When the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, designed by Michael Graves, officially opens its glass doors on Thursday, June 5, life in the center of Princeton will take on a new and improved dimension. After a long and occasionally stormy wait, the architecturally glamorous building will join with its equally imposing glass and brick neighbor, the Princeton Public Library, to transform the heart of town into a critical cultural mass: a thriving center for the arts, literature, and serious creative enterprise.

The Robeson Center will open for business with a series of welcoming programs. Things get started on Thursday, June 5, with a ribbon cutting at 2 p.m. The Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Quilt will be dedicated at 3 p.m. to be followed at 4 p.m. by a public opening and reception for the aptly named inaugural exhibition, “Return: Home,” in the Peg and Frank Taplin Gallery. The display features the work of 11 New Jersey-affiliated artists. A series of upcoming programs will accompany “Return” (see story page 30).

The Robeson Center has been conceived as a fertile environment in which the arts can flourish. Architect Graves describes the entrance to the eye-catching post-modern building as “an opening salvo, the gate to the John Street area and to the world of the arts in Princeton.” A harmonious structural marriage of past and present, new design elements have been chosen with reference to the original structure. According to Graves, the brick for the new wing was intended to make a visual connection with that of the original building. And the pattern of the windows in the older wing creates a visual dialogue with the those of the new rotunda and the nearby window wall of the stairwell.

The new addition/renovation did not happen without considerable controversy. Neighbors were up in arms over the scale, and after much back and forth the Arts Council came back with a scaled down version of the plans. The neighborhood was considered a matter of serious architectural consideration and the Robeson Center’s proportions and materials pay homage to their surroundings. Graves says the size was a special concern, that all of the buildings in the neighborhood are small and, as such, scale was indeed a major factor when he designed the center.

He says that designing a building in his hometown — amazingly, Graves’s first non-residential project in Princeton — was important to him. He refers to it as his only chance in Princeton, noting that when he began, “There was a lot of internal pressure because it’s home, and I was going to see it. I better get it right.”

Graves says he chose bright blue glazed brick accents for the Robeson Center because he felt that they would serve as an element of surprise, that they would tell passersby “Something’s going on in this building. It’s not humdrum everyday.” He says he thinks that it works. “Every time I look at the building it brings a smile to my face.”

Following the opening ceremonies and thank-you events honoring the people who helped make the renovation and addition a reality, the Arts Council will shift into artistic overdrive with an ongoing series of programs including exhibitions, lectures, performance, classes, and more. As such, painters, potters, photographers, dancers, poets, playwrights, musicians, and their respective publics will find themselves joining Public Library aficionados to head for cultural mecca at the corner of Witherspoon and Wiggins streets.

Princeton Public Library director Leslie Burger says she looks forward to the creative energy generated by the Arts Council’s return. “We think there are wonderful synergies that will come about. We already have shared activities such as our exhibition series, and we’ll be doing more collaborative programming.”

Although the Wiggins-Witherspoon corner has been home to the Arts Council for 26 years, executive director Jeff Nathanson says that the transformation from utilitarian red-brick structure into a landmark contemporary design statement is emblematic of what will be taking place inside the new glass, tile, and brick walls. He expects the building to become a cultural destination, a magnet for the area. “I think it will change things — more and better facilities, a larger building, more programs, and more people will enable us to feature artists and performers that will have a greater regional impact. We are hoping that the new building brings with it the spirit of participation and belonging. Access, openness, and inclusion are an important aspect of our plans.”

According to Graves the glass-walled entry-rotunda was intended to set the stage. “It becomes the foyer for the whole thing,” he says, “a gathering place.”

The changes are indeed dramatic. The modest 9,000 square foot structure has grown to include some 17,000 square feet of interior space. The towering glass-walled rotunda welcomes visitors. The Center’s commitment to design declares itself immediately in the light-washed space where the centerpiece is Joshua Kirsch’s Donor Sculpture. The heroically-scaled motorized orb — six feet in diameter — is inscribed with the names of all the Center’s donors. At the push of a button the work will rotate, allowing visitors to locate specific names, a three-dimensional reminder that the building is there because of close connections between the community and the arts.

The rotunda leads to a museum-quality exhibition gallery, which Nathanson says will offer viewers a generous sampling of artistic possibilities, including works by established regional, national, and international artists as well as those who are local, emerging, and mid-career. In addition he notes that the gallery, which is four times larger than the Arts Council’s original exhibition area, will also be a center for serious thought. “We will use the gallery program to explore pressing social political and environmental issues. We are planning to mount contemporary exhibitions with local or regional relevance.”

