New 42: Interview with President & CEO Russell Granet

Russell Granet is the President & CEO of New 42, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to making the performing arts a vital part of everyone’s life from the earliest years onward.

Russell Granet is the President & CEO of New 42, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to making the performing arts a vital part of everyone’s life from the earliest years onward. Russell Granet joined New 42 in 2019 and he led the organization through the COVID crisis, the re-opening of The New Victory Theater and New 42 Studios, New 42’s Emmy®-nominated “Let’s Get This Show on the Street” broadcast and much more.

Russell is a passionate advocate for arts education, and he is an integral part of research and program launches at New 42. He previously served as the Acting President at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. With New 42, he helped to establish the GIVE (“Growing Inclusivity for Vibrant Engagement”) program which addresses the need for training and resources on arts engagement in Inclusion Classrooms. Russell also recently oversaw a landmark study,  SPARK (“Schools with the Performing Arts Reach Kids) which measures the impact and intrinsic value of performing arts on young people.

Russell recently discussed his career and New 42 via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): When did you first discover your love for theater and the performing arts?

Russell Granet (RG): I grew up in New York City – my family is originally from Washington Heights – and we were always a theatergoing family.  I think Oliver was the first show I saw and I was, as they say, hooked. What sealed the deal was seeing myself, in some small way, on that stage. Not only was I the same age as Oliver, but as old-fashioned as that musical is, it speaks to inclusion. Consider yourself one of us is a deceptively simple lyric that, for me, said “All are welcome here!” Flash forward to today, and I am still focused on the concepts of representation and access for all – having the opportunity to see someone who looks like you, who shares a common narrative, is so important. Representation onstage is powerful and life changing.

MM: How did you find your way to a job at Lincoln Center and what did that position entail?

RG: I was asked to meet with Reynold Levy in 2012, which is about a year before he was planning to step down as Lincoln Center’s President. He told me he wanted education and community engagement to be looked at more expansively before he left. He wanted that to be his last stamp on the place since he had focused a great deal of energy on the incredible physical renovation and beautification of the campus. He brought me on to reimagine what education and community engagement could look like. I was named Executive Director of what was then called Lincoln Center Institute, which we quickly rebranded as Lincoln Center Education.

Did you know Lincoln Center used to have a philosopher-in-residence? Maxine Greene, the amazing arts educator, had that job, and she believed everything one does as an educator should be based around a work of art. And the Institute was solely built around this idea. To say that Dr. Greene was influential in the field of education writ large and on my work specifically is an understatement. The foundation of her educational philosophy enabled us to expand and open up our work to include other approaches as well. After about three years as the head of Lincoln Center Education, I was asked to take over Lincoln Center’s International division – working mostly in China and India. That led to being asked to become the Acting President – which I did for over a year.

The success I’m most proud of during my tenure at Lincoln Center Education was our decision to commission a work of theater specifically for the autism community, entitled Up and Away. Created in collaboration with the Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, Up and Away helped change the way children on the autism spectrum and their parents think about theater. It was a risky commission for Lincoln Center to take on; nothing quite like it had ever been done before. There was no financial upside because to best serve this community, the production needed an incredibly intimate scale–there were only 12 kids at each performance. Because of the amount of attention, the production received, including a glowing New York Times review, the work’s reach extended far beyond the kids who attended a performance. The project led us to create the Big Umbrella Festival, which brought together companies from all over the world who were doing this kind of work to learn from one another and share their art.

MM: How did you make your way to New 42 and what most intrigues you about the programming?

RG: I’ve had a longstanding relationship with New 42’s board Chairman, Fiona Howe Rudin. She knew I was an admirer of the work being done here, so we would meet occasionally and discuss all things New 42 and The New Victory Theater. Probably 10-15 years ago, I was brought in to consult, to train teaching artists, and to help identify and articulate the core values for our Youth Corps program. So, it was an honor for me to ‘come home,’ as it were, when I ended up returning as President & CEO.

The work that I care most about is finding ways to create a theatergoing habit where one doesn’t exist or isn’t ingrained. That was a focus of my work at Lincoln Center Education, but as Lincoln Center’s Acting President, I was splitting my time overseeing a huge operation and its infrastructure. What intrigued me about New 42 was coming back to what I love to do. Also, the very complexity of New 42 intrigues me: it encompasses a vast real estate portfolio of theaters and other spaces, an incredible rehearsal studio building, and, of course, all the brilliant artistic programming and extensive education programs for families and kids.

