Community, collaboration, and art

Community, collaboration, and art

NJPAC head John Schreiber talks about his life and the institution he loves

The message that NJPAC gives the community is clear.

Transparent, in fact. As see-through as very clean glass.

When you first get to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, you see neat brown brick buildings. They don’t exactly blend into their surroundings — the working-class city is made up mainly of older structures, neither as neat nor as thematically unified as NJPAC’s complex.

But the thing is, NJPAC doesn’t loom. It’s not a tower. It doesn’t look like a fortress, ready to repel intruders. It isn’t walled off from the outside world.

It is, instead, full of windows.

View from inside NJPAC

When you walk into the main building, you are surrounded by clear glass, with the outside world, this time of year all green and blue, right outside.

There are windows and daylight all over the building. Except when you are in the closed magic world of performance spaces, you always are aware of the outside world.

That’s not by accident.

From the beginning, more than 25 years ago, NJPAC was conceived of as an institution open to the community. Instead of devoting itself to art so high that only a precious few could enjoy it, its leaders have presented high-quality performances and welcomed diverse audiences to watch it, listen to it, be awed and moved and amused and inspired by it.

So when John Schreiber took over as president and CEO 13 years ago, he found himself in a position that couldn’t have been more perfect for him had he designed it. It takes his decades of work as a producer, his deep knowledge of the arts, and his relationships with artists, and combines them with his passion for grassroots organizing.

His story and NJPAC’s came together.

John Schreiber was born in Hollis, Queens, 68 years ago, into a neighborhood that was ethnically diverse but nearly entirely white; his elementary school, PS 35, was where the great midcentury Jewish American humorist Art Buchwald had gone.

All four of his grandparents were European-born. “My grandfather Benjamin Schreiber, from Minsk or Pinsk, one of those two, was the manager of a cigar factory in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, when he died young,” Mr. Schreiber said. “His wife, my grandmother, had three children when he died. She spoke Yiddish — she never learned to read English — and when he died they moved to right outside Philadelphia, and she operated a deli. I don’t know how she did it, but she did.

“My father, Bernie, was a good basketball player, and he got a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania in 1937.” From there, he went on to thrive in business. “When he started, he had one suit. He started with nothing. But he built up a reasonable-size business.”

That business was ready-mix concrete. It was not at all a Jewish business — “he was one of the few Jews in it,” his son said. But that’s not what made him stand out, at least in public. His was the ready-mix concrete business that used white trucks with huge pastel polka dots painted all over them. They were cheery, they were unusual, and they absolutely were memorable.

Mr. Schreiber’s father’s polka-dotted cement mixers are immediately recognizable to people from the tristate area.

“My mother, Irene Blumenfeld Schreiber, grew up in Jamaica,” another Queens neighborhood. “Her father started a men’s clothing store, under the El” — Jamaica still is shadowed by the elevated subway train that runs on Queens Boulevard. “That store, B & B, was around for 50 years. One of my first jobs as a kid was selling clothes there.”

Like his paternal grandfather, his German-born maternal grandfather, Abraham, died young; John knew neither of them. But his grandmothers, the one called Grandma Schreiber and the other one, Beatrice — Grandma Bea — “both had very strong personalities, and my mother inherited that.”

The family belonged to Temple Israel of Jamaica, Mr. Schreiber said. “I had my bar mitzvah there, in 1968. I still remember the first line of my speech. ‘The world is changing; satellites circle the earth.’

“It was my first public performance.”

By the time John was ready to start high school, Bernie, “who was a great believer in Quaker education,” had moved his office from Queens to Hicksville, on Long Island. So John went to Friends Academy in nearby Locust Valley; it was a far cry from PS 35.

But then something terrible happened to the family. John’s mother “got breast cancer at a time when that often was a death sentence.” It was for her; she died at 47, and Bernie Schreiber was left with three sons. The two older ones were out of the house, but what to do with John?

Send him to boarding school!

Where?  How about England?

John Schreiber sits between philanthropists Leon and Toby Cooperman, longtime NJPAC supporters, as they were honored in 2022.

So, on the recommendation of a Friends Academy teacher who had gone there himself, John Schreiber went to the Canford School, a Church of England academy in Dorset, in the country’s southeast. “My father was an Anglophile, and I thought it was exciting,” Mr. Schreiber said.

Although it was a boarding school, however, Mr. Schreiber did not live in the dorms with his classmates. Instead, “I lived with a family, as a day student. He was a French master, with a young family.”

