David Rodriguez

Executive Vice President & Executive Producer of NJPAC (New Jersey Performing Arts Center)
Headshot of a man.

Photo credit: Michael Benabib

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

David Rodriguez:  It is the 10th anniversary of the TD Jazz Festival, the TD James Moody Jazz Festival. One of the things that makes me most excited is to be able to work with Christian McBride, who is our jazz advisor. It brings together wonderful people, wonderful artists. The great thing about the festival is, one, you'll always see something new and, secondly, about half of the programs are free to the community. So, there's always accessibility to the programs. I mean, we like to feel that NJPAC's a place where no one's turned away because of an inability to pay.

Jo Reed: That is David Rodriguez the executive vice president & executive producer of New Jersey Performing Arts Center or NJPAC and this is Art Works produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

NJPAC was conceived when the State of New Jersey decided to build a world class performing arts center back in 1986. Newark was the chosen site for a number of reasons—population density and rail and highway access—but one crucial reason and a major goal of NJPAC from its inception was to serve as a cultural anchor and help revitalize downtown Newark through the arts.  Since it’s opening in 1997, NJPAC has become a vital part of Newark’s community as well as the most diverse performing arts center in the nation, from its artists to audiences, to staff and students.

One of the largest performing arts center in the country, NJAPC has four theaters bringing audiences to downtown Newark for concerts, civic discussions and celebrations.  NJPAC also programs throughout the city of Newark—presenting over 200 free community engagement events each year. NJPAC is committed to the next generation with one of the largest arts education programs offered by a performing arts center in the nation reaching over 100,000 students & families each year through about 3,000 classes & workshops.  And NJPAC also generates about 46 million dollars annually for the state of New Jersey.

David Rodriguez is the executive vice president & executive producer of New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Born in Newark, he came to NJPAC about a decade ago after a career as a musician and with a long-track record as a producer—including running the Apollo Theatre for close to 10 years. When I spoke with him, I was curious how NJPAC integrated its role as a cultural anchor of Newark into its relationship with the community. What does being a cultural anchor actually mean down on the ground….

David Rodriguez: I think a lot of it is looking at the many needs that we have within that community and we look at community in so many different ways. We look at it in our home of the city of Newark, we look at it to the people who come to our shows, which are probably an hour drive in any direction and then to the entire state. And we accomplish that through our programming as well as our arts education and our community engagement programs. I mean, a lot of what we do is taking a look at who lives there, what are their needs, how can we create a sense of home at NJPAC through our programming, wherever we may be presenting initiatives?

Jo Reed: Well, let's try to unpack the programming a little bit because you present live events that are world-class events. So, why don't we begin with the live events and then move into your robust and extensive education program and then, finally, the series that you've long sponsored.

David Rodriguez: Sure. We'll reach, as they say, the traditional audiences, as they say, “rear ends in seats” of about 600,000 people this year. A lot of that, probably 60 percent, happens at NJPAC in our three theaters, but 40 percent happens throughout the state, throughout the region and throughout the country. We also serve as a home for broadcast. So, we really, probably in the last 10 years, have shifted from an organization that's known for our wonderful facility, which it is truly wonderful and is a wonderful canvas to allow artists to present on and looked at content and looked at how we can leverage that content to make change.

Jo Reed: Your commitment to education sets a standard for other arts organizations across the country. Tell us a little bit about what you do.

David Rodriguez: Well, it's interesting. The first and foremost, as with programming, we take a look and see what's already in the state and then how we can augment that rather than duplicate it. So, a lot of our education programs focus on a maker strategy as opposed to a product strategy and when I say that, I mean that the journey is more important than the destination, I guess, is the best way to put it. A lot of these are pieces that are created by young people in response to the issues that they're dealing with at the time, which can range from teenage suicide. It can be drugs that might be in their community. Whatever it might be and they can create poetry, they can create hip-hop pieces, they can create jazz. Whatever it might be around those issues. It's a challenging time and the issues that young people are dealing with, particularly post-COVID, are more challenging than they've ever been. I mean, we have full-time social workers who work with us and the schools we deal with on a regular basis and for us, it's not just the schools, but it's that community around it. So we're not just in a family's schools, we're in their churches, we're in the libraries, we're in the community centers. We are different than, say, a Live Nation or an AEG where we come down and do a program. We create a commitment to a community, whether that's in Newark, whether that's in Asbury Park, wherever we are and do programs. It's not just the performance, but it's those ancillary tentacles that reach out, create change, create family and create a sense of ownership. So, hopefully, at the end of the day, they're not just coming to the artists that they're going to see, but they're coming because they trust the curation and they feel a part of what's happening at NJPAC.

