic is challenging the arts community here and around the country and where the new NSH will fit in the modern Newark.
“One of the things that I’ve been hearing is that other than us in Newark there is the New Jersey Performing Arts Center — I’m just talking about the elephant in the room – there is the Prudential Center. Those are both beautiful, amazing places … but neither one of those venues existed when Newark symphony hall was built,” she said. “And I’m from New York originally so I’m going to confess that I’m not a native New Jerseyan. The Prudential Center reminds me of Madison square Garden and NJPAC reminds me of Lincoln Center and Newark Symphony Hall is Carnegie Hall. And I think we all work together.”
What follows is an abridged version of the discussion. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity. The full interview is available here.
NJBIZ: I was interested in talking to you now, because Newark Symphony Hall within the past few days released some renderings of exterior renovations that will be taking place. It’s a big project and I want to talk a lot about that. But before we get to that I’m interested in hearing how you’re getting along in the during the pandemic. Arts organizations, venues like yours have faced some really serious challenges, how are you doing and what are you doing?
Taneshia Nash Laird: Well, listen, we are trying to be resilient. We lost 100% of our earned income and it’s sort of how you expect losing 100% of your earned income would be. So most weeks we are planning our virtual programming and getting out a grant proposals. That’s mostly what we’re doing.
Q: And so what kind of virtual programs are you doing, I mean I’ve heard from a lot of people trying to use technology to make up for some of what they’re doing, so, can you tell me a little bit about the kinds of things that you’re doing with that?
A: Sure, well, so we started last year with a special called Def Poetry. It was originally intended to be a fundraiser in the building, pre-pandemic and then we pivoted to be a fundraiser online.
Another initiative we created is called Embrace Newark, which is really more of a relief and wellness initiative. But now what we’re doing, which is pretty exciting, we have a series that we’re calling Home Grown, where we interview celebrities who are from Newark. The first interviewed was Melba Moore, an arts high grad, Tony award winner, Grammy nominee. And we do those live on Facebook and our YouTube channel.
Q: You’re also a founding board member of the National Independent Venue Foundation. Can you tell me a little bit about that organization, your role in it, and what you’re hearing as you’re talking to peers around the country and around the state?
A: Right, some of your viewers might be familiar with NIVA, the National Independent Venue Association, which really advocated for the relief bill that resulted in the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. But the foundation is the nonprofit that is really focused on all of the non-lobbying activities — we are a 501(c)(3).
And what we’re hearing is that they’re suffering. We’re issuing grants through the foundation, thanks to fundraising that happened last year. Again, NIVA did a Save Our Stages festival with YouTube and we had all kinds of people, ranging from The Roots to Miley Cyrus and independent stages across the country.
But they’re suffering, and right now the concern is that the SBA somehow managed to get relief to the restaurants, which again is very important, yes, but the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant passed much earlier than that and they struggled with launching that. They finally did open the portal and the first time they open the portal it failed the same day. So they reopened and now there are applications, but they have not yet started granting any funds and so there are significant concerns that there are people who are going to be shutting their doors, which is sort of the grant is to prevent.
Q: Right, I mean when you can’t bring people and put them in the seats these venues are going to be struggling and as you say, the restaurants are the same way, but obviously there’s a lot of need there.
A: An incredible amount of need. I consider the restaurant our sisters, if you will, but there’s incredible amount of need and what we all do is create a quality of life in a community.
Q: OK, now about the renovation project, my understanding is the plans call for a five-year program about $50 million is what you figure it’s going to take. Are those numbers right?
A: A hundred percent right. Initially the number we were using was $40 million, which actually was a number that was advanced in 2009 I thought I could sharpen my pencil and still bring it in under $40 million. But when I was told we had to upgrade our entire infrastructure, in terms of all the plumbing, the heating and cooling, the electricity it kind of added $10 million. To the ticket price.
But we did get started last year. We received a grant from the state Historic Preservation Trust of $750,000, which is the maximum grant. And we are on the boards, right now, and when I say on the boards on our architects drawing boards. So, you received our renderings and visualization of concepts and the goal is to actually put the first phase of work out to bid this year.