A DECADE AT THE ARTS COUNCIL: Jeff Nathanson will be honored for his ten year’s of leadership of the Arts Council of Princeton on Thursday at the ACP’s annual meeting. Shown here surrounded by artworks in his office on Witherspoon Street, Mr. Nathanson spoke about the high points of his tenure and of the challenges to come. (Photo by L. Arntzenius)
When the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP) holds its annual board meeting tomorrow, June 18, there will be much to celebrate, not least of which is a decade’s worth of leadership by Executive Director Jeff Nathanson.
As anyone in Princeton will tell you, the Arts Council has gone through a remarkable transformation during the last decade.
“The annual membership meeting is one of my favorite events of the year,” said Mr. Nathanson, interviewed Monday. “It’s an opportunity to thank our outgoing board members after their two three-year terms and welcome trustees newly elected by our membership. We also present our Pride of the Arts Council Awards to volunteer, neighborhood, and corporate partners and supporters, and announce this year’s winners of the Evans Scholarship for college-bound high school students.”
Chances are Mr. Nathanson will also receive some accolades of his own at the meeting.
As a kid growing up in Hawthorne, the Southern California suburb of Los Angeles that was home to Mattel Toys and the Beach Boys, Mr. Nathanson excelled as a student and although he was always interested in the arts, he entered UCLA as a pre-med student. In his sophomore year, he transferred to art with a minor in music. A talented guitarist, he plays in a band, Box Project, a fusion of jazz and rock with a heavy dose of world influences. Their latest piece has a strong Middle Eastern flavor. Locally, he’s played with Minister William Carter’s gospel group at venues such as ACP, the Princeton Shopping Center, street festivals, and the YMCA.
After college he worked in private galleries in downtown San Francisco, where he had a partnership in a gallery for a time in the 1980s, all the while playing rock, R&B, and jazz inspired music. At one time he was music director for the Faultline Comedy Theater.
But working in private galleries didn’t satisfy Mr. Nathanson’s deep-rooted belief in art as an important part of life. “Trying to find paintings for clients who wanted artwork that would match their sofas, was not satisfying,” he said. “Art is very important to society and I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.”
By 1990, he was looking to build a career in the non-profit side of the art world. After gaining a graduate certificate in non-profit administration and fundraising from the Indiana University School of Philanthropy, he served for a decade as executive director of the Richmond Art Center in Richmond, California, an arts education and community arts center that in many ways resembles the Arts Council of Princeton.
It was an offer to become president and executive director with the International Sculpture Center (ISC) at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, that brought him to Princeton with his wife Connie Tell and daughter Anya. Ms. Tell is now director of the Institute for Women in Arts at Rutgers and Anya, 19, has just finished her freshman year at Rutgers.
In Princeton, he worked with Leslie Burger at the Princeton Public Library in 2003-04 to acquire art for the new building: pieces like the swan in the children’s library, the extraordinary donor book in the foyer, and the stunning mosaic mural on the ground floor. “Working with Leslie and the art committee was a very fulfilling experience,” he recalled. “I believe strongly in the power of art to influence community, so having a public library that is so committed to art is really exciting.”
As a guest curator at the Princeton University Art Museum, Mr. Nathanson brought works by sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz to the campus, those unforgettable “Walking Men” outside the art museum.
With such installations behind him, it was hardly surprising that he found himself being recruited to lead the Arts Council of Princeton in 2005.
He stepped across the street from the public library and into a $10.5 million fundraising campaign for the new Arts Council building. “A dinner hosted by the Momos at Mediterra kicked off the process and this month marks the seventh anniversary of the renovation and expansion of the old Arts Council building by the late Michael Graves,” he said. “The project had then been almost ten years in the making and a roller coaster of changes and revisions, but in 2005 with all of the approvals in hand, we shifted into high gear to get the building underway.”
But before construction could take place, new premises had to be found so that the Arts Council could continue its work. “A lot of work went into engineering that transition,” said Mr. Nathanson. “People were amazing, everybody from the board to the staff to volunteers rolled up their sleeves and got to work. When I first talked to the board about taking on the job, the general belief was that the ACP should scale back during this transitional period, but I felt that we should do the opposite and increase our membership, our programs, and our outreach, and that’s what happened. We had the conTEMPorary site at the Princeton Shopping Center, a ceramic studio in Rocky Hill, and our summer camps moved to the Princeton Junior School and when the new building opened we had scaled up and were bigger and better than before. I am very proud of what we accomplished at the time.”
Not the least of Mr. Nathanson’s accomplishments is the transformation of Communiversity, its expansion of programs and outreach. “Communiversity is a really good example of our organization’s spirit,” he said.
“When I was hired, I attended Communiversity in anticipation of my responsibility. At that time, the event seemed more like a street fair than an arts festival. One of my first tasks was to find out what could be done to change that and I reached out to the staff, the board, and to the Princeton Area Arts and Culture Consortium (PAACC), which has about 30 member arts organizations whose representatives meet regularly to share professional practices and form collaborations. To induce more arts organizations to be involved, we gave them lower fees on booths and an additional discount if they did something interactive.”
The challenge to engage the public reaped benefits. “One of my favorite activities resulting from this is the Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s instrument petting zoo,” said Mr. Nathanson. “Communiversity has come a long way from funnel cakes and rock music and people handing out brochures to an event that draws 40,000 people, a mix of professionals, students and volunteers, with rock and roll, classical, and dance events.”
According to Mr. Nathanson, the high point of the last ten years is none of the above but rather the ability provided by the ACP’s new building to offer more benefits to the community. “The ACP is at a whole other level from where it had been, with new marketing strategies and increased outreach and partnerships, more classes, concerts, and exhibitions. And every year since we reopened we’ve received a citation of excellence from the NJ State Council on the Arts and a Governor’s Award in 2011.”
The ACP’s operating budget has grown from half a million to $1.8 million a year. Its motto is “Building Community Through The Arts,” achieved through collaboration and outreach to the public. “The highlight of my time here has been the ability to increase relevance and accessibility. The biggest future challenge is the need for more space as we continue to expand. I have to hand it to our staff for creatively designing programs with others like Morven and Grounds for Sculpture. We have after school programs at local elementary schools and free programs with Princeton Young Achievers and HomeFront.”
Funding remains a constant challenge as well and Mr. Nathanson and his Board President Ted Deutsch will be rolling out a new strategic plan at Thursday’s meeting. Half of the ACP’s operating budget comes from earned income from classes and ticket sales, the rest comes from local foundations and businesses, corporate sponsors, and so on.
“My passion is in the visual and performing arts and music. I am very happy here. Working with creative people keeps me energized,” said Mr. Nathanson. “The most successful people have a creative component to their lives. You don’t have to be a great thespian, dancer, visual, or performing artist to benefit from training in the arts. And all creative artists need an audience, the better we educate people in our country with respect to arts appreciation, the better our audiences will be.”
“I live and breathe the Arts Council,” he said, adding that he looks forward to a time when the ACP reaches a point of equilibrium and he might have an opportunity to follow through on some of his curatorial ideas and to make more music.”
For more information on the Arts Council of Princeton, visit: www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.