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

Photos: L – Stephanie S. Hughley R – Baraka Sele

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and this is the second part of my interview with 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. The rich history they shared about their efforts to establish NJPAC as a world-class arts center in Newark provides great examples of the importance of forging partnerships between arts institutions and the community, as well as engaging in audience development and community empowerment. The lessons continue:

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you get the people of African Descent to NJPAC? How did you approach thinking about audiences?

Baraka Sele: NJPAC World Festival celebrated the microcosm of the world we call New Jersey by featuring artists and constituents from around the corner and from around the world.

During the first World Festival, we were able to set up a number of humanities programs, as well as collaborations, with other institutions. Our collaborations resulted in the exhibition of the art of Portugal, in partnership with the Newark Museum; a Portuguese wine tasting at Gateway Center Atrium, and events at churches serving the Portuguese-speaking community. New Jersey Institute of Technology hosted an exhibition and conversations about Portuguese travels and the meaning of civilizations. We also held an exhibition of Portuguese tapestry in the Prudential Hall lobby of NJPAC.

Some organizations, such as the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO), collaborated and/or co-commissioned work for each of the NJPAC World Festivals. This took place during the tenure and leadership of Larry Tamburri, former Executive Director of the NJSO.

In just the second year of its existence, the World Festival received a White House Millennium Council Award for its humanities and residency programs. No one could believe how much was accomplished in just two years. David Grant, the former Executive Director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, wrote in 2009: “We are impressed by how the World Festival continues to be an integral part of NJPAC’s mission, a world class arts center and as a community-focused, cultural center.” This is how we thought about our audience. All the people who thought they would just see opera and ballet also saw classical, indigenous cultures from around the world.

I was surprised to learn that many people did not consider Newark to be an “international” city. As Stephanie mentioned, communities often did not interact/intersect. As we worked to gain a more intimate knowledge of the rapidly-changing demographics and growing populations in Newark and beyond, we traveled to other countries, such as Taiwan. There, we encountered Taiwan’s indigenous people, whose culture seemed to be similar to our Native American culture. We made it clear to the government of Taiwan that we were just as interested in this aspect of Taiwan’s cultural context as we were interested in the classical and contemporary art of Taiwan. Twice, I was able to bring the Formosa Aboriginal Song and Dance Troupe to NJPAC and worked with them to collaborate with Native Americans from New Jersey and New York.

Donna: How did the local demographics of Newark influence your decisions?

Stephanie: We immersed ourselves in the different cultures of Newark, which was our desired way to approach programming. This led us to hire Elisabeth (Lis) Ssenjovu as an assistant for the World Festival. Lis liked to go clubbing in various New Jersey neighborhoods. “Sounds of the City” (SOC) was born out of the desire to represent the unacknowledged artists in those neighborhoods. The bars, hangouts and community centers were jam-packed with music we would never have had an opportunity to hear or see.

Baraka: Initially, “Sounds of the City” was called “Community Partnership Night (CPN),” which Lis created and launched. CPN was a mechanism to support local artists and, simultaneously, promote the World Festival season. Organizations and businesses that participated in CPN were offered World Festival discounts.

The original plan was for the event to be one night. But because of Lis’s success, we realized this should be an ongoing series. Ultimately, SOC became a free, outdoor festival night once a week during the summer months. Lis eventually left NJPAC and moved to London, U.K., working to produce festivals for diasporic communities and teaching London-based arts organizations to reach deeper into immigrant communities.

Donna: What were the challenges and how were they addressed?

Stephanie: The internal challenge was educating the staff; getting them to understand the value of what we were doing and the why.

Baraka: Research. Presenters cannot rely on a press package, video or cd (at that time) from the artist or an agent as the means to curate and contextualize programming. We must do the research—get on boats, planes, and trains and/or read to educate ourselves. Then there’s the process of educating the staff, and then our audience. It’s important to know the cultural, historical, political, spiritual and economic context that are the foundation of the artists and their work. Those are not just interesting points of view; they are ways to help your audiences connect to artists who don’t look like them. They may not speak the same language; but they may share other cultural or religious commonalities. So, having all of this information at your disposal informs and shapes the work you are presenting on stage and at other venues.

Donna: What are you most proud of fulfilling the mission for diversity and inclusion?

