A decade of promoting the arts: Arts Council of Princeton’s Executive Director Jeff Nathanson talks about the past and looks to the future

By Anthony Stoeckert, Packet Media Group
For Jeff Nathanson, one of the pleasures of his job as executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton is giving people the opportunity to take art classes when they might not otherwise have that opportunity.
Through scholarships and collaborations with organizations in the Princeton area, kids and seniors who can’t afford the classes are able to participate. One such organization is HomeFront, which helps homeless families in Mercer County. Mr. Nathanson says he will occasionally stop by the classes, taught by Eva Mantell and Bob Jenkins, and when he does, the representative from HomeFront who brings the kids will note his presence by saying to the kids, “Hey everybody, Mr. Jeff is in the house!”
“I think there is a real joy and dynamic power that happens between the instructors and the kids,” Mr. Nathanson says. “I love visiting the studio when the HomeFront kids, or any group of kids who are here for after-school, are here.”
Mr. Nathanson once studied fine art but his primary creative outlet these days is by playing guitar. During a recent concert he was playing, some kids from HomeFront showed up. After the gig, Mr. Nathanson found out one of the kids played guitar, and they started talking about music.
“One of the great joys I have working with this organization is the interaction with students and the community, the creative exchange,” Mr. Nathanson says. “I get a lot of energy from all those students and the creative energy that is around this organization.”
Mr. Nathanson is putting that energy to good use as he marks 10 years of leadership at the arts council. At its building, the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts at 102 Witherspoon St., the organization hosts a seemingly endless list of camps and classes, and also hosts exhibits, live performances and more.
For example, the arts council is currently holding camps for children and teens in such areas as visual arts, performing and literature, textiles, ceramics sculpture and jewelry. It’s also hosting classes for adults.
In addition, the arts council’s current artist-in-residence, Faraz Khan, is hosting calligraphy workshops, including one on July 11, and summer means it’s time for the series of free concerts at the Princeton Shopping Center. Upcoming concerts in the series include a show by Tony Vacca’s World Rhythms on July 16.
On view at the arts council’s Graves Terrace is “B Home,” an installation by Peter Abrams and Graham Apgar. The B Home Project installation examines sustainable building practices with low-cost shelters. Take a walk on Witherspoon and you’ll come across the “Princeton Parklet” — for which the arts council is one of the sponsors — an art installation with benches and trees outside of Small World Coffee where people can be part of the art by taking a break there.
That’s a lot of stuff going on, and when asked to describe a typical day at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, Mr. Nathanson says there’s no such thing.
“Typically, it’s changing constantly,” he says. “And that’s one of the things that keeps the arts council exciting for us and for people who participate. In any given week, we’ll have a whole range of children’s art classes and adult art classes. There are some theater and performing arts classes that will happen on occasion, like on a Wednesday afternoon, and we’re sitting in the office and all of a sudden we’re hearing the ‘thump, thump, thump,’ and we go, ‘Oh, it’s drama time’ or ‘it’s dance time.’ Or on a Friday afternoon a band may come in late afternoon for a rehearsal and sound check, getting ready for a concert that evening.”
There also are people visiting to see art on display, or school kids touring an exhibit and then heading to a studio to make art inspired by what they saw.
“Every day is a new experience, really,” Mr. Nathanson says.
His tenure with the arts council began in 2005. He was working for the Princeton Public Library, directing the art project for the library’s then-new building at 65 Witherspoon St., which opened in 2004.
The library building had just opened and he was in the office of Leslie Burger, the library’s director, and met a consultant who was working with the arts council.
“Leslie said ‘Oh I had been wanting to introduce you two,’” Mr. Nathanson says. That meeting led to him applying for the job as executive director of the arts council and he was hired a few months later. That was in May of 2005. By June, he was in his new job and started what he calls a “crazy roller-coaster” ride.
“We celebrated the groundbreaking for the expansion and renovation of the building, we found temporary quarters over at the Princeton Shopping Center and moved our staff and operations and programs,” he says. The arts council also had a satellite ceramics studio and Rocky Hill and was setting up camps at Princeton Junior School. “It just was a wild ride. We were doing so much.”
At the same time, the arts council was adding to its programs and operations so that it would be a larger organization the day it moved into the new facility.