How did that go? “I was just in London — we did a workshop of Philip Roth’s ‘Sabbath’s Theater’ — and my wife and I had dinner with my English parents, who are now in their 80s,” he said.

The countryside was gorgeous, and “it was there that I became acutely aware of being Jewish,” Mr. Schreiber said. “There were probably about 400 boys in the school, and maybe a dozen of them were Jews.” He thinks he was the only American, he added.

The experience “made me understand and appreciate the relative uniqueness of my heritage and my background,” he said. “I became involved in the Jewish community in Bournemouth. There’s an established Jewish community there. I was welcomed there; I would have Shabbat dinner with families there.

Students in NJPAC’s TD Jazz for Teens rehearse at the complex. They perform around the state throughout the year.

“Because I had grown up Reform, and that community was Conservative” — or, as it’s called outside North America, Masorti — “I was introduced to traditions and rituals that I wasn’t used to,” he added.

After he graduated from Canford, he came back to the States for college; he went to Haverford and majored in American studies.

“At that time I also produced concerts, I wrote for the newspaper, and I started a summer theater,” he said. “I was always interested in the arts. I had performed in high school; I was in ‘A Thousand Clowns’ in high school, when I had the Jason Robards part. That was the first time I ever kissed a girl, in that play, and I thought, ‘Oh boy! This is the life! I want to keep doing this.’”

In college, though, he focused more on producing than performing. “I thought that this was what I would like to do for a living. I’d like to work either for Hal Prince,” the nearly legendary Broadway director and producer, “or for George Wein, the producer of the Newport Jazz Festival. I met George first. He offered me a job for $100 a week. I didn’t graduate from college.

John Schreiber with his mentor, George Wein, the creator of the Newport Jazz Festival.

“The Newport Jazz Festival was in New York then, and it literally did 50 events over 10 days. George insisted that every event have its own press release, and my job was to write all the press releases for the festival.

“It was a fun job, and I learned a lot really quickly.

“I stayed with George for 19 years. The first place I lived was over the office, on the fourth floor of a brownstone between Riverside and West End. It was so much fun! And then I lived on West 86 Street between Amsterdam and Columbus, half a block from Barney Greengrass,” the venerable (and quite expensive) appetizing restaurant.

“After the press releases, I did a zillion things,” he continued. “It was total immersion in the business of producing live events. We produced the Newport festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice. We sent hundreds of musicians on the road around the world every year.

“We needed sponsors, so I learned how to work with them, and how to integrate them into entertainment events. George was one of the pioneers of that. At its height, we were doing 25 Kool Jazz Festivals all around the country.

“That’s how I learned to be a producer.”

That’s also how he started to learn about the relationship between the community and the arts. “What George believed, and I still believe, is that the festival has to reflect the character and personality of the community. So in Pittsburgh, our partner was the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and in Minneapolis/Saint Paul it was the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

“We were interested in dignifying jazz as an art form, so we insisted on Grade A civic and cultural partners.”

They also worked to dignify artists as well as the art. “The festivals had all the wonderful big names from the time, like Sarah Vaughn, Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie — but we also worked hard to make sure that local artists who performed in those festivals were able to perform all year round.

“It was important to me that the artists in those cities got pride of place in the festival. It felt organic that way. I learned a lot about how to engage with the community through that work.”

Listening to Mr. Schreiber, it’s hard to remember that he was not working for a nonprofit. “It was a for-profit company that had a nonprofit sensibility,” he said.

Mr. Wein was Jewish, Mr. Schreiber said. “In 1958, he married an African-American woman. It was still illegal in some states then. His parents didn’t speak to him for several years. And then, when they did, they fell in love with Joyce.

“Joyce and George modeled for me the way to be in the world.

“They bought a big country house in Connecticut, and I remember asking her what it was like. She said, ‘It’s strange. We’re the only Jewish couple in the neighborhood.’”

John Schreiber beams as he stands next to world-famous jazz musician Lionel Hampton at the White House in 1986.

Mr. Schreiber moved up in Mr. Wein’s business. “He made me the president of the company,” Mr. Schreiber said. “He never quite retired; he died a year ago at 96. He had a great life. But I realized at a certain point that as president of a company you can get only so far.

“So I started my own business.

