NJPAC has brought millions of people to the city since it opened, and while it may not have changed the streetscape as much as some would like, it has changed people’s perceptions about Newark. And that’s no little feat.
The point you made about the small percentage of Manhattanites attending events at NJPAC speaks more to the parochial mindset of Manhattanites than it does to NJPAC’s marketing muscle. New Yorkers are lazy cultural snobs–mostly because they can be. They have an abundance of wonderful art down the street or across town…so they don’t have to get out and explore. I, on the other hand, regularly drive 75 miles from my Morris County home to see a play in Princeton or a concert or play in New Brunswick, etc. I agree that the Newark renaissance is slow–if it exists at all. That part of town, with the colleges and museums, should be far livelier than it is. But I also know the five-block walk from Penn station to the arts center, while depressing, is no worse than the stretch of 41st street from Port Authority to the NY Public Library.
I think the central theory of arts-going in NY is “If it’s not at Carnegie, it can’t be good,” followed by the corollary: “And if it is good, it will be at Carnegie soon.” What can NJPAC or any of the many other arts
organizations located in northern Jersey (the city’s sixth boro) do about that?
What struck me most forcibly about Ms. McGlone’s smart and funny note was her pointed comparison between the walk from Newark Penn Station to NJPAC and the walk from Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal to…any place at all, to tell the truth. That is a grubby part of town–though the difference, of course, is that the Disney-driven rehabilitation of Times Square has been a tremendous success, at least in the limited sense of cleaning up much of the neighborhood surrounding the Port Authority and making it safer and livelier. (And come to think of it, what’s so limited about that? I’d rather live in a Disneyfied neighborhood than do daily battle with hookers and pimps, if those are my only alternatives.) Newark, on the other hand, appears as yet to have derived no significant urban-renewal benefits from NJPAC, and since that was one of the major selling points in the drive to get the center built, the failure is all the more relevant.
I speak, by the way, as someone who recently had a modest stake in the future of Newark. I taught arts criticism for two years at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, and enjoyed it enormously. The students, most of whom came from New Jersey, were hard-working, determined, and fun (one of them wrote this), and not a one of them had been fitted out with silver spoon (A) in mouth (B). If they’re the future of Newark, there’s hope for the city.
As for the unwillingness of Manhattanites to boldly go to NJPAC, I’m not so sure it can be explained by our “parochial mindset” (though I’m not denying that such a thing exists!). We do, after all, go to Brooklyn’s BAM Opera House in fairly large numbers. One difference–perhaps the biggest one–is that BAM consciously markets itself as a presenter of “cutting-edge” arts events, whereas NJPAC is targeting a frankly suburban audience, albeit more multicultural than that pale label might suggest. This is why we don’t perceive upper New Jersey as the “sixth borough,” any more than we seek out cultural experiences in Staten Island. Sure, I’ve seen some cool things at NJPAC, but it’s not on my radar in the way that BAM is, and judging from its 2003-04 offerings, I wonder whether it needs to be.
Besides, most cool things really do make their way to Manhattan sooner or later. That’s why we live here (I sure as hell can’t think of any other good reasons). Not all, though–our performance spaces are slowly pricing themselves out of the dance market, for example, and I find myself going more and more often to Washington, D.C., to see companies that are bypassing New York because it costs too much to dance here. If NJPAC were to book those companies more than sporadically, I’d go see them regularly, and I wouldn’t be alone.
But, then, should NJPAC try to attract Manhattanites? Would it really be worth the trouble? That’s a different question, one that goes directly to the heart of the center’s mission, and one I can’t answer. All I know is that since NJPAC opened, I’ve seen fewer than half a dozen performances there, and given the incredibly high quality of the facility, that’s a puzzlement. I wish I felt the need to go there more often–but I don’t.