“We were anticipating having an arts center that was twice as big as the one we were expanding,” Mr. Nathanson says. “When we cut the ribbon in June of 2008… we had ramped up our programming and expanded our staff. At that point, I think it doubled our membership because of the excitement over our building. It was just a flurry of activity and a lot of people getting really excited… We had over 2,000 donors to the capital campaign. It was an amazing outpouring of community support. I just think back at that period as a major team effort that was very successful and exciting.”
This summer also marks the seventh anniversary of the opening of the Michael Graves-designed Paul Robeson Center for the Arts. In an interview in a sitting area of the building, Mr. Nathanson talked about the achievements of the Arts Council under his leadership.
The word he kept using was “community.” Getting the community involved and helping expose people to the arts. As he notes, the arts council already had a long track record for providing high-quality art classes, and was providing free classes with organizations such as Home Front, Princeton Young Achiever and local schools.
“We started talking about expanding our programming and trying to get a sense of what does that mean and what are the steps we need to take to increase our fundraising, increase our programmatic capacity, expand our staff, recognize the need for facilities maintenance and things like expenses for a larger building,” Mr. Nathanson says. “The remarkable thing to me, when I look back on the last 10 years, the operating budget for this organization when I started was about $450,000 and it’s now well over $1.7 million and pushing toward $2 million. It’s pretty much quadrupled the size of what it was back then.”
The arts council outreach also grew with grants, such as one from the Johnson Charitable Trust, specifically for residents of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.
“The arts council had always been looking to be responsive and supportive to the needs and desires of local Witherspoon-Jackson residents,” Mr. Nathanson says. “But then we had a pot of money that we could use so we could guarantee every year we had scholarship money and programmatic money available to continue free programs. One of the things we’ve always tried to do is make sure that our programs, that the arts across the spectrum of our disciplines, is relevant, accessible and affordable for the local community. We try to be as inclusive as possible.”
Initiatives that began under Mr. Nathanson’s time as executive director include developing a relationship with Corner House, and creating an aging and arts health care program.
“That’s something we’re really proud of,” he says. “Over the last three years in particular, we’ve been working with the Princeton Health Care system. We have artists going to a number of different assisted living facilities, we have art techniques for the caregivers class that we run. It’s all pretty new in the evolution of the organization and certainly has had an important and positive impact on the community.”
The relationship with Corner House involves scholarship funds that available to students so that they can take fee-based classes if their family can’t afford to pay for them.
“Our hope is that no one is turned away for their lack of ability to pay,” Mr. Nathanson says.
He says that the Arts Council of Princeton also wants to encourage older people, people of all ages, really, who are interested in practicing an art, but feel intimidated abut putting themselves out there and making art with input from an instructor, in front of other students.
“One of the things we try to do is break down those barriers, and try to reduce or eliminate the inhibitions,” he says. “But we know there’s a challenge we have in working with the public. There’s a large percentage of the people who are intimidated, they’re afraid to try something new. Especially if you haven’t been continuing to draw or paint or take photographs or play an instrument, you may be reluctant. But the great thing about is we have beginning classes, where there’s no judgment.”
He notes that the setting for the arts council’s classes isn’t academic and that while there are advanced classes for serious artists, most people who take classes at the arts council aren’t seeking to make art their profession.
“If you learn something new and enjoy it and you stick with it, you can move on to an immediate level,” he says. “And hopefully, you’ll get hooked and it becomes something that enhances your life.”
Mr. Nathanson lives in Princeton Junction with his wife, Connie Tell, who runs the Institute for Women and Art at Rutgers, and their daughter Anya, who attends Rutgers. He began college as a pre-med student but figured out that wasn’t for him and switched to the arts, graduating from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1977 with a degree in art an music, then did some graduate work in arts management at Indiana University’s School of Philanthropy.
When asked what his proudest achievements with the arts council are, Mr. Nathanson notes the growth and impact of the arts council’s programs since opening the new building; how those programs have become multi-disciplinary, relevant and accessible; the growth of Communiversity; and the arts council’s public art projects beyond the Paul Robeson Center.
In regard to the future, Mr. Nathanson notes that the arts council has just completed the third strategic planning process of his tenure.
“It continues our commitment to participatory arts, to making the arts accessible and inclusive,” Mr. Nathanson says. “It really maps out some of the areas in which we want to do even better: serving adverse families and youth; working to expand our reach in arts and healthcare; and trying to remove those barriers and inhibitions, the intimidation factor people have. We want to demystify this building and the arts in general.” 