August 21, 2019

Local Cultural Groups Search for New Leaders

By Anne Levin

In an unlikely confluence of circumstances, four of Princeton’s key cultural institutions are looking for leaders. McCarter Theatre Center and American Repertory Ballet are in the market for artistic directors, and the Arts Council of Princeton and Princeton Public Library are seeking to fill empty executive director slots.

The Arts Council has been without a permanent executive director since last August, when Taneshia Nash Laird departed after less than two years in the post. Princeton Public Library announced last April that Brett Bonfield, who had taken over from longtime director Leslie Burger in early 2016, was moving on.

News that Emily Mann, McCarter’s artistic director since 1990, would retire at the end of the 2019/2020 season was made public last January. And at the end of last month, American Repertory Ballet (ARB) announced that Douglas Martin, the company’s artistic director since 2010, was leaving. The terms of his departure were not disclosed.

It might seem that this uncertainty would be cause for concern. But those leading these organizations on an interim basis say that for the most part, it is business as usual.

“It’s peaceful. Things are good here,” said Jim Levine, who has been serving as interim executive director of the Arts Council since Laird’s departure last year. “Things have settled down, and the organization is running really well and fulfilling its mission. Finding a new executive director isn’t urgent. But it’s time.”

Levine, who is retired from the investment firm Church & Dwight Co., Inc., is not involved in the committee that is currently looking for a full-time director. Is he a candidate? “They haven’t asked me to stay,” he said. “I think about it, but I’m not sure if I’d throw my hat into the ring.”

Princeton Public Library is one of the town’s cultural anchors. Often called “the community’s living room,” it was renovated and reimagined with a major expansion led by former director Burger. Bonfield had big shoes to fill when he arrived from the public library in Collingswood to take over from Burger. When he departed for a new job as chief operations officer
of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in Ohio, the Princeton Library hired Jim Hecht, retired from 20 years with the Somerset County Library System, to be interim executive director.

Applications for the permanent position were due July 31, and the search committee had received more than 20 as of a few days before that date. The committee has begun the process of narrowing down the list, and should get through the first round of interviews by the end of this month, Hecht said.

“I think they will find the right person. They need somebody with good leadership,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of interim directorships, and I have to say that the staff here is exceptional. They also need somebody who is good at fundraising and can work with the development team.”

Is he a candidate? “Not me,” said Hecht, with a laugh. “I’m too old. I’m happy doing consulting.”

Emily Mann’s three-decade run as artistic director and resident playwright of McCarter Theatre Center has been such that her final season is titled “Signature Emily,” with a series of plays celebrating her career. Mindful that Mann is a hard act to follow, McCarter’s board of trustees have hired Albert Hall & Associates, a professional search firm, to find a replacement.

“We are embarking on what will be a national and perhaps international search,” said Michael S. Rosenberg, McCarter’s managing director. “The board has put together an exceptional search committee with two extraordinary co-chairs. They’ve made it very clear that they want to build on Emily’s extraordinary work over the last 30 years.”

Mann has been consulted as the search begins. Whether her successor follows her lead as a champion of works by women and people of color remains to be seen. “We’re very open at this point,” said Rosenberg last month. “We’re not going to become a movie theater. But could we do different kinds of programming? Sure.”

Searching for a new artistic director is one of a board’s most important responsibilities. “They haven’t had to think about these questions in 30 years,” said Rosenberg. “They will be building on Emily’s legacy, but they want to take a thoughtful amount of time to hear what candidates have to say.”

The website for Albert Hall & Associates, which lists theater companies, museums, arts festivals, and dance companies all over the country as clients, says it is not accepting applications yet for the McCarter position, but advises anyone interested to “watch this space.”

“Emily is with us through June 2020, so it will certainly be settled by then,” said Rosenberg.

ARB’s announcement a few weeks ago of “a new chapter” as a Founding Resident Company of the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center also included the news that Martin, its artistic director for nearly a decade, would be stepping down. Martin was a lead dancer for the company for several years before taking over as artistic director from Graham Lustig, who left after 11 years.

ARB’s executive director is Julie Diana Hench, who was a principal dancer with Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Ballet and San Francisco Ballet before serving for two years as executive director of Juneau Dance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. She came to ARB in 2017. She is assuming the artistic director’s responsibilities until a new director is hired.

Hench’s husband, who was also a principal dancer with the Philadelphia and San Francisco troupes, is Juneau Dance Theatre’s artistic director. The Juneau company also lists Ms. Hench as executive advisor on its website.

“We have already seen great interest in this position and we are in the early stages of the application review process,” she said of ARB’s search for a new artistic director.