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New Arts Council Director Embraces His Role in Princeton's Cultural Mix

Matthew Hersh

Jeff Nathanson is the latest political player in town: you just don't know it yet.

With his appointment as the newest executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton comes a certain level of political capital as the head of an institution that, if all goes according to plan, will become a significant in-town destination.

In June 2004, the Regional Planning Board of Princeton approved plans designed by Princeton architect Michael Graves for a new wing and expansion of the Arts Council's current structure, resulting in a total 16,740-square-foot building to be called the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts.

So as Mr. Nathanson, 49, accepts his new role with a mixture of excitement and humility.

"I think of this as the cultural center of Princeton, but you can't forget that Witherspoon Street is an amazing corridor," he said referring to the mix of commercial, residential, education, and municipal activity that occurs in about a one-mile stretch.

He is also well aware of the milestones that were reached prior to his arrival, and that he is succeeding Anne Reeves, who was the Arts Council's executive director for nearly 25 years.

That said, the ground breaking at the Arts Council building on June 12 will feature not only the physical significance of a new building, but the significance of a new administration.

"There's a long history that's had its ups and downs," Mr. Nathanson said, referring to the community battle relating to the extent of the Arts Council's expansion. "But there's been so much that's already been worked out and so many issues that have been identified, I feel that I have a lot to work with," he said, adding that he is "already meeting tons of people" who anticipate what a new Arts Council will offer.

But his focus, at first, will be that of an observer.

"I will listen and try to get to decisions that really are respectful of and representative of all of the opinions voiced‹there are so many."

Mr. Nathanson, said he prefers to take the "long view" when it comes to his position and will work with the decisions made when it comes to the building design, which was a compromise. Initial plans had envisioned a building upwards of 20,000 square feet.

"There are things the Arts Council won't be able to do in this building, it is of limited size, but that doesn't mean the Arts Council won't be able to address certain artistic ideas that we think are important," he said adding that the institution can collaborate with other regional organizations to carry out its full scope of programming.

That said, Mr. Nathanson, himself a performer (he's a jazz guitarist), said he would not want to see the Arts Council anywhere but downtown.

"There was talk about the Arts Council moving its building and, from what I can tell, there is universal agreement that it's great that we're here. I think the potential for collaboration and really maximizing the potential in this downtown-focused cultural development is just tremendous."

Mr. Nathanson came a long way to get to downtown Princeton. A former executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area's Richmond Arts Center, he, his wife and his nine-year-old daughter moved to Princeton Junction five years ago when he took a job as the director of the international Sculpture Center at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton. He has also directed several projects at the Princeton University Art Museum, including the Magdalena Abakanowicz "headless" sculpture outside the museum. He is also a founding member of the West Windsor Arts Council and a former executive director.

But he quickly became familiar with the inner-workings of Princeton when he was art project director for the new Princeton Public Library during its planning stages. Most notably, he worked in an advisory capacity on the 30-foot tile wall Ik-Joong Kang mural on the ground floor.

In working on the library during the planning process, Mr. Nathanson said he "got to know the people you need to know" in Princeton, meaning that he is not coming into this position cold.

And as Mr. Nathanson continues to warm up to his new position, he said he will view his tenure at the Arts Council the same way he sees the objectives for the institution itself: in the "long view."

"I don't know how long I'll be the director here, but I have no plans to leave anytime soon," he said with a grin.

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