“I wanted to do stuff that George wasn’t interested in — television and theater and comedy. George was very comfortable staying in his lane, as a producer of jazz festivals, folk festivals, soul festivals. Music festivals. I wanted to do other things, so we split up.”

For about 10 years, Mr. Schreiber headed the John Schreiber Group, “and I did all those things I wanted to do.” During that time, he and his now ex-wife moved to Montclair with their three young children; they lived there from 2001 to 2016. (Mr. Schreiber since has remarried; he and his wife live in Brooklyn now.)

“Our kids went to public school in Montclair,” he said. “What I loved about it was the diversity, and that the diversity was not forced. The schools were naturally integrated because they were a reflection of the community. So my kids grew up surrounded by people who didn’t look like them, and that was a great gift to them.”

Although he considers himself a cultural rather than a religiously observant Jew, Mr. Schreiber “is very aware of my Jewishness. I embrace it. I’m proud of it.” He became close friends with Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, now the rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, and that friendship led him to go to services there.

Once the John Schreiber Group came to a natural end, Mr. Schreiber became the executive vice president for social action and advocacy of a California-based film production company called Participant Media.

The company had been founded by Jeff Skoll, of eBay; “once he cashed out of eBay, billions of dollars later, he said he wanted to create a media company that produces film and other media about social issues,” Mr. Schreiber said. “He believed that good storytelling can catalyze action”; it’s a belief he shares.

Mr. Schreiber unveils the custom-painted upright piano designed by Lil Nas X and donated to Newark Pride through Mars Wrigley and Sing for Hope.

The company’s CEO, Jim Berk, and Mr. Schreiber started as colleagues and soon became good friends, with many shared interests. Mr. Berk, who had started in music education, “was the head of the Grammy Foundation. The Grammys was a client of mine, and we created a program called the Grammy Festivals, which I produced. He was the president of Hard Rock Cafe; I produced a TV series for it.

“The first film we made was ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’” the 2006 surprise hit documentary that was based on former Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to fight global warming. “It cost $5 million to make, grossed $60 million, and transformed the national conversation around climate change,” Mr. Schreiber said.

“We were all saying that this was the greatest business in the world,” he continued. “And then the 10 movies we made all lost money. But they were all good — movies like ‘Good Night, and Good Luck,’ ‘Syriana,’ ‘The Kite Runner,’ and ‘Lincoln.’ They were serious movies, and they were also engaging.

“My job was great. I worked with the studio partners, the talent, NGOs, and nonprofits to create social action campaigns that gave folks the opportunity to get educated about the issues that the movies talked about. It also gave them a way to take action.

“For example, we did a movie with Tom Hanks called ‘Charlie Wilson’s War.’ Charlie Wilson was a congressman; the movie was about how he worked to break the stalemate in the war in Afghanistan. Tom Hanks already was involved in advancing the GI Bill of Rights, and we became involved in working to advance that legislation too.

“We did a movie called ‘Waiting for Superman’ that was about the crisis in public education. We literally did 500 screenings around the country for school parent-teacher groups, talking about how parents can engage in their kids’ educational futures in a really organic way. It also explained the charter school movement, to some extent. We premiered that movie here at NJPAC; Mark Zuckerberg and Cory Booker were there. That was fun work.”

From left, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, N.J. Governor Phil Murphy, and Mr. Schreiber in 2022, as Lionsgate Newark is announced.

Mr. Schreiber was happy with his work with Participant Media — but it was in California. “I was commuting every week, coming home every weekend, and that got hard to do.

“Then I was reading the New York Times one day, and I saw that Larry Goldman, who had founded NJPAC and led it for 20 years, was about to retire.”

He was interested. He talked to people, he made his interest clear, “and I got the job.”

Heading NJPAC uses all the skills that Mr. Schreiber has acquired over his decades of working as a producer, with performers, with community organizations, and as an informal educator.

“This is a great job for me,” he said. “It’s got all the stuff I love. I love community. I love making connections. I love getting to know organizations and individuals who are making change in the community I’m located in. I love all different genres in the arts.

“I thought that gosh, this would be a really amazing canvas to paint on. And lo and behold! It’s true.”

How does NJPAC work? “The gift of this work is that we define ourselves as the anchor cultural institution, and that gives us permission to collaborate in expected and unexpected ways for the greater good,” he said.

Take the story of George Clinton, he continued.

