Leader of the PAC

Got talent? There’s a good chance you’ll fit NJPAC chief John Schreiber’s vision of cultural diversity.

I have too many ideas, way too many ideas,” says John Schreiber. But it’s exactly his dynamism, broad experience and enthusiasm for a wide range of programming that got him the job as NJPAC’s CEO and president a year ago.
Photo by John Emerson.

John Schreiber does not look like the kind of guy who cracks up at Howard Stern, or whose idea of entertainment is watching a juggler toss a flaming chainsaw. And chances are, he’s not.

But the president and CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center is not about to judge you if that is your thing. He will mark his one-year anniversary on the job this month by welcoming Stern, Sharon Osbourne and the rest of the pole-dancing, yodeling menagerie from NBC’s blockbuster series America’s Got Talent to NJPAC’s 2,800-seat Prudential Hall.

To him, one person’s pyro daredevil is another’s classical pianist. All that matters is that something’s pulling you into the building. Because once you’re in, he’s pretty sure you will want to come back. 

“Here’s a message that I want especially to turn up the volume on,” says the 57-year-old executive, seated in his corner office on a windy April morning. “We want this to be everyone’s arts center, from an 11-year-old who watches America’s Got Talent to the lover of the finest poetry in the world.”

That, he says, has been the Newark venue’s mission since its giant spherical chandelier first retracted into the ceiling in 1997. “We’re the home of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and we’re the first major PAC to host a biennial hip-hop series,” says Schreiber, obviously proud of the track record he inherited. Still, among his goals: “Take that diversity and put it on steroids.”

Schreiber is particularly well qualified to do so. A brief history:

In 1976, fresh out of Haverford College, the Queens, New York, native went to work for George Wein, eventually becoming president of the legendary jazz impresario’s Festival Productions. During his 19-year tenure with Wein, he produced and curated thousands of concerts, plus scores of installments of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals and the JVC Jazz Festival.

Just before coming to NJPAC, Schreiber was executive vice president of Participant Media, a Los Angeles-based production company known for its socially conscious films (Waiting for Superman, An Inconvenient Truth). He also has theater and television bona fides as the winner of a Tony and an Emmy Award for producing Elaine Stritch at Liberty, a hit on Broadway in 2001 and on HBO in 2004. 

The result of Schreiber’s gear shifting has been a rare fluency across the arts that, combined with his own social consciousness, helped land him his new job.

A search committee comprising members of the 49-seat NJPAC board chose Schreiber after six months of sifting through applications and narrowing the search to a dozen candidates. “He really did stand out among all the candidates as the person who brought the skill set we needed,” says NJPAC board chairman William J. Marino, the chairman and CEO of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield. “We like to say part of our mission is to be the town square of New Jersey, and John not only embraced that, he had a greater vision for it. He knows about community outreach and he has great passion. Above all, he sees the potential for NJPAC to be a positive instrument for cultural interaction.”

Ticket holders to shows like West Side Story and concerts like the rock band Daughtry, both at NJPAC this year, might know the venue as one of the biggest performing-arts centers in the country—and the biggest in the state—but they might not know that it is also one of the most philanthropically engaged. NJPAC’s education program is among the most ambitious anywhere, serving 60,000 kids a year.

Schreiber, a divorced father of three school-age sons who has lived in Montclair since 2001, calls education “one of the two pillars of this place”—the other being programming. Often, under Schreiber, the two pillars entwine. In April, he announced the launch of the James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival, which will take place October 15 through 21. Schreiber intends it to rival the Newport Jazz Festival in importance, as indicated by his choice of the Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride, a fellow Montclair resident, as artistic director. Along with the festival will come Citizens of Jazz, a new educational program still in the embryonic stage.

“We’re just making it up,” Schreiber says. “We need more citizens of jazz in principle, so now we’re working with our jazz education department on that. We want citizens of jazz not only in our building but beyond our building—people who have jazz in their hearts, in their spirits.”

Schreiber grew up listening to Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald, which, in addition to his years under Wein, probably entitles him more than most to jazz citizenship. Waving the flag has won him support, and new friendships, in the one-time jazz hotbed of Newark, according to Cephas Bowles, president and CEO of the influential Newark-based jazz radio station WBGO, which is partnering with NJPAC on the Moody festival.

Bowles met Schreiber a decade ago, through the jazz-festival circuit. “I’ve been in Newark a long time, and John has been in New Jersey a while, but he hasn’t been involved in the Newark arts scene,” says Bowles. “Now that he’s at NJPAC, he’s on a fast track to learning. And what I’ve seen is him spending a lot of time meeting with people, talking about his mission for what NJPAC can do and will do, including the jazz festival. More and more people are discovering he’s a player in cultural literacy, and it’s been an inspiration to the people of Newark.”

Bowles is talking about more than just the Moody festival when he invokes Schreiber’s special attunement to cultural literacy. “The Dodge Poetry Fest will be coming back to Newark this year in part through John’s work, and that’s an example of how he’s putting a stamp on the major arts institution in this city,” Bowles says. “He’s bringing in people he knows, people who can make things happen.”

