LEAD ROLE: Taneshia Nash Laird is leading a $50 million renovation of Newark Symphony Hall. (Woodline Dorcin)
President and CEO, Newark Symphony Hall
Taneshia Nash Laird’s bio describes her as “social change agent and community developer who centers cultural equity in her work.”
That’s certainly reflected in her role at Newark Symphony Hall, where she has been president and CEO since 2018.
She’s in the midst of a $50 million, five-year effort to renovate and revitalize the historic 3,800-seat performing arts center in New Jersey’s most populous city in time for the hall’s 2025 centennial. The project will create more than 500 construction jobs and opportunities for small business, Nash Laird said.
The renovation is funded by a combination of charitable donations, grants and other sources, and Nash Laird is forging ahead in an effort to build opportunity in a city where Black people and others of color make up a majority of the population. She’s keen on using the property’s status on the National Register of Historic Places and location in a qualified federal “opportunity zone,” where private investments may be eligible for capital gain tax incentives, and a state urban enterprise zone as leverage for securing tax credits and additional investment.
Nash Laird is an adjunct professor in Drexel University’s entertainment and arts management program, and before Newark Symphony Hall was executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton, serving as the first person of color in that role. She has also been director of economic development and acting director of housing production for the city of Trenton, New Jersey’s state capital; regional director of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce; and executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association, where she launched an arts and tourism program called Destination Trenton.
Nash Laird and her late husband, Roland Laird, founded My Image Studios, or MIST Harlem, a restaurant and performing arts space where Roland was briefly CEO before he died in 2013 at the age of 52. She also launched the Legacy Business Advisors consultancy and was a co-founder, with Los Angeles Lakers great James Worthy, of Legendary Eats at Staples Center. She and her husband co-wrote the book “Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans.” Nash Laird was a special government employee in the Obama Administration as a grants panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and was previously named by former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine to the governing body of the New Jersey Urban Enterprise Zone Authority.
Newark Symphony Hall has announced that Newark-based Yendor Theatre Company — which develops and produces works by Black, brown and women writers as well as those from the LGBTQ+ community — will be its first company-in-residence since the 1970s. Yendor will co-produce, along with North Hollywood, California-based Where Art Can Occur Theater Center, Richard Wesley’s “Black Terror,” originally staged in 1971 as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival, now Shakespeare in the Park.
The production, directed by WACO’s co-artistic director Richard Lawson, who appears on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” will stream online this summer. Yendor, a 2021 Black Seed grant winner, will also be the first resident of a performing arts career accelerator and business incubator called The Lab at NSH.
It was also announced recently that NSH joined the New Jersey Arts and Culture Administrators of Color Network, a network of arts administrators of color founded in 2019 and dedicated to advancing equity, diversity and inclusion in the state’s arts community.
Nash Laird spoke with VenuesNow on meeting the challenge of making sure Newark Symphony Hall remains a link to the past and serves as a gateway to future opportunity for one of the more diverse large cities in the country.
How did Yendor come to be Newark Symphony Hall’s first company in residence since the 1970s?
Andrew Binger, who is the artistic director for Yendor, was assigned to me as a mentee in (the) Victoria Emerging Leaders Program in the School of Business at Rutgers University. I had always said I wanted to continue to support him any way in my capacity as his mentor. One of the things that he had expressed is that the late (Yendor) founder Rodney Gilbert had always wanted to have a formal relationship with Symphony Hall. So we decided to do this formal relationship and I said, what can I do to sort of kick it up a notch, and that’s when I approached WACO about a partnership. So really, this was the next step in a mentor-mentee relationship as part of The Lab. All of that came together within weeks.
What’s the connection with WACO, all the way across the country? How does that come about?
I know the executive director, Shay Wafer. She was the executive director of 651 Arts (an organization that works to deepen awareness and appreciation of contemporary performing arts and culture of the African diaspora, and to provide professional and creative opportunities for artists of African descent) in Brooklyn. I had spoken to her just about collaborating in my prior position as the executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton. This space is really small and especially when you talk about black women who are running arts organizations. So, it’s a really small club, and I know a lot of them.
That leads to one other thing we are doing, because I’m hoping to change that. We’ve partnered with Noelle Scaggs (of Fitz and the Tantrums fame), who has her Diversify the Stage initiative, which is to change all of that, with respect to, especially, the concert industry and diversifying the concert industry. So all of this fits together with a through line of developing and diversifying the live entertainment industry, both the people on the stage but also behind the stage related to the technical careers as well.
Does NSH have a formal relationship with any colleges or universities?
The only institution that we have a relationship with, and it’s a great one, is the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees). We’ve been working with them to come up with a new program essentially to build on a program they currently have for high school students. We want them to work with us to build a program that is around training for out of school… people who are not necessarily college career track. They might be between 18 and 24. Again, when you look at New Jersey, and especially if you look at Newark, we are predominantly people of color. We’re 40-something percent Black and we’re 30-something percent Hispanic. So, we really want to work with the IATSE stagehand union to bring more local people into IATSE.
I imagine “Black Terror” will resonate given the circumstances of racial relations in America today. Do you see it as particularly poignant in that respect?
The thing that’s amazing is the fact that the playwright (Richard Wesley) is a board member of Symphony Hall. In fact, he’s been on our board for double-digit years. He’s a professor at NYU and he is from Newark and it was his first produced play and it was produced by the legendary Joseph Papp as part of the Shakespeare Theater Festival. We had that first meeting… and they said, why this play? I said, Well, No. 1, it was his first produced play (at age 26), but I also thought the theme of a Black revolutionary would still resonate today a half a century later. But again, I actually chose it because it was Richard Wesley’s first play and it essentially put him on a career path that, he won the Drama Desk Award, I think for most promising playwright. He ended up having plays produced on Broadway, including by James Lipton of the Actor’s Studio, and he also ultimately wrote two plays that are pretty seminal in terms of 1970s Black theater, “Uptown Saturday Night,” and “Let’s Do It Again,” among other things. But those are the ones that people remember because of the people that were in them, including Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.
So, many stars aligned?
Many, many, many stars are aligned. Richard Lawson said there are so many reasons to say yes and so we are going to be producing a virtual play. The funny thing is, originally, my concept was to just do a reading over Zoom, but Richard Lawson, who will be directing it, has very high-tech approaches that he wants to take. It’s going to be an actual play where some of the actors are in Newark in our black box theater, some will be in California, but you won’t be able to tell they are in two different places.
Why was it important for NSH to join the New Jersey Arts and Culture Administrators of Color Network?
Until something changes, I am the sole black woman running a performing arts center in the entire state of New Jersey and there’s like 20-something, and that’s ridiculous, actually. I’ve connected with other people running venues in other places, but I really want to see, especially when you look at the fact that New Jersey, by the end of this decade, will be majority Hispanic, Black and Asian, I really hope the leadership starts to reflect the people.
The New Jersey Arts and Culture Administrators of Color Network is all about professional development, but it’s also about community and as I said, I don’t have community myself in New Jersey amongst other CEOs (and) executive directors of performing arts centers. I literally had to go outside New Jersey to find other Black women, other people who look like me, but here’s a whole group who look like my team. Again, we are Black, we are Latinx and we’re Asian. For me, it was important for them to not only get professional development support but to have community.