Twenty-years of Success at NJPAC: Celebrating the pioneers who helped make it happen

Stephanie S. Hughley
Baraka Sele

As the New Jersey Performing Arts Center(NJPAC) prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary, I thought it appropriate to interview two of the pioneer performing arts curators, producers, administrators who were instrumental in the development of its programming. I have had the pleasure of knowing both Stephanie Hughley and Baraka Sele for many years. However, I was astounded by the rich history they shared about their efforts to establish NJPAC as a world-class arts center in Newark, and the impact it has had on cultural institutions throughout the United States. This will be a two-part blog, with each part being a little longer than usual, because there is so much to learn from their experience. I also hope you will find it insightful and beneficial. Enjoy!

Stephanie joined the staff of New Jersey Performing Arts Center in 1995 as the Vice President of Programming. Ms. Hughley’s responsibilities included maintaining a balance on NJPAC’s stages between the best national and international artistry and the excellence of New Jersey’s performing arts community. She left four years later to become the Executive Producer of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, GA; an event she and her team first conceptualized in 1988. Ms. Hughley returned to NJPAC in 2009 as VP Programming & New Media, once again supervising all programmatic decisions, and exploring and developing a strategic plan for media and new media. From 1992-1996 she was Producer of Theater and Dance for the Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta, GA. She has worked for more than 45 years in the performing arts and cultural community as an artist, curator, educator, general and company manager on and off Broadway. She also has been a presenter and producer. Ms. Hughley has shared her years of experiences and skills with a variety of artists, arts, cultural, educational and community organizations.

Baraka is an independent consultant and has held leadership positions as the Assistant Vice President of Programming at NJPAC; Artistic Director of Performing Arts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco, and Vice President of Performing Arts of The Houston International Festival (THIF). In addition to working as an artist (published poet) and a performing arts curator, consultant and producer for more than thirty years,Ms. Sele has served on local, national and international advisory boards and panels for organizations including Dance USA, Dance NYC and the International Society of the Performing Arts. Among the many awards and recognition, Ms. Sele has been the recipient of The Association of Performing Arts ProfessionalsWilliam Dawson Award for Programmatic Excellence, given for “the quality, innovation, and vision of program design, audience building and community involvement.”

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you both come to be involved with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center?

Stephanie Hughley: In 1995, I was called and asked to consult with a team charged with building an arts center in Newark, New Jersey. I will be honest, I said, “Newark?” And the person who called me said, “Yes!” I replied, “Why?” That was one of the reasons they asked me to come, they realized that building an arts center like Lincoln Center in Newark was going to be a great challenge. At the first meeting, I walked in and saw a room filled with white men. First, I wondered if I was in the wrong place. Then, I wondered if this plan was actually REAL. I saw Philip Thomas, who was the Vice President of Arts Education Programs, seated at the table, and he assured me I was in the right place.

Our life’s work has been making sure people of African descent have a voice in the conversation. It’s important that all people acknowledge that people of African descent are a part of American culture, and also represent a blend of all cultures. Let’s face it, American culture is grounded in our world. But Newark was pretty damaged by the 1967 riots. Everyone who could get out of the city, got out. I became involved because I was intrigued that someone wanted to build an arts center in Newark.

We went back and forth for several months reviewing programming proposals. I was asked by the leadership if I could put a sample program together. To their surprise, I said no. I simply wanted to ensure whoever took the job recognized the work required more than creating a great performing arts center; it also had to be a great community cultural center.

As a consultant, I could say what I needed to say to a room full of white men, without fear of reprisal. Newark was and remains a predominantly Brown/Black city. There was no “shucking and jiving” in Newark in those days. The city had “real Black people” – (the renowned late writer) Amiri Baraka lived there. I went to his basement for “throw-down jams. So, I knew they couldn’t build a Lincoln Center or Kennedy Center in Amiri’s town without engaging the community.

I was shocked when they offered me the job. I was in the middle of the Cultural Olympiad Festivals that accompanied the 1996 Olympics so I wasn’t looking for another job. But the philanthropist Ray Chambers said, “We need you.” Philip Thomas,NJPAC’s first Vice President of Arts Education, also encouraged me to take the job. I felt as if I could contribute something. However, it would be important to put a team together. I was impressed with Gail Thompson, an African-American architect in charge of design and construction, who was already on the team. Labor rights expert, community activist, and one of Newark’s most influential figures, Gus Heningburg, was a big draw for me, and he continued to be my chief advisor throughout the process. I also wanted Baraka to join the team. We had previously worked together on other projects, such as the National Black Arts Festival and 1996 Cultural Olympiad‘s Celebration of Africa.

Baraka Sele: Stephanie and I have known each other since 1988, which will be 30 years in 2018. I first visited Atlanta’s National Black Arts Festival in 1988 with our mutual friend poet, author, cultural critic, Kalamu Ya Salaam. And, subsequently, Stephanie visited the festival I produced—The Houston International Festival—in 1989.

We wanted to create impactful and unique cultural events and programming for the city of Newark and the state of New Jersey, especially given the city’s and the state’s incredibly rich arts history. And to have two governors, especially Gov. (Tom) Kean, supporting this idea that an arts center could revitalize Newark, made it very intriguing. Then-Mayor Sharpe James also endorsed the project. I felt it could happen in Newark. I was the first Artistic Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (in San Francisco) and was leaving there to consult for Mikki Shephard at 651 Arts (in New York) for a program funded by the Ford Foundation. The program included Mikki, Laura Greer, Stephanie and me, and was called Africa Exchange. When Stephanie became full time staff at NJPAC, she and Mikki planned to divide my time between the two projects. I began working on 651’s Africa Exchange and on NJPAC’s World Festival in 1996.

Stephanie:Although Mikki and I had the idea for Africa Exchange, neither of us had ever traveled to Africa. We wondered how we could create this exchange, develop a program and educate ourselves. By that time, Baraka had been to Africa several times and had programmed artists of the African continent and diaspora at THIF and YBCA, so we reached out to her. Mikki and I decided to employ Baraka for both projects. At NJPAC, I wanted to make sure we had experienced and respected African-American curatorial expertise—someone who could help design and implement an in-depth and insightful curatorial framework.

Baraka: At that time, Africa Exchange was a new initiative funded by the Ford Foundation, titled Internationalizing New Work.  Program Officer Christine J. Vincent dedicated generous funding for diverse arts organizations to foster programs representing specific geographic areas and diasporas. Africa Exchange created opportunities and resources for African American artists in the United States to work with their peers throughout the African continent and diaspora. However, Internationalizing New Work wasn’t restricted to Africa—it also included arts organizations that were working in countries of Asia, as well as Central and Latin America. The Ford Foundation astutely convened the administrators and participants of these various programs so we could learn from each other’s best practices, and even our mistakes and missteps in our processes.

Stephanie wanted to approach the opening of NJPAC in a multilayered way that first season. I had a long history of producing international festivals and I was asked to create an international festival as one of the components of the opening season. We called it “NJPAC World Festival.”

Stephanie: All of our past work with cultures, communities, consulates and continents inspired our thinking about NJPAC. This was a continuation of the work we all had been doing at 651 Arts, Cultural Olympiad, The Houston International Festival, and Yerba Buena Arts Center. This all naturally came together because of the work we were already committed to, connected to and focused on as part of our life’s work.

To be continued next week