Jo Reed: So, it sounds as though you're saying there's an organic sense. You commit, but then it's organic. It comes from within.

David Rodriguez: Absolutely and it affects the artist the same way. I mean, I think one of my first weeks in NJPAC, we were working with Chick Corea, God rest his soul, and he sat on the stage before his program probably for-- I don't know. It started out meaning to be for 15 minutes speaking about 6-2-5-1 turnarounds and it ended up being 45 minutes at the end of the day and the best thing about that is he remembers not that, "Oh, yeah, one day on my tour, I went to Newark." He remembers the kids whose lives he changed.  You know, I started out as a musician and so oftentimes you yell at the audience and say, "Hey, it's so great to be in," and you look at a little-- some piece of tape on the piano or on the amplifier or the monitor that says, "Oh, yeah, I'm in Newark tonight." People who come to NJPAC realize they're in Newark because, part of coming here, they create change.

Jo Reed:  The festivals that you produce speak to that as well.  You just completed another year of the great TD James Moody Jazz Festival which NJPAC has been producing for a long time and I know it means so much to the people of Newark.

David Rodriguez: It is the 10th anniversary of the TD Jazz Festival, the TD James Moody Jazz Festival and we are so excited about it. One of the things that make me-- makes me most excited is to be able to work with Christian McBride, who is our jazz advisor. It brings together wonderful people, wonderful artists. The great thing about the festival is, one, you'll always see something new and, secondly, about half of the programs are free to the community. So, there's always accessibility to the programs. I mean, we like to feel that NJPAC's a place where no one's turned away because of an inability to pay.

Jo Reed: I’d love to talk about the crucial part NJPAC played in the revitalization of Newark because of, in that beautiful venue that NJPAC built in downtown Newark so you could shine a spotlight on the art that’s there as well as bring new art in.

David Rodriguez: Absolutely. I mean, there were visionaries. When people said, "Let's build a performing arts center someplace else," The first executive director, Larry Goldman, as well as some people on our board,  they said, "No, it belongs in Newark," and it's evolved into something that isn't just, "Well, it's closer than going to Lincoln Center." It's more than that. It has a personality. It has a commitment to diversity and let's face it, Newark has its own history. In January, we're doing an 80th birthday party for George Clinton who started Parliament Funkadelic when he lived in Newark. We're renaming part of a school after him. He's going to be creating visual art live. He's going to have half a dozen guest artists on a special program and his program here will be different than any other place. When he comes, he's going to speak to multiple classrooms of children. I mean, it's just going to be a special, special event and I think that's what we try and focus on. We really want events rather than concerts.

Jo Reed: And this leads me to what NJPAC gets from the community. I mean, because it has to be a reciprocal relationship that you have with the community.

David Rodriguez: Absolutely. I mean, the soul of NJPAC is based on the people we serve. When we went to content, we looked at who is our community. I mean, our community is 80 percent African-American and Latino in the city of Newark. We have a community that is supportive of the programs that we do and, in response, we're about to build a 60,000-square-foot center for arts education across the street from the center itself, as well as hubs in various sections of the community where they can see regular programming. We will do 200 different community engagement events in the city of Newark in a typical year, aligning for COVID, which we hope soon we will reach a new normal and we can gauge those things a little differently.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Well, that's exactly what I was going to jump to next because, given the importance and prominence of NJPAC, its place in the community, not being able to have live events, not being able to go into schools-- schools were closed-- had to have been a real challenge and I know you did a lot of programming during the pandemic. So, talk about that pivot and the virtual programming that you did do and how long it sort of took you to get it up and running.

