The evolution of art is constant.
For John Schreiber, change, progress — and new business — begin by building from the bottom up.
“We revised our mission statement a few years ago to put diversity at the heart of what we do,” Schreiber said.
Three years into his role as CEO and president of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, Schreiber led the charge to modify the organization’s initiatives to better reflect the diverse community in which it is located.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Newark’s demographics include a population that is over half African-American, over a third Hispanic and a quarter Caucasian.
“To not acknowledge that would not only be a poor reflection of what we want to accomplish, but also simply bad business,” Schreiber said. “The more diverse we program, the larger universe of citizens we can reach out to in the interest of the arts center’s business and mission.”
Creating diverse content
You might say the New Jersey Performing Arts Center beat Broadway to the “Hamilton”-hype when it created “The Hip-Hop Nutcracker” — a contemporary work set to Tchaikovsky’s music — and sold out performances in 2014.
This season, the show will tour 26 cities.
“That is our (intellectual) property,” said John Schreiber, CEO and president of NJPAC. “Completely diverse audiences come to that.”
It’s a theme NJPAC wishes to continue, especially when booking artists for its summertime outdoor concert series, “Sounds of the City,” on Thursday evenings in Newark.
“We just had a rapper named Rakim who attracted a young audience of 5,000 people of both African-American and Caucasian (descent),” Schreiber said. “Any time you can present art that mixes up your audiences and communities of fans, that’s a good thing — especially these days. We strongly encourage that.”
In appreciation of the breakout Broadway musicals that have also had such an effect, NJPAC invited Tony Award winners Leslie Odom Jr. — who recently finished his run as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” — and Cynthia Erivo, the star of the revival of “The Color Purple,” to attend NJPAC’s 21st annual Spotlight Gala on Oct. 1, hosted by the Women’s Association of NJPAC.
“These young artists are changing the way young people understand musical theater and are making it more exciting and interesting for them,” Schreiber said. “‘Hamilton’ is not only a thrilling piece of art, but more so than any other musical over the last couple of generations, it has taken hip-hop and rap and integrated it into the classic American art form of musical theater.
“The fact that an 80-year-old and a teenager are both equally excited to see ‘Hamilton’ is proof.”
Since 2014, NJPAC’s mission statement has read: “The New Jersey Performing Arts Center, by celebrating diversity, shall be America’s foremost urban presenter of arts and entertainment, a creative and effective leader in arts education for children, a convener of useful and enlightening civic engagement events and a catalyst for economic development in its home city of Newark.”
NJPAC has been most successful in diversifying what have historically been overwhelmingly white audiences at performing arts centers around the country. This past season, its audiences were 56 percent Caucasian, 22 percent African-American, 13 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Asian.
David Rodriguez, executive vice president and executive producer for NJPAC, said such diverse audiences might have accounted for better business.
“Diversity lends itself to our business model to become more profitable,” he said.
NJPAC budgeted $40.5 million for the 2015-2016 season. This season, the arts center budgeted $45 million. Earned revenues have never been higher.
“We’ve developed an expertise, particularly in urban and cultural programming, that we are able to create a value proposition versus some of the larger mainstream competitors where we maintain particular specialty knowledge of local markets,” Rodriguez said.
Yet many genres that attract the most diverse communities, such as jazz and dance, are not as profitable, Schreiber said.
“(We) square it by producing shows like Boyz II Men and En Vogue, like Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K. — major pop artists and comedians,” Schreiber said. “We need to continue to do well on those performances so that we can afford to present the (acts) that no one else is presenting.
“That is really important to us here at NJPAC as the state’s major presenter of culture and entertainment. That is our responsibility.”
On average, NJPAC spends about $7 million on education, civic and community engagement each season.
The team continually programs in order to attract even more ethnicities and nationalities to what has become the most diverse performing arts center in the country.
“We believe that the arts can enhance and transform everyone’s life,” Schreiber said. “However, in order for people to feel welcome, you have to program for them.
“We’ve increased our programming to serve our Caucasian audiences as well as African-American, Brazilian, Korean, Indian, Portuguese and many, many more.”
NJPAC has often turned to businesses and educational and political organizations to partner in this endeavor.
“We love to brainstorm with our sponsors about ways to increase diversity,” Schreiber said.
For example, NJPAC recently developed a free, “True Diversity” film series in partnership with Public Service Enterprise Group.
“We have shown, at this point, four different films — each dealing with an important issue — and participated in a discussion about it with an expert panel afterwards,” Schreiber said.
NJPAC’s showing of “Selma,” for example, attracted a full house to the 500-seat Victoria Theater to hear a panel of experts — including members of the NAACP and the National Urban League — discuss voting and civil rights.
NJPAC also teams up with higher education institutions to increase arts education beyond all economic and demographic barriers.
“The more diverse we program, the larger universe of citizens we can reach out to.”
John Schreiber, CEO and president, NJPAC
“Our engagement with Rutgers University-Newark and Chancellor Nancy Cantor has exponentially increased,” Schreiber said. “We now partner with Rutgers on the Institute of Jazz Studies, the largest jazz archive in the country, and are programming partners with them, too.”
Lastly, NJPAC has hosted several town halls with Mayor Ras Baraka to serve the community of Newark. “The Effects of Obamacare in New Jersey,” for example, was broadcast on WYNC public radio and included U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-Newark), U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson), New Jersey Association of Health Plans President Wardell Sanders and Darrell K. Terry, CEO and president of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
“Our (advisory) councils also give communities the opportunity to come together to talk about programming, to give us ideas and to spread the word about what is happening at the arts center,” Schreiber said.
Since 1997, NJPAC has had eight advisory councils: jazz, corporate, faith-based, elders, Latino, celebrate dance, internal and LGBTQ.
The arts center also created the Department of Community Engagement in 2014 to increase diverse audiences and bring a variety of arts and culture programming to community centers such as libraries, universities and public spaces.
Championed by Donna Walker-Kuhne, vice president of community engagement, the program has increased access to NJPAC spaces and facilities for workshops, public discourse, exhibitions and performances, while providing underserved individuals and families with deeply discounted tickets.
“A performing arts center can sometimes feel intimidating,” Schreiber said. “What we do with our community engagement programs is give people a taste. Sometimes that will open the door for someone to come see a show or enroll their child in one of our arts education programs.”
NJPAC’s arts education programs serve about 80,000 children and families annually.
“Most of these kids are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of our students are African-American, Latino and from other diverse families,” Schreiber said. “If we do it right, diversity should not only be present on our main stage but also through our education and community engagement initiatives.”
The urban redevelopment of Newark and its many residents and visitors will continue to be a major focus of NJPAC into the future, Schreiber said.
“The idea of NJPAC as an anchor of an urban arts and education district is something that is very exciting and a dynamic thing for us to work on,” he said.
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