AMS Planning & Research Corp.
New Jersey Performing Arts Center

Rethinking New Jersey

The Strategic Triangle, described in our previous post, offered a way to understand and achieve success in an arts organization, at the intersection of public value, organizational capacity, and legitimacy/support. We suggested that success lies in moving beyond “excellence” and “efficiency,” toward becoming more “effective” and “entangled.” This post explores an inspiring example of such work through the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (www.njpac.org), under the leadership of its Founding CEO Larry Goldman and now, his successor, John Schreiber.

New Jersey Performing Arts Center

photo by Scott Miller/Flickr

Goldman was appointed President of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in 1989, when the venue was still on the drawing board. Just two years earlier, then-Governor Thomas H. Kean had announced plans for the Center as a bold initiative to rekindle and reframe the state and Newark, its largest city, as a vibrant, diverse, and connected community. The city had a difficult past, with devastating riots and related economic, social, and civic unrest in the 1960s. Today, the city is recognized as resurgent, with major investments in housing, corporate expansion, and a growing educational sector. For many, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center was, and remains, a key element of that turnaround.

Larry realized soon after arriving in Newark, following a leadership role at Carnegie Hall, that NJPAC had to “create reality before reality” to generate and sustain support from stakeholders. Over his 22 years, he had to inspire belief among eight different governors, two mayors, countless corporate and civic leaders, and philanthropists that a performing arts center could not only be successful in Newark, but also could change how people viewed the city.

From Excellence to EntanglementFrom their first steps, Larry and his NJPAC team were committed to creating an arts center that was not just in Newark but of Newark and “a place where everyone feels they belong.” That meant attracting a diverse range of citizens who didn’t believe an arts center was for them – suburban residents who hadn’t ventured into the city for years, city residents with little or no experience in professional cultural venues, and even culture aficionados who could easily choose to visit Manhattan for extraordinary performing arts events. While they did not name it at the time, the NJPAC team was deeply committed to making sure that NJPAC was an integral part of the community, “entangled” in many aspects of the city’s success.

At a recent conference at Rutgers University, Goldman noted that his team set out to “create a center that [would be] embraced by the Mozart and Beethoven crowd and Newarkers.” That meant NJPAC needed to reflect the community it was to serve at every stage, from initial staff to construction workers and into operations.

By incorporating design elements influenced by traditional African Kente cloth, or by programming for one of the most diverse audiences in the nation, NJPAC “didn’t just give lip service to certain values, but put those values at the very heart of every decision we made.”

As another example, NJPAC’s Sounds of the City summer music series combines many pieces in elegant ways. The series on summer Thursdays is locally programmed to bring multiple populations to the Center, working with community music artists and social groups. The evening progresses from networking opportunities for young professionals to a “kind of competition “battle” between local bands, and finally to city dwellers dancing to the diverse musical experiences of their community. Larry notes that it took time and consistency for things to gel, “we told people five or six times before they really got it.” But once people experienced the event, they could see the organization was delivering what it had promised. The intended outcome of this project – to engage Newarkers and New Jersey residents with NJPAC and downtown Newark – is a powerful example of rethinking success.

Now in its eighteenth year, NJPAC is building on that foundation with an expanded commitment to make the arts center both accessible and more visible. Larry’s successor, CEO John Schreiber, reinforced that commitment in announcing the Center’s 2014-15 season by saying, “Every member of our community wants an arts center that resonates for them, and NJPAC offers that.”

The NJPAC example illustrates that the past practice in the arts of counting things (people, programs, performances) and claiming public value is no longer sufficient. Today, value comes from clear, continuous, and integrated leadership across all aspects of the organization, and in collaboration with a full range of constituents.

As cultural organizations rethink success in the 21st century, we believe that aligning our goals, our work, and our community this way makes us more entangled. By incorporating external measures of success, we become more effective and focused on impact. We must build capacity beyond our understanding of our work and engage with others in community development. If we are intentional about our goals and document the benefits that we create, we can grow the support that our artists and organizations need to thrive.

In future posts, we will explore how other organizations around the world have worked to create public value, build organizational capacity, and animate both legitimacy and support in responsive and integrated ways.

If you have examples of success to share, join the conversation. Post your stories and data through our comment system below.

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