The 14th biennual Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival is, for sure, a big deal. It’s the largest poetry event in North America and will bring U.S. poet laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners to NJPAC and other Newark venues. Though the arts center became its home in 2010 when Lawrence P. Goldman, NJPAC’s founding president, was still at the helm, Schreiber emphatically champions its prominent place on the calendar.
The poetry festival will happen October 11 through 14 this year, an ambitious lead-in to the Moody Festival. Other high-profile events on the NJPAC calendar include a new Funk Fest (December 8) headlined by George Clinton; Salsapalooza (November 17); an American Song series; and free outdoor music concerts on certain summertime Thursday and Friday evenings.

Schreiber’s mandate goes beyond programming events and filling seats; he also has to fill NJPAC’s coffers. Jeffrey Norman, the venue’s VP of public affairs, says revenues for fiscal 2012 should be about equal to last year, at $25.7 million. Fundraising is expected to drop slightly from the $9.9 million raised in 2011; Norman cites timing for the change. Overall, he says, the center is in the black—and has been since 2006.  

In his office, where the walls are lined with concert and film posters—mementos of his earlier career—Schreiber punctuates a discussion of the Dodge Festival by pulling the author Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, off a shelf. He reads aloud:

“‘When people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is.’”

But there is just so much time for poetry on this April day littered with meetings. David Rodriguez, Schreiber’s hand-picked executive producer/vice president of programming, needs to discuss the logistics of transforming Prudential Hall’s stage into one suitable for America’s Got Talent—which may require water tanks deep enough to dive in, rings of fire and the like. America’s Got Talent is also a big deal; the show will be shot before a live audience—admission is free—two times a week, starting this month, for 10 weeks. Schreiber says it will bring an unprecedented number of people into NJPAC, if only by way of a TV screen.
Rodriguez and Schreiber worked on shows together more than 25 years ago when the former was an administrator at Carnegie Hall. Today, Rodriguez is Schreiber’s key lieutenant in NJPAC’s pumped-up programming plans. Schreiber sent something of a shock wave through the building last year when he restructured the existing programming team and brought in Rodriguez, who had been CEO of the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood.

After vetting plans for America’s Got Talent with Rodriguez, Schreiber moves on to a lunch meeting with the 2014 New York/New Jersey Super Bowl Host Committee to brainstorm how to maximize the upcoming Super Bowl-weekend experience for locals and out-of-towners. Next, there’s a mid-afternoon conference call with Mary Pope Osborne, the Connecticut-based author of the best-selling Magic Tree House book series for kids. A new jazz musical, Magic Tree House: A Night in New Orleans, based on her book A Good Night for Ghosts, will premiere during the Moody festival.

After reading that the literacy rate among Newark third-graders is 38 percent, Osborne had contacted Schreiber, a friend, with an offer: She wanted to donate a set of 28 books to every third-grader in the city—4,000 kids in all. When these kids are fourth-graders in the fall, the new musical will tour the Newark schools and two public performances will be held at NJPAC. Once again, programming and education are connected.

By Schreiber’s estimation, only 5 to 10 percent of his programming ideas will make it to NJPAC’s four stages. (Prudential Hall is “the big house”; the smallest is the Horizon Theater, located in the Arts Education Center holding an audience of roughly 150.) Given that the center is aiming to utilize Prudential Hall 50 percent more this season, it’s a good thing Schreiber is a walking percolator of ideas.

It appears the NJPAC board has no problem with that.

“You mean the how-dare-you quotient? What are you doing?” asks Schreiber after considering the question of whether he gets guff from board members over lowbrow events like America’s Got Talent.

“No, never,” he says. “These are people who built this place because they wanted as many different kinds of folks as possible to come here and experience the arts.” (America’s Got Talent, he figures, may be a gateway event to artier things.)

The people who built NJPAC include Goldman, his predecessor, now head of the Theater Square Development Company, NJPAC’s real estate subsidiary. Schreiber’s programming ambitions, combined with his fervor for trumpeting the all-are-welcome message, may make him a more visible chief executive than Goldman. But Goldman has never stopped being “a mentor to me,” Schreiber says. 

“I talk to him at least a couple of times a week about anything. He was the director here for 20 years; I can get backstory on anybody from him—a donor, someone on the board. He knows everybody and I don’t.”
    
Another thing Schreiber doesn’t know: whether he should be on Twitter. “It’s something we’ve thought about, whether I should be active personally on social media. Every concert we do here has its own unique market, so we have to plan for a different audience every night, and the challenge I’ve thrown at our marketing department is making sure every night has its own unique approach.”  Social media, he thinks, is likely among the best portals.

“Everyone’s a niche. I’m a niche myself—a 57-year-old alter kocker,” he says, not stopping to explain that “alter kocker” is a Yiddish expression for “grumpy old person.”

He’s not sure the alter-kocker niche is an appealing one. But, he adds—not surprisingly—“we want to include them anyway.”

Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor.

Click here to read about America’s Got Talent coming to NJPAC.
 

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