David Rodriguez: Sure. I think we took a different road than a lot of other performing arts centers and I'm completely sympathetic to whatever road an art center took just to stay alive during this difficult time. But We programmed our way out of the pandemic essentially. We knew that these kids needed programming, arts education programming, cultural programming, all of those various things. So, we doubled down and we kept our staff engaged. Over the course of the pandemic, we produced over 500 events not just for the New Jersey community, but at a certain point, we decided let's share them with other venues. So, for instance, we did a screening of the biography of John Lewis when he passed and had family members, the film director, so on and so forth be part of that and we provided it for free to 60 different venues throughout the country who were also trying to keep that connection with their audiences. So, it was a lifeline to other performing arts centers. We have a hip-hop "Nutcracker" that we tour around the country and it goes to about 50 markets and we turned it into a television show the year before COVID and it actually just won an Emmy award and during the pandemic we said, "Okay, let's do a virtual tour of it," and we shared that with over 10,000 classrooms around the country and it included masterclasses on hip-hop dance, but also discussions on hip-hop, on diversity linked to this type of family feature. And we did a survey and over half of the people who come to it, this is their first "Nutcracker" and so many of them are then interested in seeing an original "Nutcracker". So, in a sense it is a gateway to finding out more about culture and then that gateway gets us to other issues. I mean, we've linked that to a program called "Showtime for Shakespeare" that's linked to the "Magic Tree House" book and it teaches Shakespeare through hip-hop. So, in a sense, using a vehicle like hip-hop, it addresses arts education, it addresses literacy, it goes to spoken word, it goes to poetry, all of those various things that are important to the mission and really resonate in terms of the impact of the arts and the impact the arts have on all aspects of our lives all across the country.

Jo Reed:  You know, the pandemic, of course, coincided with a long overdue racial reckoning and a focus on BIPOC representation on stage, behind the scenes, at the front office, in the audience and given Newark's racial and economic diversity as well, NJPAC is not new to this work at all.

David Rodriguez: Absolutely. Within those 500 shows, we started a program called "Standing in Solidarity" and it dealt with the basic issues. We don't take political sides, but we said we needed to get people out to vote and when vaccines became an issue, we spoke about the facts around the vaccine and allowed people to make the decisions they wanted to make, but it gave credible facts from doctors and scientists. But then we dealt with difficult subjects like white fragility, policing the police, those types of things and, once again, the partnering organizations continue to grow and we went to over 90 organizations and shared that content. So, in a sense, programming, we reached five times the amount of people virtually than we ever did in a normal sense. So, as we leave the pandemic, virtual programming is going to continue at NJPAC. When we present Alvin Ailey, on preparation for Alvin Ailey, we are going to do a premiere of the new documentary on great performances on Alvin Ailey and have Judith Jamison Robert Battle, the filmmaker and people who can discuss social justice in terms of Alvin Ailey as he was starting the company, as the issues that were there for people like him, people like Arthur Mitchell and Dance Theatre of Harlem, all of those responses to civil rights in in the sixties that are still there now and those issues still remain where we're working on something for the jazz festival next year on Max Roach's "Freedom Now Suite" and I had done the 30th anniversary program when I was at Aaron Davis Hall 30 years ago and I remember speaking to Max and Ossie Davis and Babatunde Olatunji and people like that, talking about that and now it's 30 years later and what I know is, while there's a lot of discussion, talk of change, all that type of thing, we really won't know if there's social change until five or 10 years from now. We hope the catalyst that's happening now creates that change, creates that equity, creates that understanding and I think the arts are a great vehicle to create a common ground where discussion can happen.

Jo Reed: Yeah. I completely, completely agree. Talk a little bit about reopening. You're reopened in full now, but you took it, as many, many organizations did, slowly and you also revamped your venue.

David Rodriguez: We did. We invested about $700,000 in new HVAC systems, touchless bathrooms, you name it.  NJPAC is by far the safest venue you can go to as we've gotten information about COVID and the such. It's also a challenging time because different places have different protocols as it relates to COVID and we know that as we tour projects around the country and it's a challenge because we want to keep those touring artists safe, we want to keep our staff safe and we want to keep our audiences safe. So, we hired a doctor of infectious diseases. We meet on a weekly basis to respond to what the most current information that there is and what that does is create change in some of our policies on a regular basis, but that's what's needed to deal with the pandemic and it's been very successful. Different audiences are coming back at different rates. I can tell you that communities of color are coming back at a much faster rate than seniors. I can tell you younger audiences are coming back at a faster rate. So, that changes programming. We have moved most of our classical programming to the spring. However, jazz and Shaka Khan and folks like that are selling quite well. Issue-based dance companies are selling wonderfully. We're coming into the holiday season and with all of those changes to vaccine mandates as it relates to young people, we're looking to be careful as we make those changes, whether it be for our performances or our arts education programs. First and foremost, we need people safe so we have those audiences for the long-term  and we may take some hits in terms of audiences in the short-term, but in the long-term, we're going to come out stronger than ever.

