Newark music hall with rich history needs expensive makeover
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Don’t think that Newark’s queen of performance art has lost her historical splendor.
Taneshia Nash Laird is making sure of that with ambitious plans as the new president and chief executive officer of the Newark Performing Arts Corporation (NPAC), the organization that operates the iconic Newark Symphony Hall.
“She is still on that pedestal,” Laird said. “The queen just needs her crown polished.”
It’s expensive polish, though, because ol’ girl is 94-years-old and high maintenance. There’s 10-year-old water damage. The boiler broke down four times this winter. New windows are needed, too. The façade could use a power wash and repointing to prevent leaks. A new marquee has to be addressed at some point.
Built in 1925, Nash Laird said Symphony Hall needs $40 million worth of shine to restore her luster to the days when singer Marian Anderson performed in 1940. Rock legend Jimi Hendrix was there the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and Aretha Franklin graced the stage a year later. It also was home to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, New Jersey State Opera and the New Jersey Ballet Company.
Despite its physical challenges, the performance house stayed busy last year with 187 events at the southern end of Broad Street, an area in which the city views the hall as the lynchpin of redevelopment for the Lincoln Park neighborhood.
“This was the place before New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and the Prudential Center,” Nash Laird said, referring to the two venues that opened in the city in 1997 and 2007, respectively.
“I want to utilize that as part of the restoration, but also communicating what was past could inform our present and our future.”
Nash Laird, who was the executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton, said she has the chops to make it happen. Her background backs it up with leadership positions she’s had in the private, government and non-profit sectors. She knows historic preservation, urban revitalization and entertainment, having been director of media relations for Planet Rock Music, the record label for Hip-Hop icon Afrika Bambaataa.
But as the former director of Trenton’s division of economic development, Nash Laird has experience in projects funded with historic tax credits, which is what she says Symphony Hall needs.
“I know how to fund it,” Nash Laird said. “I love this stuff.”
It’s why she’s been keeping track of Gov. Phil Murphy’s interest in proposed legislation that would create a state-based historic tax credit. Symphony Hall, she said would be eligible for funding since it is listed on the state and national registers of historic places.
“We need to be in the room when these decisions are being made and we need to understand what’s going on,” Nash Laird said. “We need to be in the game.”
That’s just one pool of money, but Nash Laird said there are other tax credit streams and initiatives, such as the Opportunity Zone and new markets tax credits, that can position Symphony Hall as the economic engine for the Lincoln Park neighborhood.
“She is the person who has that type of vision,” said Alfred Bundy, chairman of the NPAC board. “She represents that new change and new vision in making sure Newark Symphony Hall sustains itself.”
Right now, though, city funding is still needed to help the performance hall. Its annual budget is $1.7 million, of which the city contributes $600,000, a figure Nash Laird would like to see decrease as she works to make the hall self-sufficient.
Since coming on board in November, Nash Laird said she has raised $300,000 in grants for infrastructure, including permanent plans for the heating and cooling system, new computers, staff development and an organizational assessment of the building.
The challenge now, she said, is to come up with original programming that provides access to the arts for everyone. For instance, she’s working on, “If the hall could talk,” a cultural program that highlights the African-American presence at Symphony Hall.
In the meantime, there’s always something going on at the 2,800-seat venue, it’s Terrace Ballroom or Newark Stage black box theater. Aside from concerts and plays, the hall has been a destination for weddings and funerals, and programming such as soul line dancing and the Children Performing Arts Academy. Gospel Fest and the Black Film festival awards were held there last year.
On Saturday, some 1,500 young people will compete in the International Chidon Sefer Hamitzvos, a Torah competition. And in October, Nash Laird is bringing the Def Poetry Jam reunion to Symphony Hall.
“Ms. Laird has been a tireless advocate for the arts,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said. “I can’t think of a better person to help revive the legacy of this institution and revitalize the Lincoln Park neighborhood.”
Nash Laird has set a daily tone for the institution to move forward. Staff meetings begin with inspiring quotes about perseverance and resiliency. This week’s motivation came from the late Marva Collins, a pioneering educator who started a school from her home in Chicago.
“Success doesn’t come to you,” Nash Laird shared. “You go to it.”
Information from: NJ.com, http://www.nj.com