You are here

Observations on “Newark Symphony Hall Reimagined”

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

On a recent Saturday, the Jeremy Johnson, the Newark Philanthropic Liaison and over 150 arts lovers, historians, and community leaders gathered to reflect on the past, acknowledge the present, and imagine the future of the historic Newark Symphony Hall. The liaison shares his observations from the conference.

Newark Symphony Hall, the aging national treasure on the south end of Broad Street in downtown Newark, comprises a 2800-seat main auditorium, a 1,000 seat-auditorium/banquet hall, a 200-seat black box theatre, a dance studio, a new TV studio, and much more.

Its history is unsurpassed. The place has hosted every imaginable superstar since 1925, from Toscanini to Marian Anderson to Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash, Judy Garland and Newark's own Sarah Vaughan. It's going to take millions (estimates ranged from $40M to $100M or more) to restore it to its former glory.

The planners are on the right track, engaging experts, philanthropists, historians, residents, educators, government and corporate leaders, and arts and nonprofit groups. However, to justify the outlay of millions in public-private funds during these economic times, Newark Symphony Hall (NSH) will need to frame this nascent campaign beyond that of the restoration of another culturally important edifice.

Sure, the arts and history will play an important role in its rebirth, but for this effort to be truly achievable, sustainable and worthwhile, NSH should consider:

  1. Jobs, jobs, jobs. Can the renovation, preservation, retrofitting and weatherization of NSH be implemented as a job training laboratory for Newark workers to gain skills in "green" trades? This experience can then be exported to the broader community where workers can help green energy-inefficient homes and buildings throughout Newark and the region. NSH, which has a long-term lease with the city, could join forces with the Mayor in attracting public and private investment for green job development and energy-saving initiatives. Natural allies in this effort would be Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District (LPCCD), which is achieving inroads with green job training, or the Obama-endorsed YouthBuild, which has a strong outpost in Newark.
  2. Education. Through the Amistad Commission, the state now requires that African American history be taught as in integral part of United States History. Such history resonates at NSH. Think of Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone or Marian Anderson, who performed more at NSH than any other hall during her first years of touring--she was the first black artist to perform at NSH in the 1940s. School systems could be encouraged to subscribe to annual NSH tours and learn of this rich history, providing ancillary income to NSH while also instilling invaluable lessons to our youth.
  3. Space usage. Think creatively about use of the Hall's enormous spaces. Possibilities could range from the creation of New Jersey's largest green roof to rental possibilities for space-starved charter schools and after-school programs.
  4. “Think big” was the advice of Larry Goldman, President and CEO of NJPAC. Could NSH be re-imagined as the nation's largest LEED-certified renovated historic theater, designed on a template of green-job apprenticeships for urban residents?
  5. Secure the right leadership. Philip Thomas, NSH's estimable executive director and the growing board, mustn't fall prey to provincialism nor favoritism as it outlines a formidable mission, development, and operational plans for this initiative. Call on leadership from within the community but also from beyond it. This project is regional and even national in scope and it should be approached as such.
  6. Finally, leverage partnerships. Tap the expertise of higher education institutions. Rutgers historian and Newarker Clement Price, who spoke at the convening, is a terrific example. Historic and cultural agencies are obvious partners, but also seek out federal and state sources, such as departments of labor, transportation, energy, education, human services, bureau of justice, and organized labor. Thomas stated there may be some private dollars to help initiate early studies and linkages. This is good news, for these can leverage the larger resources and community engagement needed to ultimately make the Newark Symphony Hall dream come true.