Jo Reed: Did you receive any PPP money or shuttered venue funding?

David Rodriguez: We did. We did. I think the arts has spent the last 18 months planning for the worst, but hoping for the best and in reality, those people who were awarded shuttered venues money and it was gravely needed and so appreciated because without it, there would just be an incredible void. There are lots of arts organizations who are not going to come back, but I can't even imagine what it would be like without that support. That said, I'm also convinced that we're not going to get back to normal, but we're going to reach a new normal and we're not there yet. So, we really don't know what's going to happen in the next six months to a year and then, after that, how long it'll take for audiences to come back. So, it's necessary for organizations to view things conservatively until we have the answers to those questions and, certainly, the PPP and Save Our Stages and all of that type of thing has been helpful to many not-for-profit and for-profit art centers to keep them open, whether it's Broadway, whether it's tours, whether it's community-based organizations, which is really at the heart of what NJPAC does.

Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly. I mean, they were the first to close and the last to open. It's very, very difficult and anybody who thinks they're getting rich by working in the performing arts just needs a reality check. I mean, it's a hard life to begin with, with very little cushion.

David Rodriguez: Absolutely. I talk to young people who want to get into being an artist and I say, "You have to-- you have to need to do it like you need oxygen. You can't be in it for the money. You can't be in it for the glory or the applause. You have to be in it because that's what you need to do and that's what your soul needs to do and you feel like you want to make an impact.”  When I say people kept on working through the pandemic, they kept on working some with partial furloughs, some with severe salary cuts all the way down the line. When I look at our technicians and the lessened hours, even as we put hours out there to do renovations and keep things up and running, people had incredible hardship in the arts the same way they have throughout the country. It's been a difficult time. But working together, I think we're going to come out of this. There's a light at the end of the tunnel and I think the arts can help lead the way in a safe manner.

Jo Reed: I want to know a little bit about you. You're from Newark originally.

David Rodriguez: I am. I am. So, it's really special for me to be back. I was a touring musician for a while and then just decided there's a chance to build bridges between artists and presenters. There doesn't have to be that wall. So, it's been exciting for me because I still play a little bit here and there.

Jo Reed: You play the bass.

David Rodriguez: I play the bass. I'll be at Birdland in June, if you're in the New York area. But more than anything, it's to be able to let artists create their dreams. I mean, I was able to start out at Carnegie Hall, but then I started a lot of the New Works programs at Aaron Davis Hall for a while. I spent about 18 years in Harlem, including almost a decade running the Apollo Theater. So, for me, it's just really great to be back home in Newark and creating change.

Jo Reed: You also produced six seasons of "Showtime at the Apollo," which is just so way cool.

David Rodriguez: I did. I did. <laughter> I mean, that's really the cool thing about the arts, is there are ghosts in the arts. There's spirits.  I did 24 shows with James Brown at various parts of my career, including producing his funeral, I have to say. I was able to work with Prince. I was able to work with Michael Jackson for-- gosh, I can't count the number of times-- because they realized the soul that a venue has. We call them the ghosts oftentimes. You'd go down into the basement and you realize that Flip Wilson used to host amateur night for seven shows a day and slept in the boiler room and went out for sandwiches in between shows. Like all those old stories from a place like the Apollo or any of those theaters that were on the circuit. The arts are one of those genres or jobs where so much has passed down from generation to generation and those stories and that commitment to the history that exists in the arts, particularly in jazz and contemporary music, is-- I was really honored to be kind of on the sidelines and sometimes a part of it.

Jo Reed: You played with Max Roach. You weren't exactly a slouch.

