HAVING A BALL: The Terrace Ballroom at Newark Symphony Hall, which has played host to Frank Sinatra and other icons, has been renovated to its former splendor. (Courtesy Venue)
Newark Symphony Hall CEO Orchestrates a Renaissance
Newark Symphony Hall is a nearly 100-year-old landmark in New Jersey that’s been undergoing a transformation that reflects more than the $50 million in physical renovations that are underway, with substantial funding from the state budget; programs for performing arts and production apprentices also aim to cement NSH as a center of Black culture and learning.
Talia Young, who has been the CEO of the non-profit organization that runs the venue, Newark Performing Arts Corporation, for nine months, first on an interim basis after Taneshia Nash Laird departed for an opportunity in Boston, has a clear vision of the future and the challenges that lie ahead.
“That’s the gift and the curse, of the venue,” Young said. “It’s so historic; so many firsts; so many I saw who used to perform there. The curse and the hurdle we’re up against is, how do we communicate, strategize, plan and secure that life and love now and build the future of what Symphony Hall is going to look like as an entertainment venue for the future and how we can produce, and how we can help and be a home for not just those types of entertainment, but what does production and workforce training look like? What does the art education in multiple tech arts fields look like? And how do we compose all that to use 200,000 square feet of space effectively?”
The venue’s 15,000-square-foot Terrace Ballroom was recently restored. The main concert hall is 20,100 seats (50 more than New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Young points out) and will be restored to the tune of $15 million beginning in the fall. There is space for arts and education programs on NSH’s top two floors and there is also a 300-seat black box that productions and movies were using every month up until the Hollywood writers’ strike.
“Every time someone comes in our building, they say, I didn’t know this exists,” she said. “It’s a mausoleum from the curb, but when you come in, you realize there’s three separate buildings. A big part of it, of course, is getting the physical building up to modern standards and then layering everything else onto all that.”
The next phase of renovation is a new roof. All of the work is due to be complete in time for NSH’s 100th anniversary in 2025. Trenton, New Jersey-based Clarke Caton Hintz has designed a new streetscape for the building.
Young, who has a background in finance after years with City National Bank of New Jersey, says the community development aspect of what’s happening at NSH is about more than “what we do in all four corners.”
“It is going to totally change the economic impact and the quality of life factors for the people and the residents and the businesses right next to us,” she said. “So, what does our front facade say? How can we bring your restaurant into our building? How are we actively programming and creating a better streetscape once the building is operating, meaning those three areas. We’re not just running a building, we’re simultaneously developing and reactivating a building that has been brown for five to ten years, with COVID in between, that is effectively ineffective in engineering.”
A new freight elevator has been installed.
“So, the first the second, third or fourth floor of our building will have direct access,” Young said. “That means the building can have a concert, the building can have a ball like a gala, or an event in the ballroom, and the top floor can be operating.”
Young did not plan to take the reins at NSH.
“I was on the board for about five years. I was working at City National Bank and we had a loan with (the NSH board). After leaving the bank, and doing my own thing in with my event logistics company, they said, when Taneshia stepped down, would you be interested in taking the interim position? And I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ Two days later, of being an interim position, I looked around, and I’m like, I can do this. I can really do this.’”
One of the things she has championed is thinking of new ways of doing things that differ from how it’s always been done at the venerable venue.
“Looking at the space differently, operating the space differently, programming the space differently, but there are different hats,” Young said. “Another thing is looking at both businesses simultaneously. There was an operation of the management that wasn’t always connected and congruent with programming and now what I’ve done is bring both of these teams to the table and say, ‘Hey, we’re one team, right? You guys can’t operate independently, and you can’t program and hope that the operations team just understands. So, it’s taking all sides of the operation, and then creating a structure that heightened communication systems.”
Opportunity abounds and Young, a Hofstra graduate born and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, is poised to maintain the momentum at NSH.
“Yes, there is a boatload and very exciting energy around state capital and government funding, but we have to invest and we have to ensure that our human capital that is 90% local, 95% black and brown, are invested too,” she said. “What does the workforce since we’re a local (operation)? Are we advocating and securing arts education and access to education? We have to make sure there’s advancements and there’s investment into them as individuals. I’m not shy. Some people say go for it, and some people say can you pull it back. It’s a lot of give and take. I have no problem and I’m very unapologetic about advocating because we are Black, and this is what we deserve. I don’t think anything’s wrong with it and because there’s such inequity in differences on how the operations of nonprofit and arts institutions are from larger-scale, non-Black arts institutions, we have to speak to it, we have to acknowledge it.”
It can be uncomfortable, but it’ easier when when you have allies and supporting organizations, “and they agree they’re going to allow us in and be open and look at ways of supporting and being friends to address those things.”
“But if you never talk about it, then that’s your fault, too,” Young said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.