August 16, 2018 | ° F

Cultural center director brings live arts to New Brunswick

Photo by Courtesy of Kelly Ryman |

Local residents listen to performances at “Jazz in the Park,” an event at Boyd Park on Aug. 11, headed by Norma Kaplan and the New Brunswick Cultural Center.

Coming out of a 26-yearlong career as the division chief of cultural affairs in Arlington, Va., Norma Kaplan has come to New Brunswick to fulfill the city’s hope of becoming a major cultural hub for New Jersey.

Kaplan, now the executive director of the New Brunswick Cultural Center — made up of the Crossroads Theatre, the State Theatre and the George Street Playhouse — will apply her firsthand experience with the arts, which stretches beyond her work in Arlington.

“I grew up in a low-income section of New York City,” Kaplan said. “I was part of a community nonprofit house and through them I got involved in ... the Non-Professional Children’s Performing Arts Guild. I was doing singing and acting classes and wound up falling in love with the arts.”

She began acting in off-Broadway shows right after high school and eventually founded a small theater in the city. But it was not until she began taking art administration graduate courses that she realized where her passion lay.

Kaplan’s redirected career path led her to Arlington, where she ran several cultural centers throughout the county out of a government agency.

“The vision I was trying at that point was that there really needed to be policies and programs to help the few arts organizations around, because there was a lot of creative energy in the area,” Kaplan said.

One of her major contributions to Arlington was the Arts Incubator, a cultural program that tripled the amount of art groups in the area within two years of its founding.

“I went from having like three spaces to seven that we were operating,” she said. “It was designed to be more reflective of the community. Arlington had a lot of immigration, and so we reached out to get more diversity in the arts programs. This is similar to New Brunswick.”

After what she considers a successful run in Arlington, Kaplan said it was time for a change in scenery.

“The New Brunswick folks called me and asked me to interview, and so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll give this a try,’ and I started thinking that it would be great to work with a new community,” she said.

Kaplan hopes the three venues in her charge can come up with successful strategies to improve the arts scene in New Brunswick.

“We are starting a planning process to really look at what we need to do to grow the arts around the whole city,” she said. “We want to come out with a vision of what we want the arts to look like and how to live out that vision.”

Kaplan is finishing off her first year with Hub City Sounds, a series of outdoor performances that aims to bring the arts directly to local residents.

The outdoor series, which runs Saturdays between Aug. 11 and Sept. 29, hosted performances such as N.J. blues band, The Fins, and children’s rock band, StarFish.

Kaplan said she was excited about the next band in the series to perform at Boyd Park on Sept. 8, the Tres Amigos.

Sam Reider, one of the singers in the Tres Amigos, said the band became involved in Hub City Sounds after Kaplan saw them perform at a music conference in New York City.

“This is the first time we are performing in New Brunswick,” he said.

Reider said the band, which has elements of bluegrass, country and jazz, began after the group of friends had been playing together for eight years.

“We like to say that we play great American songs,” he said. “We take all different older styles and put them together in new ways.”

The band has a popular single among college-aged crowds called, “Pull that Bottle (I Want to Get Drunk!),” Reider said.

“Everyone at the college age would love them,” Kaplan said.

While Kaplan is happy to see projects such as Hub City Sounds take root in New Brunswick, her first year at the cultural center also had its fair share of difficulties.

“Whenever you go from one community to another, you may not know what the right thing or the wrong thing is, and sometimes you say something you shouldn’t say or go to a meeting you don’t need to go to,” she said. “It’s a learning process.”

Kaplan said she looks forward to growing into her role as executive director and hopes to continue making contributions to the local arts scene.

“Hopefully the center and arts groups within the center will be working together more efficiently and effectively,” she said. “Hopefully, there will be some room found to invite new arts groups within the center.”

By Giancarlo Chaux

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