Newark Symphony Hall’s new president and CEO, Taneshia Nash Laird, vows to build on legacy
Published March 20, 2019 | Kenneth Miles
After an exhaustive national search, Newark Performing Arts Corporation (NPAC), the operation that runs Newark Symphony Hall, has announced the appointment of Tanisha Nash Laird as the new President and CEO.
Laird was most recently an Executive Director of Princeton Arts Council, where she was the first person of color to serve in that position. Laird is also a published author and the co-founder of the popular New York City entertainment center Mist Harlem. Recently Brick City Live contributor, Kenneth Miles, sat down with Laird for an exclusive interview to find out her future plans for the landmark theater that is on the list of one of the most endangered historic sites in New Jersey.
First Taneshia, I want to congratulate you on your new position. Can you tell our readers how your career began?
My background is sort of interesting. Harvard Business Review calls it “trisector leadership.” I’ve been in the private sector. I’ve been in the non profit sector. I’ve also been a city official.
I was a Director of the Division of Economic Development for the city of Trenton, so I have that different perspective in terms of my professional background. I’ve worked in entertainment. My very first job was working for Afrika Bambaataa and Planet Rock music. I’ve owned my own independent marketing company with my late husband. We had started an independent comic book and media production company–that’s how I bought my house in Princeton. We got a six-figure advance for a Black History comic book in the mid 90s, so I have this sought of interesting eclectic background.
I was by the pool last June, and I was fooling around with LinkedIn. I went to the jobs section. I saw that there was a search going on for the Executive Director of Newark Symphony Hall, and I read what they were looking for. I wrote this two-page letter, basically stating why I thought I would be the best person. In my career I’ve raised millions of dollars for other people’s businesses. I raised a quarter of a billion dollars as a city official. I was like, ‘I know how to do this job’ and I went really hard for it. I campaigned for it like a presidential campaign, because they were already down to other finalists…and so we know how the story ends [laughs].
What is your day-to-day like as President and CEO?
Well, it’s calmed down a little bit. I’ve been here since November 1st. [The board] voted me in September and then I came in here twice a week just to sort of acclimate myself to the role.
Clearly, if you walk around you will see a lot of deferred maintenance. So as I came for the interview in Symphony Hall they said, ‘What would be one of the first things you would attack?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely the facility. I see about $20 to 25 million dollars in renovations.’ Now I put it at $40 million dollars of things that need to happen. This is definitely going to be what we call a public-private partnership.
I started looking at how we could get an allocation of what we call new market tax credits. How we could leverage the historic status to get historic tax credits. The governor is now looking at doing a state-based historic tax credit. So these are all the things that are not very sexy, but what I was mostly doing the first few months.
I was also dealing with mechanical failures. Since I’ve been here we’ve had four pretty significant mechanical failures, to the point in December I actually cancelled all the programming one week so that we could address it. You have to understand that the building was built in 1925. Again, this is not sexy stuff.
How long do you estimate the revitalization process will take?
I’m being very aggressive and understand that a redevelopment project like this would usually take more than one mayoral term. I would like to be in some stage of renovation before the end of this mayor’s current term. The things that I plan to address first are actually the facade, things that people can see when they pass down the street, so that it signals that there is stuff going on. I’m approaching this as a public-private partnership using tax incentives, something called The Opportunity Zone, which is a new federal tax incentive ideally to get some private investment in here.
I wish I could say that my day consists of dealing with mostly artistic things, but it’s not.
Do you have a model that you look at for Newark Symphony Hall’s reconstruction? When I think of Symphony Hall, I think of Harlem’s Apollo Theater turnaround.
It’s interesting that you should say that, because one of the consultants that I’m engaging was the Director of Operations for The Apollo. I absolutely view Symphony Hall as Newark’s Apollo, but there are some other examples like the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House [that] was recently redeveloped and is a model.
The other things that I did very early on was have us join something called The League of Historic [American] Theaters. So there are actually theaters like ours. We are all apart of this network, because I do think that models are important. I don’t believe in reinvention and starting from scratch if there are already people that have been out there doing it. I also believe that Symphony Hall will help to anchor the Lincoln Park corridor, so that’s the other thing that I’m looking at. The mayor specifically said, ‘I want you to look at the whole thing. I want you to look at both sides of the street and how you would redevelop it.’
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How big of a staff do you have working with you day to day at Newark Symphony Hall?
We’re 11 people! It’s an incredible challenge. Right now I’m looking at how do I scale up, because if we are restored and we are looking at doing full-time programming, compare my 11 people to what has to be a minimum of over a hundred people at NJPAC. We [also] have a number of per diem people who work as ushers, and ticket takers, and house managers.
Where does Newark Symphony Hall stand in the context of Newark between other venues like NJPAC and the Prudential Center? Why is it important to restore the theater and preserve its history?
