Taneshia Nash Laird has always been a visionary. Growing up below the poverty line in White Plains, New York, many of Laird’s classmates had parents who were doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers and entertainment executives.
“And these included the Black families I knew,” says Laird. “I just wanted to be middle class. I knew I could achieve that because I saw people that looked like me doing all sorts of things. I knew that my dreams could be achieved.”
Since 2018, Laird has been the president and CEO of Newark Symphony Hall, one of the Garden State’s oldest and largest venues. She is the only Black woman at the helm of a major performing arts center in the state. “In many ways, I’m living my dream,” says Laird.
Laird’s mother, who never earned more than minimum wage, was integral to her arts exposure. She sent 7-year-old Laird on a church bus trip to see her first Broadway musical, The Wiz. “It’s only occurring to me as an adult that she probably couldn’t afford her own ticket,” says Laird. With the help of financial aid, Laird took art, dance and music classes. By high school, she was a glee club member, participated in every school play, and was enrolled in a pre-professional dance program.
“I know that my life could have been very different,” she says, “if I did not have the things that I grew up around.”
Now, Laird is on a quest to bring similar opportunities to Newark, where nearly one-third of the population lives in poverty, based on 2019 U.S. Census data.
Her role at Newark Symphony Hall, an anchor in the Lincoln Park section of the city, positions her well to accomplish her vision. Laird’s goal is threefold: restore the historic venue to its glory days with a major renovation; expose local artists, especially those of color, through dynamic programming; and create career opportunities for residents of the Newark area.
“This is part of my commitment of having the revitalization of Newark Symphony Hall happening with the people of Newark and not to the people of Newark,” says Laird. “That’s an important distinction.”
For 15 years, Laird has been a changemaker in New Jersey. During her time as the executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton, she launched an instructional art program for adults with disabilities and greatly increased free public performing arts programs. She has held several significant positions in Trenton, including executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association. In that role, she initiated Destination Trenton, an award-winning arts and tourism program. Also of note is the book Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans, which she co-authored with her late husband, Roland. Laird, 52, currently lives in West Windsor with her two daughters.
These leadership roles in Princeton and Trenton, as well as several others, have established Laird’s reputation as a driver of economic development.
“Not only are her ideas bold and brash,” says Jeremy V. Johnson, executive director of Newark Arts, “they’re backed by an understanding of how collaborations work, how public-private partnerships work, and how complex issues like workforce strategies and tax credits work.”
In November, the scope of Laird’s work widened when she was appointed to the National Independent Venue Foundation’s inaugural eight-person board. The NIVF’s approximately 3,000 member theaters nationwide include White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, and dozens of others in New Jersey.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the foundation’s sister organization, the National Independent Venue Association, has lobbied Congress to pass the Save Our Stages act. The effort came to fruition in December, when Congress passed the $900 billion Covid-19 relief bill, which allocates $15 billion in support of live venues, independent movie theaters and cultural institutions. Pollstar, a trade publication for the global concert industry, estimates that the sector lost more than $30 billion in 2020.
“I just want to make sure that the venues survive,” says Laird. “Live music is important to communities for a whole number of reasons, whether it’s economic development reasons [or] quality of life. We’re all looking at, What does the future look like?”
Laird and her fellow foundation board members are focused on non-lobbying activities, such as emergency relief funds, education and community programming, employee training, and economic development initiatives. Laird summarizes the board’s efforts for independent music venues as “making sure that, pandemic or not, there is help in the sector.”
Much of Laird’s work with the NIVF is in line with her vision for Newark Symphony Hall.
Built in 1925 as the Salaam Temple, the nearly 220,000-square-foot building on Broad Street was an entertainment hub for decades. Music legends of all genres graced the stage, including Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Placido Domingo, Patti LaBelle, the Rolling Stones and Sarah Vaughan, the namesake of the venue’s main concert hall. By the late 20th century, the venue was struggling financially, and audiences were flocking to the modern New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Prudential Center, opened in 1997 and 2007, respectively.
