Postcard from New Jersey
Here I am warming up the crowd to hear from (l-r) Bob Morrison, Ayanna Hudson, Clement Price, and the other panelists for our great arts education conversation in Newark. Photo by Daniel Hedden, courtesy of NJPAC
Last week I made an official visit to New Jersey. I took the train from Penn Station to Newark, and lo and behold, who should be there to greet me but Nick Paleologos whom I've known forever as a fellow producer on Broadway. Nick is now the Executive Director of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and the first thing I said to him was “Whoever thought we would be meeting in Newark, New Jersey with me in my role and you in your role?” So that was a special moment for both of us, and since he was playing chauffeur we had time for great conversation all the way around.
Our first stop was the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). We were greeted by John Schreiber who I also knew from my Broadway theater days. John does a great job of running the organization. NJPAC has historically done Broadway touring and bookings, and I toured the facility, which is very impressive. It’s a big, beautiful performing arts space, and it was great to be able to see it from behind the scenes in a way that I had never seen it before.
We were at NJPAC for an arts education panel. I gave the opening remarks, outlining some of our point of view of what needs to be done in arts education. We're starting to be more of a voice in that area, and we want to use our platform at the NEA to be an advocate for those initiatives that are really working in arts education. After my remarks, Clement Price moderated a great panel. Clement has been on the Rutgers University Board of Governors and he’s a history professor and a person who is very, very interested in arts education. Our own Arts Education Director Ayanna Hudson was on the panel, along with Bob Morrison who is the chair of the New Jersey Arts Education Partnership and the founder of Quadrant Arts Education Research. Bob was very, very impressive, and he has a lot of relevant data from the arts education work he does. He really gets where arts education is now: what leverage points there are, what's missing, and what needs to be done. Pardon the pun, but he has had a great education on the arts education scene, not only in New Jersey but nationally.
They were joined by Allison Trujillo Strong who, believe it or not, was the Poetry Out Loud New Jersey state champion in 2008. Allison is a recent graduate of Montclair State University’s Musical Theater program, and she’s already making her mark on Broadway! She spoke very passionately about the arts and the importance of arts accessibility to people like her who wouldn't otherwise have access to an arts education outside of school. Donna Serio, who used to be the fine and performing arts programming director for Franklin Township, was also a wonderful panelist to listen to. She talked about the arts in a more challenged socio-economic status environment and the importance of arts for everyone in the schools. Donna specifically spoke on using dance as a vehicle to connect with at-risk young men. She spoke very passionately and very articulately, and it was great to hear her.
After the panel, we headed to Rahway where the Union County Performing Arts Center (UCPAC) and its partners received a 2012 Our Town grant to support a series of performances and community engagement activities under the RAHWAY ARTsPART banner. I met with several of the Our Town project participants in a lunch meeting at the Hamilton Stage for the Performing Arts, which is a new building there in the middle of town. Rahway has really started to define itself more and more as an arts town.
While we were there, I was happy to meet New Jersey Lieutenant Governor (and Secretary of State) Kim Guadagno, who was actually the acting governor during my visit. She gets it about the arts and the role of the arts in economic development. She understands creative placemaking and has just finished her own “arts means business” tour of the state, including a stop to the Our Town project we’re supporting in Long Beach Island.
There were a lot of great, smart people in the room, including Jim Kennedy, a businessman and former mayor of Rahway. He’s also vice president of the UCPAC board. During his time as mayor Jim was responsible for bringing a lot of the arts activities and the arts to the main street and into downtown Rahway. He really has viewed Rahway as an arts incubator and destination. For Jim, they really are part of the identity of the town, and he’s very very passionate about that. Ed Yergalonis is the superintendent of the Rahway public schools, and he spoke about the importance of universal arts education in the public schools very persuasively. I also chatted with Jim Vagias, co-founder and co-artistic director of the American Theater Group; Russ Taylor, who’s president/CEO of the RSI Bank in Rahway; Samson Steinman, who’s UCPAC’s executive director; Christine Chen, managing director of American Repertory Ballet; and Marilyn Klaus, a choreographer with Ballets With a Twist.
After lunch, I took part in a symposium moderated by Dr. Carol Cronheim, New Jersey’s assistant Secretary of State. She has the arts portfolio there. Jim Kennedy joined me on the panel, as did Jean Holtz who runs the New Brunswick Development Corporation. Jean is not an arts person per se, but she is an economic development person who gets the importance of the arts in economic development. We were joined by Leo Vazquez who is the director of Arts Build Communities, which is really a thought-leader in creative placemaking. The great thing was I was on a panel with three creative placemakers--- people who understood the concept, people who got it. One of the gratifying things to me as I travel around the country now and hear how often this term ‘creative placemaking’ is mentioned is that it’s used as if it were a field that has always been there. Well it hasn’t always been there. I mean people have been doing this work---Jim Kennedy’s been doing it and Leo Vazquez has been doing it, to name just a few folks---but now it has a name, and it’s really become a movement. We had good questions from the audience, and it was just quite an engaging panel.
You know by now that when I travel, in addition to getting a chance to meet the folks who are doing this work in their community, I always try to think about what lesson there is to learn. One of the things that is clear in New Jersey is the better-off districts, like Princeton or Rahway, have many arts education opportunities. Newark has much less. In other words, the kids that need it most get the least of it. There needs to be some way to equalize this out. You would think that the parents and the administrators and everybody would be clamoring for it because they can see in the other districts that this is part of what's making kids do better, go to better high schools, attend better colleges, get better jobs. It’s clear the arts have tremendous positive effects. I think part of the challenge is political issues, but it’s also not being aware of the arts and their potential effect. I think there needs to be a more level playing field about arts education in New Jersey and that's true nationally too. The school districts that have robust access to arts education value it and understand how very important it is. Now our job is to make sure that’s true everywhere.