“When we decided to celebrate the 80th birthday of George Clinton, the godfather of punk, we didn’t simply put on a concert,” he said. “We went to his elementary school in Newark, we got Sony to outfit the music room with state-of-the-art audio technology, and we brought him back to the school. He engaged with 300 elementary school students. The school was renamed after him.”

His work at NJPAC, and NJPAC’s mission, “is not just putting an artist on stage,” he said. “It’s figuring out how the artist’s life and work and inspiration can inform the community.”

Mr. Schreiber detailed some of the center’s work, and his joy in heading it.

“I am so lucky to have this fourth act of my career,” he said. “To be doing this work in this community, with so many community partners. When I’m not feeling stressed or aggravated or frustrated with the world at large” — which he does feel at times because he is human, after all — “I feel so lucky to be able to do this work every day, because every day is a new opportunity to try to deliver value to our community.

“The changes that we are working on and trying to deliver here are, I think, really meaningful to the people we serve. And also our success can be used as a model in other places. So it’s almost as if this is an active workshop. It’s a living laboratory of how an anchor cultural institution can be useful to the broadest cross-section of the community.”

He pointed to NJPAC’s collaboration with Lionsgate to open Great Point Studios, “which we’re building in the South Ward.” According to a May 17, 2022, New York Times story, “$100 Million Film Studio to Rise From Rubble of Ex-Public Housing Site” — which Mr. Schreiber pointed to with great pride — the new studio, built on the rubble of a long-abandoned public housing project, will include “a television and movie production hub featuring six large soundstages.”

“Newark public school officials have told me that it is their intent to build a high school adjacent to it,” Mr. Schreiber said. “The South Ward of Newark is a community where economic development is always something to be encouraged. This project will lead to hundreds of new jobs, and the majority of them will go to Newarkers.”

That doesn’t mean that NJPAC doesn’t also offer the kinds of glamorous performances that excite audiences. “Often people dress up and have that kind of elevated experience. That’s part of what we do for a living. We give people unforgettable experiences. That’s table stakes for us. I am proud of the way we do it.

“But what else can we do? We wake up every morning and ask how we can add value to our community.”

Take the Hip-Hop Nutcracker. “We started it in our 500-seat theater,” he said. “It’s a mashup of Tchaikovsky and hip-hop dancing, and it’s so much fun! Now we tour it in 50 cities a year. There were two specials made about it — one by PBS, one by Disney. Two unique takes on it.

“The audience for it is remarkably diverse, and we encourage that. This is the first Nutcracker for many of the people who come to see it. So we’re introducing them to Tchaikovsky; they already truly understand hip hop culture.

“This is the sort of thing that makes this job so exciting and unpredictable.”

It’s hard to write comprehensively about NJPAC in one newspaper story, even a long one. But here’s some of what it does.

It offers a wide range of programs; some of them fit into conventional definitions of what a performing arts center might do, and others of them do not. NJPAC trains musicians and dancers at all stages of their careers; it has classes for children too. Its recording studios deliver music and talk and poetry. It nurtures and mentors young artists and provides a stage for established ones. It helps educators teach students about the arts – and also about science and humanities, because it looks at teaching as an art.

If there is a way to bring the community into the center through art, NJPAC does it. If there is a way to define art as creatively as possible, NJPAC will look at definition as art.

Mr. Schreiber tied everything together. “When I think about why community is so important to me, both in concept and in practice, I think about my mother,” he said. “She was a great volunteer. That’s what she did.

“If she were in her prime today, she’d be the CEO of a big business. She was a great organizer and collaborator, a person of the community. She was the president of the National Council of Jewish Women in Queens, she was the head of the volunteers for Long Island Jewish Hospital in New Hyde Park, she volunteered for the fight against cerebral palsy.

“She had a generosity of spirit and a desire to give back that I observed when I was a kid, and I admired it. I was also so proud of her.

“And then, when I grew up and went into the music business, I found another sense of collaboration and community and generosity of spirit in the jazz community.”

His mother didn’t know much about jazz — “she wouldn’t have known a jazz musician if she fell over one” — but she and they shared those basic values.

“Wynton Marsalis once said to me that jazz is a great representation of democracy,” Mr. Schreiber concluded. “In order to make great jazz, people have to listen to each other, respect each other, collaborate with each other, toward a greater good. Toward a product that can’t be produced by one person.”

It’s that collaboration — with artists, with coworkers, with the community – that marks NJPAC. And all the windows, all the transparency, all the sunlight, make that clear.

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