I will tell you what community members have said to me, and they say, ‘We consider Symphony Hall ours!’ I think it’s because of the longevity of it as an institution and since it’s been here since 1925 and it’s called Newark Symphony Hall, as opposed to [the fact that] NJPAC is the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which is in Newark.
I think one of the reasons why we have been active is the stuff that happens here that a lot of people may not necessarily know. We’ve become this great social place where you see a lot of weddings, [one of] which happens to be written up in The New York Times. Some people have their homegoing service here. We had one for Jerry Gant, which was out the door. Of course when the late Amiri Baraka passed away we had [his service] in the main concert hall. Symphony Hall is still very much a part of people’s memory and in their hearts.
When was the last time Symphony Hall had a renovation?
I know that there has been some work done in terms of the guts of the building. For example, the roof was done in the last couple of decades and that was a significant issue.
That was one of the reasons that we had to eliminate tenants. The last tenant that we had in terms of an arts company-in-residence I believe was the Garden State Ballet, and before that it was the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. This might be legend, but what I was told that [the] orchestra was performing on the stage and the roof caved in.The [roof] was done in the last 15 years or so. But that’s not renovations, that’s fixing.
What are you most popular programs and events now?
We have just really two enduring programs. We had a third, but I put one on hold for evaluation.
The number one is Soul Line Dancing–very popular. We get several hundred people that come. The next popular one is our Children’s Performing Arts Academy and that’s an after school performing arts program. We sort of quietly introduced a new program during Black History Month and we are looking at the possibility of doing one during Mother’s Day. And it’s great, because not only do we have the adults from the community, but we also include the children. Most performing arts companies really don’t make money, they survive by philanthropic dollars.
Do you think that people feel it’s easier to “just fix it,” but may not know the process it takes undergo a renovation of the scale Symphony Hall needs?
I’ve been reading the comments, because it’s been posted that I’m here now and most people are like, ‘Great! They are going to address all of those things that we see as the patron when we come.’ The billboard outside is not original to the building. It was put up in the 80s and we are in discussion about bringing it down. But I know from experience [that] even if people don’t like stuff, you have to sort of bring them along and have the conversation about, “We’re bringing it down.” So there is currently a plan to bring the marquee down and put up a more aesthetic, nicer marquee. It’s going to cost $30,000 to take down–I already priced that out with the assistance of the city. I hope by this time next year that I will have addressed it in some way. It may not be complete, because you can only do things when it’s nice out, but hopefully by this time next year there will be a discernible difference on the exterior.
How much money does it cost to operate Symphony Hall annually?
Right now we’ve exceeded our budget. It takes about $1.5 million. We run pretty lean. The organization that I ran in Princeton–our budget was bigger and we had 20,000-square-foot facility. Symphony Hall is a 200,000 square foot facility.
Newark is rich with musical talent who was born here or grew up in nearby in the surrounding areas. You have Faith Evans, Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, Redman, Wycleff Jean, SZA. Why not tap into some of these A-list musical talents to have a benefit concert?
I’m producing a Def Poetry Jam Reunion in Philadelphia and one of the first things I said to mayor [Ras Baraka] was, “I know that your dad was on the HBO show, and Def Poetry Jam Reunion is something that I produce in my venue in Harlem.” So I said to the mayor that I want to bring this to Newark Symphony Hall if I get this job. I said, “Will you participate, mayor, because you were on the show too?”
So I have a commitment, make sure you print this so he can remember his commitment that he’s going to participate in the Def Poetry Jam Reunion [laughs]. The idea is to do that around October, around Amiri Baraka’s birthday. There are some pretty significant names that I’m not going to name now who we are talking to about being a part of that who weren’t necessarily Def Poetry people, but who are definitely a part of the Black Arts Movement. We currently don’t have the funds to [produce events], so that’s the difference between The Apollo and us. With our budget we can’t really do anything except operate.
One of the things that I love about Symphony Hall that you can’t find in the Prudential Center or NJPAC is the energy of the building. As soon as you walk through those doors you feel a spirit.
I started researching the black presence at Symphony Hall, and so I’m doing a project called “If the Hall Could Talk” where we specifically look through the lens of African American history. It’s never really discussed, but Marian Anderson was the first black performer here in 1940. Even in our current state we will be able to have an exhibit, but also a performance that takes people through that time. There is an iconic picture of Aretha Franklin sitting at a mirror in a dressing room, putting on her makeup [and] smoking a cigarette. Do you know where that was taken Newark Symphony Hall? The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Jimi Hendrix performed at Newark Symphony Hall. By the time this project even commences within the next two years, I want everybody to know all about the history of Symphony Hall. We were important in terms of the national conversation of concerts and I want us to get that level of conversation back again.