I wrote about the arts for Time magazine from 1997 to 2001–mostly about music, though I also published a number of articles about dance. The experience was fun and frustrating in like proportions, for those were the years when Time was slowly winding down its century-long commitment to full-scale coverage of the fine arts. I didn’t realize it, but Time‘s decision to outsource its coverage of classical music and dance to a freelance writer was itself an ominous sign of things to come. It grew harder and harder for me to get pieces into the magazine, and after 9/11 it became impossible. (Watching Time walk away from the fine arts, by the way, was part of what gave me the idea to start “About Last Night.”)
Even during the good years, writing for Time could be exasperating, especially when one of my stories got bumped for lack of space, then killed outright, usually because it had gone “stale” in the preceding week. I still hold it against Bill Clinton that my 50th-birthday profile of Mikhail Baryshnikov ran only in the Latin American edition of the magazine–the U.S. edition required a couple of extra pages that week to cover the first installment of Monicagate. And even though I’m a great fan of Robert Hughes, it irked me no end that his big piece about the opening of the Guggenheim’s Bilbao branch squeezed out my own one-pager about the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
I hung onto that piece, hoping I’d be able to do something with it someday. I just returned from a Sunday matinee at NJPAC, and it struck me on the way home that today might be a good time to revisit what I wrote about the center when it opened its doors in 1997. It appears here for the first time:
On paper, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center looks like a sure thing. The 250,000-square-foot facility, built at a cost of $180 million, contains two handsome theaters–a 2,750-seat multi-purpose auditorium and a 514-seat “performing space”– and a full-service restaurant….Easily accessible via four major highways, NJPAC has a potential audience of 4.6 million people living within 25 miles of its front door. There’s just one catch: It’s in Newark.
Thirty years ago this July, two white policemen from Newark’s Fourth Precinct arrested a black cabdriver. They said he resisted arrest; he said they beat him up. The people believed the cabby, and took to the streets. Five days later, 26 people were dead, and Newark had acquired a bad name it has yet to lose. White flight was already well under way by 1967, but no sooner had the smoke of the riots cleared than the diaspora to the suburbs became multi-ethnic, and between 1967 and 1994, the city’s population shrank by more than a third, from 406,000 to 259,000. You don’t need a demographer to know something is still terribly wrong with Newark: All you have to do is take the five-minute walk from the train station to NJPAC, noticing along the way that none of the newer, post-riot buildings has street-level windows. The architecture of Newark is a fever chart of middle-class fear.
Can a stiff dose of the fine arts cure the malaise that has gripped New Jersey’s largest city for three decades? To stay in business, NJPAC must coax hundreds of thousands of nervous suburbanites back to downtown Newark, and every aspect of its operation has been planned with that uphill battle in mind. Architect Barton Myers has created a building in which beauty and practicality are shrewdly combined in a style less dazzling than comfortable: The brightly lit brick-and-glass facade is warm and inviting, while the main auditorium, done in cherry wood and copper, is unexpectedly intimate. “It feels like being inside a cello,” says NJPAC president Lawrence P. Goldman.
Perfect sight lines (even in the cheap seats) make Prudential Hall a near-ideal venue for ballet and modern dance, and as the cost of performing in New York continues to soar, touring troupes are taking note of the center’s close proximity to midtown Manhattan, a 15-minute train ride away….
Unlike more traditionally minded arts centers, NJPAC is making a highly sophisticated effort to attract the widest possible audience, a must in so ethnically diverse a community. “It’s not enough just to put artists on the stage,” says programming vice-president Stephanie Hughley. “We’ve got to figure out ways to facilitate conversations between people who think they’re different.” The center’s offerings are as inclusive as a stump speech by Bill Clinton–Andr