Baraka: The issues of diversity and inclusion have developed around the foundation and philanthropic community. We were engaging in those practices long before they were buzz words. A statement from World Festival is indicative of the thinking and philosophical premise of NJPAC in general. “World Festival offered outstanding performances from neighborhoods and from around the world, based on the desire to give artists and audiences the opportunity to intersect, and share the potential to be transformed.”

NJPAC World Festival became a “forum to discuss provocative and sensitive issues that go beyond the current day rhetoric of multiculturalism and diversity. Instead of debating the issues, we prepared and offered artistic excellence, which knows no cultural boundaries or barriers.”

Stephanie: The bottom line is that we take great pride in what we did; we created a great art center and a great community cultural center. We demonstrated what was possible for our peers and for the community. With the contributions and longtime relationships of our Programming Associate, Bill Lockwood, we presented the best of ballet, orchestras, operas and chamber music of the same caliber and quality seen at the Lincoln Center or Kennedy Center. But also, and equally important, we were able to curate and incorporate classical and contemporary art from all over the world; the entire world.

At NJPAC, we produced, we curated, we educated ourselves. We were clear about the vision; what we were doing and, equally important, why we were doing it. We now see much more of that kind of work in our field.

For example, I am looking at where I live now, which is North Carolina. In this area, there are eight different arts organizations presenting work that I am buying tickets to see. They are presenting work, ranging from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Toshi Reagon’s new work, Parable of the Sowers, and artists from all over, including Latin America. In a way, our work paved the way for making it okay to have diverse and eclectic programming. We demonstrated that even with diverse and eclectic programming, arts centers and cultural institutions can be successful and financially viable. Ultimately, funders want to invest in people who are investing in their communities.

Donna: What do you see is needed in the field to advance multiculturalism in the arts?

Stephanie: It’s the same as it has always been—commitment and resources. The arts and programming have to be given the same level of support, time, energy, money that anything and everything else does. Otherwise, we’re just taking up a lot of space and talking a lot of trash. Many smaller community-based arts organizations consistently support and work with artists from a wide-range of communities and cultures. But many of the so-called “major or mainstream” art centers are still presenting houses. If they do produce, it is often work relegated to small spaces. However, college and university presenters are frequently engaged in very interesting work.

Baraka: I don’t refer to my work using that language—it’s “all the people, all the time.” Minority, diversity, multiculturalism, people of color—I don’t use those words. They are euphemisms or “lazy-labels” for the majority—African/African-American; Arab/Arab-American; Asian/Asian-American; Caribbean/Caribbean-American; Chicano/Latino, and Native American people. Multicultural simply means all the “so-called-colored-people” in the context of Caucasians or Europeans. I prefer to use “all the people all the time” within the context of the real world and our work.

The sheer volume, quality and number of artists at NJPAC had not even been brought to a stage in New York. That, in and of itself, was incredible. We were told the New York Times would not preview or review artists performing in Newark. And yet artists—especially NJPAC World Festival artists—were often featured. We were trying to give our audiences in Newark a venue that supported its already existing first-class cultural community—Dionne Warwick, and the late Amiri Baraka, Sarah Vaughan and Whitney Houston. Even the late Alice Coltrane and the late Nina Simone did one of their last 3 concerts in the United States at NJPAC. Ticket-buyers travelled from all over the region, from all over the country, to be there.

When I organized the first of five NJPAC international/intergenerational Hip-Hop festivals, I formed a Hip-Hop Advisory Committee in 1999. Some of the young participants tried to tell me, “Newark is not an international city.” Young people didn’t know the people of different cultures who lived next door to them or down the street. And that’s a major part of all of this—how Newark sees itself. Stephanie and I had the opportunity to allow Newark to look in a mirror and see itself—once again—as a world-class, cultural community.

Donna: And now Newark is preparing for the next 20 years. The downtown area is becoming a hub for real estate development, new businesses, and a vibrant arts community. The continuation of community partnerships and engagement will be essential in order to positively sustain the city’s growth and development.

I personally want to thank Stephanie and Baraka for the clarity to see what was possible; for the hard work that built the foundation for Newark to reclaim its status on the frontlines of world-class arts and culture, and for their perseverance to bring to fruition their vision, which has greatly benefited the tri-state community and set a standard for arts presenters across America.