“The resurgence of the stately Newark Symphony Hall will take more than a great arts administrator,” says Johnson, who has been on the venue’s board since December 2017. “It will take a connector, a negotiator, a preservationist and an urban planner. Taneshia checks off all the boxes.”
The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977, but is in bad need of revitalization after years of neglect. A $40 million, five-year renovation project is expected to wrap up in 2025, in tandem with the hall’s 100th anniversary. The three-phase construction project—due to begin this summer—includes exterior and interior facelifts.
A combination of philanthropic donations and economic development programs are funding the renovation. The hall has already been awarded a $750,000 grant from the Preserve New Jersey Historic Preservation Fund. Laird will seek further revenue through the federal historic tax credit program and a tax deferment for opportunity zones, or economically distressed communities. She estimates the project will create 500 construction jobs and opportunities for 50 small businesses.
One of the goals is to add new skills, such as specialty historic preservation, to the résumés of local construction workers. “This is important economic activity that we’re going to be generating in the city of Newark,” says Laird. “There are other projects that could benefit from this newly upskilled workforce.”
In addition to upgrading buildings and creating construction-related jobs, Laird wants to help foster the next generation of entertainers. To that end, the Newark-based cultural organization Yendor will become an in-residence theater company at Newark Symphony Hall. A program dubbed the Lab will connect local artists, from directors to dancers, with resources they need to build careers. Newark poet and author Jasmine Mans will be the hall’s first participant.
Laird is also assembling an artist-in-residency program for people of color. Also on the horizon is Laird’s partnership with Diversify the Stage, an organization launched by Noelle Scaggs of the alternative-pop band Fitz and the Tantrums, which is focused on establishing more opportunities for people of color, women and the LGBTQ community in the live music, events and touring industries.
With audiences stuck at home, Laird is rolling out two virtual programs. Yendor will perform an online play by screenwriter and playwright Richard Wesley, a Newark Symphony Hall board member. As an homage to the hall’s history, the original documentary-style production The Soul of Newark Symphony Hall will livestream on social media and newarksymphonyhall.org.
As Newark Symphony Hall undergoes its metamorphosis, Laird has her sights set on transforming the community at large.
Before the pandemic, Laird developed a curriculum for her Newark Symphony Hall staff that addressed all aspects of running a venue. Board member Johnson was struck by Laird’s employee-training and professional-development efforts. Now, Laird is setting up a larger initiative.
“Taneshia wants to build a pipeline of Black and Brown venue experts with experience derived from Newark Symphony Hall’s training ground,” says Johnson. “This new pool of talent can seed and diversify arts leadership across the region.”
“As we enter our next century,” says Laird, “I see Symphony Hall being a career accelerator and business incubator in performing arts, live entertainment and historic preservation for local people who are predominantly people of color…. What I’m hoping is that the things that I’m doing create a real pathway.”
At home, Laird has created a pathway for her daughters. Naima, 10, is a cellist and dancer with aspirations to become Misty Copeland, but also a chef and entrepreneur. Imani, 14, is a straight-A student and future doctor who played the violin with her school orchestra in Sicily. Both kids listen to everything from 80s hip-hop to K-pop and classical music.
Laird’s own pathway to Newark began with a revelation.
In October 2017, Laird visited Brick City to support abstract artist Danny Simmons, a friend who was on a Newark Arts Festival panel.
“I remember being very moved by what I saw in Newark,” says Laird. At the time, she was leading the Princeton Arts Council, a role she thought was her dream job.
“I really loved that community, but when I was in Newark, I was surrounded by people that looked like me,” says Laird. “I did not have that in Princeton.”
Although she wouldn’t become the leader of Newark Symphony Hall for another year, at that moment, she knew Newark was where she was supposed to be.
“I felt like this is what I was meant to do, period,” says Laird. “I’m doing this because I feel like I have something to give back.”Click here to leave a comment