The rotunda is also the gateway to the Sands Reception Area, where local history takes center stage with a permanent display of historic photographs of the neighborhood and its people, and the Witherspoon-Jackson quilt is installed in a place of honor. The multi-level center includes studios, up and down, that are dedicated to and equipped for specific artistic functions: painting, ceramics, digital arts, and dance, along with a workspace reserved for children and teens. Communiversity Room — a welcoming lounge-area funded by Princeton University and its alumni — will be made available to non-profit community organizations for meetings. The Anne Reeves Studio, named after the founding director of the Arts Council, offers a view encompassing much of downtown Princeton and will be home to an artist-in-residence.

There is also a well-equipped darkroom for wet-print photography with its own space for preparing chemicals. And the redesigned performance center, the Robert L. Solley Theater, which can seat an audience of 120, has a digitally operated sound system, HD projection, and a permanently installed eight-foot wide screen that retracts when not in use. Programs already in the works include events that follow and connect with the opening exhibition, and Cafe Improv, which hosts music and performances by artists on the fourth Saturday of every month. Executive director Nathanson says concerts and film series are also under consideration.

The new center ties in to economic factors as well. According to data collected by Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit arts and culture industry functions effectively as an economic driver. The study, Arts & Economic Prosperity in 2006, reports that, nationally, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity annually — a 24 percent increase in just the past five years — and in the process, creates jobs. The Robeson Center reflects that trend with a staff increase of five including a curator, development team, and production expert. What is more, the local nature of arts and culture endeavors — employing locally, purchasing locally, and generating local spending — is regarded as a big economic plus. The jobs that are generated necessarily remain in the area and are much less likely to be outsourced. In New Brunswick, for example, the study found that the arts have generated $36 million in revenue and sustained 800 jobs. And in our New Jersey Legislative district, which includes Trenton, the data indicate that 461 arts organizations generate 2,697 jobs.

Karen Colimore, president and CEO of Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce, views the new center as a positive addition to the community, noting that its programs will bring more people into Princeton — always a plus for commerce. She says the chamber has already connected with the center as a destination, with plans to use it as the venue for an upcoming event.

Other organization programs already on the docket include a reception and auction for the Trenton After School Program, and the New Jersey Regional Meeting of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare. In addition, Nathanson says there will be collaborations with other organizations down the line. He also speaks of those that were already in place before the move to the new building, programs with Artreach, Young Achievers, Princeton Art Museum, and the Suzanne Paterson Center, as well as exhibitions staged at the Public Library and Arts Exchange with Homefront. “Collaboration is an important part of what the Arts Council is about,” he says. “We want to serve other community groups and reach out to become a catalyst for positive growth.”

And, as it turns out, it’s not just the art lovers and the economy that benefit when the arts thrive. Another study, Americans for the Arts, found that increased arts development often has a political impact as well, noting, “The arts and humanities can stimulate public dialogue about civic issues, and (in the process) inspire action to make change.”

The Arts Council had its beginnings in 1967 when a group of people organized so that arts groups could share ideas and scheduling. Anne Reeves, the first executive director, and for many years the sole employee, describes the early days as a good idea without a place to roost. “We were like tent city,” she says, “moving from one place to another.”

Before long, however, the building that is now the core of the new Robeson Center was vacated and the Council was chosen from a group of area organizations to make it their home. Built on the site of a tennis court, the building had served for many years as the neighborhood YMCA. During the segregation era, it was a social and cultural center for the long-established Jackson-Witherspoon neighborhood. Even then the plan for the original building spoke of the connection between town and gown that is a hallmark of the Arts Council. Built by the Works Progress Administration, the original 1939 building was designed by Ken Kessler, a Princeton University architecture professor who later taught Michael Graves when he was a student at Princeton.

The Arts Council’s early years were marked by the hard labor of a band of dedicated volunteers who, according to Reeves, scrubbed floors, painted walls, built furniture, performed, and led workshops that rapidly turned the organization into a popular attraction. “We used every bit of space from the beginning,” she says, “even though we didn’t have a nickel.”

Over time, with community support, the Arts Council grew to employ five people and an ever-increasing cadre of volunteers. Even with a shoestring budget they were able to hold classes, install exhibitions, and stage performances by such notables as jazz musician Sonny Rollins and the poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Cafe Improv, the monthly open-mic event in the theater, became a major venue for entertainment, winning an award for its cable broadcasts. And, starting with the earliest days, town, faculty, and students joined forces to stage Communiversity, a town-gown tradition that continues to thrive.

Nathanson says he expects important things to happen. “This has become a good place for art.”

Public Celebration of the New Paul Robeson Center, Thursday, June 5, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. Ribbon cutting and dedication of the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Quilt, 2 p.m.; open house throughout the Robeson Center, 2 to 7 p.m.; gallery reception for the Robeson Center’s inaugural exhibition, “Return: Home,” 4 to 7 p.m. 609-924-8777.

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