Since the Arts Council of Princeton was incorporated as a non-profit in 1967—50 years ago—its mission has been to build community by nurturing the visual, performing and literary arts.
This mission resonates deeply with its newest executive director, Taneshia Nash Laird, a West Windsor resident whose love of the arts and their transformative powers is integral to who she is—largely because of how her mother raised her.
“I was the stereotypical geeky kid who watched on Channel 13 (PBS) every museum show, every dance show,” she said. “My mom saw my interest, and even though it was a stretch for her financially, she found ways for me to participate in things that stimulated my creativity.”
Laird’s mother, Ella Mae Dawson, worked in Scarsdale, New York, as a domestic for a family. The third family for whom she worked encouraged her to complete her GED, which she did.
She then earned a degree in early childhood education at Elizabeth Seton College and got a job at a childcare center in White Plains, New York, where she worked for the next 30 years and as a single mother raised Laird.
It was there and at an adjoining community center that young Laird took lessons in modern dance, African dance, and painting, drawing, and sculpting classes—not unlike the Arts Council of Princeton’s classes that serve children and adults. She played flute, she danced, she was a singer and performer.
“Without those opportunities I would have just been a kid who saw all of this activity swirling around me with no way to grab it‚” says Laird. She received scholarships to participate in a competitive program for advanced high school musicians, visual arts and dancers.
Another aspect of Laird’s life that dovetails with her job is the pleasure she takes in being an entrepreneur. After graduating from Baruch College with a degree in marketing, Laird embarked on a vibrant career in development and promotion.
‘To be able to lead an organization like the Arts Council of Princeton that changes and transforms lives through art is a legacy that greatly inspires me.’
When she met her future husband, Roland Laird, she joined him in promoting his passion for comic books. Frustrated by the genre’s lack of black heroes, he created POSRO Media in 1998, and produced its first product, Mc Squared, a hip hop infused comic book, followed by “Griots,” a comic strip that was syndicated to black weeklies around the country.
In 1997 book publisher W.W. Norton asked the couple to write a graphic history of African Americans. The book, Still I Rise, traces African-American history from 1619 to the Million Man March on Washington, D.C. A new edition came out in 2008, updated to include Barack Obama’s election as president.
The entrepreneurial couple settled in West Windsor. In 2005 Laird became the director of economic development for the City of Trenton, where she was responsible for promoting urban revitalization through business attraction, expansion, and job creation and for fostering improved quality of life by supporting arts and culture.
That job required her to live in the capital city, so the family purchased a large home on South Clinton Avenue. Following that position, she became executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association, where she launched a community art gallery and the “Destination Trenton” cultural tourism initiative.
After her husband died suddenly in 2013, she and her two children returned to West Windsor. Last year the Arts Council of Princeton selected Laird as its new executive director, replacing Jeff Nathanson, who retired. She is only the third executive director since the organization’s founding 50 years ago and the first one of color.
Laird understands the value the Arts Council adds to its community. “I had a decent understanding of what the Arts Council of Princeton did because it was one of the first places that I checked out when we moved into the area,” Laird says. “I remember [founding director] Anne Reeves giving me a tour of building. But what I didn’t realize is how many places we send out teaching artists to. Learning about the depth of our outreach was a pleasant surprise.”
She adds that she looks looks forward to coming to work. “I think about work, and there are days that my staff have to tell me to go home. I also love that I’m a rock star at home. My daughters, ages 7 and 11, love the work that I do and that I have a job that they can understand.”
As the Arts Council of Princeton embarks on a full schedule of programs celebrating its 50th anniversary, Laird marvels at how her growing up in a community that provided access to the arts ultimately impacted the trajectory of her life.
“To be able to lead an organization like the Arts Council of Princeton that changes and transforms lives through art is a legacy that greatly inspires me,” says Laird. “I am constantly hearing stories of how what we do does change lives.”
She said the job has make her think about the impact that she wants to have on people and on the community.
“Anne Reeves and Jeff Nathanson absolutely made a positive impact on thousands of people because of the work they and their staff did here,” she says. “I want to be a part of that ongoing story.”