When the late philanthropist Betty Wold Johnson first became a supporter of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center more than a decade ago, she asked the institution’s leadership a simple question: What aspects of the arts center’s operations were hardest to fundraise for?
“I told her the truth, which is that everybody wants to name a theater, but nobody wants to pay for maintenance,” Larry Goldman, NJPAC’s inaugural CEO and president, who led the institution for 22 years, remembered.
“And she said to me: ‘I’m a housekeeper at heart. That’s exactly what I’d like to support, the maintenance of NJPAC.’”
Her gift of $11 million, made in 2008, was at that time the largest individual gift to NJPAC in its history. And substantial portions of the gift were earmarked for the upkeep of NJPAC’s campus. Johnson continued to support NJPAC throughout her lifetime.
On Tuesday, NJPAC announced that Johnson, who died in May at age 99, has bequeathed an additional $20 million gift to NJPAC’s Endowment Fund.
The gift is the largest bequest the arts center has received, and is the largest individual gift ever made to the NJPAC Endowment Fund. Johnson made her bequest to the arts center’s current Capital Campaign, now in its third year, which has raised $121 million to date, toward an ultimate goal of $175 million.
NJPAC officials said Johnson always emphasized the necessity of funding maintenance and capital projects, to ensure the sustainability of current and future buildings on the NJPAC campus. The gift will be a critical factor in the long-term resilience of the campus and the institution.
And it will put Johnson’s name in the main theater.
Johnson has never requested naming rights in exchange for her generosity — aside from joking that a plaque with her name on it might be placed outside a janitor’s closet — but NJPAC has decided to name the stage of its largest theater, Prudential Hall, in her honor.
When NJPAC once again welcomes patrons to live, in-person performances after the current health crisis has abated, audiences will see this new name on the wall of the theater’s lobby and on the campus exterior.
Her sons, Woody and Christopher Johnson, said they are thrilled that their mother is being recognized.
“Mom once said that the arts ‘feed the spirit,’” they said. “She would have been pleased and proud of this very fitting recognition for her long-time support of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.”
NJPAC CEO John Schreiber said the organization will forever be in her debt.
“Mrs. Johnson had a mighty spirit and a big heart,” he said. “She cared about the arts center’s mission and business with equal intensity. Her gift inspires us to be the most effective, dynamic and creative anchor cultural institution possible.”
Prudential Financial Chairman and CEO Charles Lowrey, a member of the Executive Committee of the arts center’s board of directors, said Prudential is honored to have Johnson’s name as a part of Prudential Hall.
“Prudential Hall is home to one of America’s grandest stages, and Betty Johnson’s gift is the grandest of gestures,” Lowrey said. “It is fitting that Mrs. Johnson’s name will forever be associated with the exceptional performances presented there.”
NJPAC leadership noted that Johnson not only contributed to the Arts Center, but was deeply engaged in its programs and plans for the future, traveling to visit the NJPAC campus from her home in Mercer County several times to tour the theaters and hear about upcoming initiatives.
Former Gov. Tom Kean, one of NJPAC’s founders, said that was a bonus.
“I knew her for at least a quarter of a century, and she was the most generous person I knew — but she wouldn’t ever just write a check,” he said. “She got interested in your work.
“She came to the arts center, she questioned us deeply, she wanted to know what we would use the money for. She was very thoughtful about giving. I don’t know that anyone in the state gave more than she did, but it was always planned giving. She had to be convinced that the money would be well spent, and you didn’t get a cent from her until you showed her that.”
Johnson was the matriarch of the Johnson family, which founded Johnson & Johnson, the multinational medical device and health care product company, more than 130 years ago.
Today, the company, headquartered in New Brunswick, employs more than 130,000 people. Johnson’s sons are Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson IV, the former ambassador to the U.K. and the owner of the New York Jets football team, and Christopher Johnson, CEO of the team. Her philanthropy also has supported numerous arts and cultural organizations in New Jersey, New York and throughout the country.
Schreiber summed up her impact and influence on the arts community and the state of New Jersey this way.
“Mrs. Johnson was a remarkable woman; we will not see her like again,” he said. “NJPAC is proud to be part of her lasting legacy.”