MM: What are some of the most exciting shows and projects you’ve worked on with this company?

RG: That’s a tough question because I’ve only been here three years, and two of them were during the pandemic shutdown. I am enormously proud of the work we accomplished during the pandemic, especially our ability to quickly provide access to high quality arts programming for the millions of families suddenly isolated in their homes. It’s important to continue the virtual programming that began in March of 2020, because it gives us national and international reach, especially in rural areas with much less access to the arts.

I think the work we’re doing with the GIVE program–promoting inclusivity in arts education–is also vital. I am proud of my background as a teaching artist, especially my hours spent in New York City’s District 75, which serves kids with learning differences and disabilities. GIVE is the opportunity to do more of that kind of work, so that’s of great interest to me personally.

And then there’s the research we did around our program called SPARK (Schools with Performing Arts Reach Kids), which is a game changer. I say that because I don’t think most nonprofit regional theaters are thinking enough about 5 to 10-year-olds, but our research shows the value of doing so. You can hook them for life when kids are that young. I would love to see more people in the arts world paying attention to the findings of this research and then see the field changing accordingly.

MM: What do you wish more people knew about the values of arts in education?

RG: That it’s not about creating young artists, it’s about giving young people the skills to think like artists. Artists understand that there are multiple solutions to problems. And there’s no one better than an artist to model resilience in overcoming obstacles. Thinking like an artist means understanding that innovation is a form of creativity. Every corporation out there is looking for people who understand that failure is a good thing, that you can learn from it, that the world is not linear. Those are all skills you learn from the arts. Some parents might be worried that we are trying to create more artists, but the reality is arts education gives kids the skills they need to become better citizens, and the skills they need to solve tomorrow’s problems. Some of these kids might also go on to distinguished careers in the arts, but that is not our goal.

MM: What’s your favorite part of your job and why?

RG: The people who work here. And the fact that I work at a live theater company. I love sitting in theaters, being backstage…. I was a theater kid, and I still wake up thankful that I get to do what I love to do. That I get to help bring great art to more kids. It’s an incredible opportunity that I never take for granted.

MM: What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten about New 42 programs and/or performances?

RG: That when they come through our doors, they know they are in good hands at every moment of their experience.  From the moment they are greeted by one of our terrific Youth Corps ushers, to the pre-show when they are introduced to a piece of art by a best-in-class Teaching Artist, to experiencing productions brought in from all over the world, and the very fact this all is happening in one of the most beautifully restored theaters in New York City.  If you’re going to see a show at the New Victory, you may love one piece more than another, but you can always trust that our goal is to share world-class art. We take that trust very seriously. Also, we are proud that we often hear how responsive we are to the needs of the city; that we see gaps and fill them – like our programming for kids with disabilities or working with NYCHA public housing to provide access to performances to the families that live there.

MM: Are you planning to add any new programs soon?

RG: Always. LabWorks, our artist development program that prioritizes BIPOC artists and their work, has spun off LabWorks Launch that we want to grow into a more expansive fellowship program. We are consistently proud of the work being created in LabWorks, so it only makes sense for us to try and help that work get seen by as many people as possible. We are doing this by creating more relationships with other theaters and performing arts centers. There are countless regional theaters in America and one goal is creating a tour circuit so that LabWorks Launch artists could find a wider audience for their work. Additionally, we want to help them find residencies with partner organizations across the country.

MM: How do you hope your career – and New 42 – evolves over the next ten years?  What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

RG: I’d like there not to be another pandemic! In terms of goals, I would like to continue our efforts to diversify our public audiences. The future of the New Victory will be built on what is on our stages, how we develop exciting new work, and how we can continue to grow and connect with all the various communities of New York City. And we need to continue our advocacy in helping bring about a dedicated budget for public schools for arts education. You would never think about teaching math or science to kids in 1st grade and then not again until 4th grade. Unfortunately, we have an issue with that scattershot approach for the arts. Exposure to the arts are a critical part of a child’s development, and we at New 42 want to continue to be a vital part of making that a reality for every child in every borough of NYC.