Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 9
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
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All in a Day’s Work

CASTING A WIDE NET: “Though this is our home,” said Arts Council Executive Director Jeff Nathanson of the non-profit’s Paul Robeson Center, “our work goes way beyond the walls of this facility. So much of what we do is in partnership with other community institutions, like the public library.”

Jeff Nathanson began his tenure as executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton in May 2005. An arts management professional who has balanced his career between visual arts and music, he worked prior to that as an independent curator, arts management and public art consultant with the Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton Public Library, Borough of Princeton, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Bradford Graves Foundation, West Windsor Arts Council, San Francisco Art Institute, and numerous other institutions. He has served as president/executive director of the International Sculpture Center (publisher of Sculpture Magazine) in Hamilton, New Jersey; executive director of the Richmond Art Center in Richmond, California; executive director of ArtSpan in San Francisco; and director/curator of Spectrum Gallery in San Francisco.

The Arts Council of Princeton, founded in 1967 and housed in the landmark Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, is a non-profit organization with a mission to build community through the arts by presenting a wide range of programs including exhibitions, performances, free community cultural events, studio-based classes and workshops in the visual, performing, and literary arts.

Ellen Gilbert

It’s all about participation. Right now we’re re-evaluating our programs, to make sure that we’re serving people from all walks of life. We want to make art accessible, especially to people who don’t ordinarily have access to it. At the same time, we want programs to be at a level that people who do know about art will appreciate, and that will elevate their knowledge.

Creating is a huge part of what we do. Museums are for appreciating and interpreting art; we have working studies where people actually undergo the creative experience. Even our theater, where there are a lot of musical performances, provides an opportunity for musicians to talk with the audience. We love that, because it engages the audience in a way you would never find elsewhere. It’s amazing.

I was very involved in selecting the art — including the mosaic mural — for the new library building, and I really think of the public library and the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP) as being complementary facilities. We also do a lot of programming — particularly exhibitions — with the University. Many people turn to art because they’re looking for a way to address the world. You can’t remove learning and the pursuit of knowledge and truth from understanding art. There is nothing more human than the creative urge.

I’m disturbed by the fact that art often gets marginalized in this country. If you look at civilization, creativity is a constant. It may surprise some people to know that we don’t receive any support from either the Borough or the Township. Most municipal arts councils are supported by their communities. ACP does Communiversity, an annual Halloween program, film series, and the summer concerts at the Shopping Center, all for free.

We have to struggle for every dollar. It’s interesting that despite the fact that the economic downturn made a huge dent in our large donations, we haven’t lost any ground in our membership. People are in need of things that make them feel good about life. Student enrollment is increasingly growing; participation in our programs for children and teens has doubled in the last couple of years.

No Typical Day

There’s no such thing as a typical day. There are always people at my door saying, “Jeff, I need you.” I proofread everything that goes out of here, work on grant applications, talk to board members about setting up lunch or dinner with a potential donor, and write thank you letters. I have a particular pen that I sign with, because there can be anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of things to sign. I’m very deadline-driven. I usually have lunch at my desk unless I have a business-related lunch meeting.

I try to engage with everybody on the staff, and I’m careful not to micromanage. I really trust our staff and give them lots of encouragement. Everybody is so dedicated to what they’re doing, and they all want to see their projects accepted. I know that the buck stops with me, though. I use a planner, but generally, by the end of any given day, I’m buried in paperwork. I read a lot of proposals, do a lot of entertaining, and try to make decisions about what to do and what to put on the back-burner.

We try to be all things to all people but we can’t do it. It’s interesting, though, being an arts organization serving a sophisticated population as well as a grass-roots, down-to-earth demographic. We try to provide a context for art appreciation and activity that’s accessible to everyone.

I haven’t made my own art in a lot of years, but I find that the experience of working with creative people, coming up with new programs, marketing ideas, and working with others in the community is very satisfying and offers the joy of being creative. I do keep a guitar around because once in a while there’s an opportunity to play. There was a jazz group playing one Monday evening last year when I was working late. I thought, “They’re all upstairs playing music and I’m down here working on spreadsheets.” I went up and had a good time. I also play with a group called Haute Dawg. We’ve played in public on occasion.

We’re working on creating a gift shop, and haven’t given up on the idea of having a satellite at the Shopping Center, where our ConTEMPorary (I have a great love of word play) arts space was a big success while this building was being built. Parking was great, and people could drop their kids off and go shopping. It was too small though, and now we’re running out of studio space here as well. We’d be interested in what happens to the Valley Road Building.

I like hearing from people.

The Arts Council website is

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