[email protected]

Spotlight Gala “remembers when” and envisions what’s ahead in anniversary celebration.


The past and future meshed in harmony at the Spotlight Gala of the Women’s Association of NJPAC (WA), which celebrated the occasion of the Arts Center’s 20th anniversary season on September 23 with artists and friends who best remember the beginning of it all. 


And the evening made some history of its own. The Gala’s [email protected] program brought together two of NJPAC’s arts advisors, bassist Christian McBride and tap dancer-choreographer Savion Glover, in a dynamic duet. With Glover’s feet supplying the percussion, the playful improvisation added Rolling Stones backup vocalist Lisa Fischer to the mix for a torchy rendition of “Fever.”


Glover was among the artists who christened the Prudential Hall stage by performing on opening night, October 18, 1997. Other well-wishers making 20-year return engagements included the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, again presenting Fanfare for the Common Man, this time under the baton of Music Director Xian Zhang. Members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, NJPAC’s Resident Dance Company, excerpted the uplifting “Move, Members, Move” sequence from Revelations. Other NJPAC audience favorites, back on the boards for the occasion, included Hamilton’s James Monroe Iglehart; American Songbook ambassador Michael Feinstein; “Queen of Salsa” India, supported on sax by Paquito D’Rivera; and A-list jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, in an homage to Newarker Sarah Vaughan.


“Diversity is at the heart of what we do here at the Arts Center and it’s bred in the bone,” observed NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber.


The Gala’s funding goal to benefit arts education programs was exceeded with aplomb by the WA, which raised $2.5 million for the event. So it was fitting and moving that two of NJPAC’s rising-star students – 16-year-old Alexis Jessica Morrast and 18-year-old Ricky Persaud, Jr. – were on hand to sing “You Make Me Feel So Young,” accompanied by McBride’s Big Band. 


“To see what’s happened at NJPAC over 20 years is nothing short of astonishing,” McBride remarked.


The presence of founding visionaries reminded the 1,000-plus guests that the Arts Center’s status today was built on ideas that became realities: Even before a shovel broke ground, arts learning initiatives were in place; the WA was generating donations and transforming an airplane hangar into a party space for its first Gala; and what would one day become the One Theater Square high-rise appeared on the master plan.


As a frontman for Newark’s revitalization through his high-tech accelerator Newark Venture Partners, Audible founder and CEO Don Katz was given the inaugural Founders Award, presented by philanthropist and NJPAC Founding Chair Ray Chambers. Chambers spoke of the life-changing effects of the arts on children’s self-esteem and Katz emphasized the importance of corporate, technological and residential vitality in the downtown.


“Putting up a commercial building is not growth; it’s what goes on inside,” said Katz, whose company arrived in Newark with 100 employees in 2007 and now has 1,300.


Membership in the WA has grown from a handful of women to some 2,000 strong. WA President Mary Beth O’Connor, who shared the podium with Schreiber, noted that the organization has generated more than $50 million for arts learning. They were joined in this year’s endeavor by Gala Co-Chairs John Strangfeld, Chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, and his wife, Mary Kay, Vice President of the WA; Prudential was the lead sponsor of the celebration and the MCJ Amelior Foundation was the underwriter.


In addition to an array of hand-crafted appetizers and a space reserved for fizzy drinks like champagne (or Pellegrino!), Gala guests dined on petit filet mignon served with lobster thermidor. NJPAC Events caterers capped the night with a dessert buffet and bar stocked with rows of toasted marshmallow ‘smore milk shakes for grown-ups. The only guests who didn’t partake were four-legged: The Gala’s first service dogs, Vegas and Willow, escorted Jim and Ginger Kutsch, representing The Seeing Eye in Morris Township.


Sept. 25, 2017