The thriving arts institutions in the Princeton community have an impact beyond their cultural and educational value, asserts James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum. “There is an economic magnifier value of arts attendance,” he says.
To assess what arts and culture contribute to the area economy, the Arts Council of Princeton has facilitated a major study involving all the community arts organizations to determine how much is spent by their collective audience and how much the organizations themselves inject into the area economy. The results are expected in 2012.
The Art Museum, which has an operating budget of roughly $14 million and 135,000 visitors, is a major component of that economic engine. But Steward has a larger vision — one that will bring together local arts organizations to work jointly to make Princeton a community arts destination. Noting that 1.5 million visitors a year come to the campus, including prospective students and their families as well as tourists who may be coming to a specific event or just to walk, Steward would like to see a broad effort to make them aware of all the Princeton community has to offer.
Steward will speak on “How the Arts Can Drive Business,” on Thursday, June 2, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Princeton Marriott, 100 College Road East. Cost: $65. For information, call 609-924-1776 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To register, go to www.princetonchamber.org.
Steward is looking for ways to create synergies between cultural organizations — like the museum, McCarter Theater, Princeton University, Princeton Public Library, the Arts Council of Princeton, Princeton Historical Society, and Morven — and business that will benefit the entire community. Among the actions he proposes:
#b#Market Princeton as an arts community#/b#. Princeton already has what it takes — a walkable downtown, a vibrant retail community, attractive cultural destinations, and ticketed performances — and that’s why, suggests Steward, when the New York Times runs an article every other year or so on the top-10 day trips, Princeton is usually on the list. Steward contends that by creating a sense of a cultural community, rather than just a list of cultural organizations, Princeton can magnify its attractiveness.
Certainly arts organizations do marketing on their own, and in fact the art museum has expanded its own efforts to include more advertising, a sustained presence on the platforms of the train station, and splashy advertising in the New York Times. But Steward is also looking beyond his own institution, and he asks, “How might we do more of that by working as a collective among cultural organizations or in a partnership of business and nonprofits to create a richer sense of Princeton as an attractive destination for shopping and cultural consumption?”
#b#Provide good information#/b#. Part of marketing Princeton is simple — helping people overcome what they may perceive as obstacles to participating in the arts. For example: parking. To solve this problem, all it takes is making the effort to provide information to potential visitors.
#b#Link up with the small-business community#/b#. Steward is interested in exploring ways to do a collective marketing effort between the cultural organizations and the business community. Although thus far the two have not seen their goals as being particularly aligned, Steward notes that any type of culture that draws people to Princeton is also bringing them into its stores and restaurants.
His first step in convincing business to join hands is his talk at the chamber, which he will follow up with a meeting at the museum with the chamber’s leadership and upper-tier members. “It will be held in the art museum to make what we are as a resource real to these folks,” says Steward.
Another approach would be to link up with types of events already planned to support retailers, like the ladies’ night out to encourage women shoppers on a certain evening with an array of events. “My hope is next time there could be involvement in whatever number of cultural organizations to create more of a sense of critical mass,” says Steward.
#b#Reach out to larger institutions#/b#. Steward is also looking to connect with larger employers like the medical center and regional corporations to do a specific outreach program that targets them, their staff, and their client bases. These big institutions have their own unique stake in the existence of a vibrant arts culture in terms of recruitment and retention of employees.
Support the local community. The art museum’s store, whose sales cover one or two positions at the museum, has been redefined to focus on regional unique artisanal merchandise rather than a wide range of merchandise from abroad. “This aligns with the Hometown Princeton initiative, which focuses on locally owned and managed retailers as opposed to national chains,” he says.
Steward’s father was a government economist and a diplomat, and he lived with his family in India, Japan, and Thailand and then went to boarding school. His mother was trained as a painter, although she ended up becoming a professional diplomat’s wife. He adds that she was always incredibly visually attuned. Recently he asked her, in preparation for a speech, how old he was when he went to his first art museum, and her answer was “when you were six weeks old.”
“Taking her children to the art museum was such a natural thing to do that I’m sure it shaped my career choices,” he says, as did his early experience internationally.
Steward graduated in 1981 from the University of Virginia with a double major in history and art history. Between 1986 and 1988 he completed a master’s degree in art history at New York University, and then he did a doctorate in art history, with a focus on 18th and 19th century European painting, at Oxford University.
He began his first professional job in 1992 at the University of California-Berkeley, first as curator and then as chief curator at its art museum and also assistant professor in the art history department.
In 1998 he moved to the museum at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he was director for 11 years and oversaw the design, fundraising, and construction of a new museum building that opened in 2009. He came to Princeton a month later on June 1. “I live in the township, and I want to point out that I too am a taxpayer locally,” he says. “Many of us are both town and gown all in one.”
Steward points out that Ann Arbor is a very different community from Princeton. “Hardly any Ann Arborite goes to Detroit,” says Steward. “Ann Arbor really has to be self-sustaining. One of the reasons the cultural scene there, particularly in performing arts, is so good is that it is so far from other places.”
Coming to Princeton as museum director, he made the choice to stop being a specialist curator and become an administrator. “I have to try to understand what is unique to the Princeton context,” he says. “How is the range of what we do as an art museum different because we are in the most populous state per square mile in the country?” With 14 million people in a 45-mile radius, he says, there is a larger audience that the museum has not yet captured, and this just reinforces his view that banding together Princeton’s cultural organizations and businesses can bring more audience to the town.
Steward has brought in some new initiatives. He began opening the museum on Thursday nights to 10 p.m., and providing programs like film screenings, concerts in the galleries, gallery talks, and even comedy improv. “We’re opening out the art museum to be a bit more welcoming and more of an arts center pluralistically,” he says.
He also made a decision to create summer programming in a museum that had previously gone dark from June to October. Not only will this serve the part of the university community that does not leave town — graduate students, faculty, and other staff — but it also makes the museum more compelling to the larger community. The programming is more playful, broader in reach, and aimed less at a specialist audience. For example: last summer’s exhibition on color photography of the 1970s.
Steward notes that Americans spend more money on cultural participation than on going to the movies, and he sees a new opening for vibrant communal arts organizations. “I have a sense that as other forms of collective public participation decline, we become a more fractured society,” he says. “There is a hunger to go to a public space that is welcoming and to be in a community setting.”