David Rodriguez: I did. I did and even more so, later in life, I probably spent the last 15 years of Max's life, I was able to produce a lot of the things that he dreamed about, whether it was a tour with Max, Ginger Baker, Tony Williams to the Verona Opera Stadium. When he decided he wanted to do redo the "Freedom Now Suite." I was thinking because the hundredth birthday of Max is coming up in about two years and I was talking to some of his family members. I remember one night we did a program where we renamed a theater after Marian Anderson and he was doing drum and vocal duets with Jesse Norman. I mean, he was somebody who just thought out of the box. And there are these artists now, the Robert Glaspers, the Christian McBrides, the--that pioneering vision still exists and to be part of that and to see that passion still exist. It's not just about the next gig; it's about the next vision.

Jo Reed: Well, beautiful segue. Thank you, David. The next vision for NJPAC is, as you said, the Cooperman Family Education and Community Center and, in spite of the pandemic, is still breaking ground.

David Rodriguez: We are. We're breaking ground on a number of real estate projects. Just to the east of the building. We have mixed-use both residential and other businesses that are being added and right across from there is the Cooperman Education Center, which will have 20 classrooms, will have a black box theater, it will have rehearsal spaces that we can create new work. But in the same way, it's going to be an open door where people from the community can come in, whether it's art galleries, whether it's-- whether it's a local board of directors or community board, it really becomes a community space. I was talking to George Clinton last week and the thought was he should do a mural on the wall. He's doing visual-- he's doing visual art now as well. So, the thought is that it-- once again, it's a-- it's a canvas for creating art. So, we can just say, "Hey, let's do a whole wall, a visual art done by George Clinton." I mean, those are the type of ideas that a creative space should foster and we should implant that same freedom of creativity within our young people. That's that happy place. That's that hope. That's that looking at those positive values and structures that come from the arts, that come from music, the self-discipline, but the joy and the hope of creativity and that's what I think the Cooperman Center can lend to the people of Newark, but more importantly, that's what NJPAC can lend as a contributor to the arts society throughout the country.

Jo Reed: And one way that you are doing this is with this whole new spate of programming with the integration of the arts and wellness.

David Rodriguez: Absolutely, where it is still in development. But what I can tell you as a Latino male, the one thing that we don't want to know is we don't want to know, which means if we don't go to the doctor, we're not sick. So, how can we do something that can look at some of these wellness issues that are endemic to our communities and have them found out early? How can we look at not just physical issues, but mental issues? As you look at young people, the issue of mental wellness. Going through the pandemic has been huge. What happens when you take people, adolescents away from those safe spaces of their schools, all of that type of thing? How can we deal with that? How can we do with food insecurity? We're in a place right now where our arts education programs have a basis of children are not turned away because of an inability to pay, but we also find out that some of them just can't concentrate because they're hungry and we need to deal with that, too. We can't just deal with the art side of things. We have to deal with their overall wellness, whether that be physical or mental.

Jo Reed: Well, David, I really so look forward to see what NJPAC has in store for the next 10 years. I'm sure it will be remarkable.

David Rodriguez: Me too <laughs> and I can't--

Jo Reed: And I want to thank you so much.

David Rodriguez: And I can't thank you enough for having NJPAC as a subject to one of the NEA podcasts and also I can't thank enough the National Endowment for the Arts for that important programming that they lend to places like NJPAC. It's that seed money, it's that credibility. Having sat on those panels, sometimes people want to see that a group like the National Endowment for the Arts has looked at the financials, has looked at the credibility, has looked at the artistic quality and that's a signal to many people that it's okay to contribute and that this is a good investment and that's what the NEA does. It's a voice and a leader and continues to make change every day. So, thank you very much.

Jo Reed:  Thank you. I appreciate that.

That is David Rodriguez. He is the executive vice president & executive producer of New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Find out all about their programming at NJPAC.org. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.

 

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David Rodriguez is the Executive Vice President & Executive Producer of NJPAC (New Jersey Performing Arts Center)—it’s not only one of the largest performing arts centers in the country, it’s also one of the most diverse from its programming to its artists to its staff and its audiences. From its inception, NJPAC ‘s goal was to serve as a cultural anchor and help revitalize downtown Newark through the arts.  It does so in a number of ways from producing world-class events in one of its four theaters to programming free events throughout the city of Newark to offering a robust arts education program which reaches some students & families annually. In this podcast, David Rodriguez discusses NJPAC’s place in the city of Newark, its commitment and responsibilities to the community, its programming during the pandemic, its ever-growing arts education programming, and his own background as a Newark-born musician turned producer, including his decade-long stint running the Apollo Theater.