Ambassador of the Arts
Adam Welch, executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton, has energized the arts community and beyond
By Anne Levin | Photography by Jeffrey E. Tryon
When Adam Welch has trouble sleeping at night, he goes online and reads old newspapers about the history of Princeton. Any mention he finds of 102 Witherspoon Street — home of the Arts Council of Princeton, of which he has been executive director since September 2020 — is especially gratifying.
“It’s not that I’m obsessed with the past,” the affable Welch says during a conversation in his art-filled office on a rainy morning. “I just want to see where we came from.”
Knowing and understanding the community in which he works is key to Welch’s leadership style. Since taking over the 55-year-old cultural center, housed for the past 40 years in a building at Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place that once served as the African American “Y” and Youth Center, he has set out to provide inclusive programming for not only the bordering Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, but the surrounding area as well.
“Communities are so important,” he says, “and there are communities within communities. We want to be good partners to all of them. Whether it’s Witherspoon-Jackson right behind us, or the business community, or the different residential neighborhoods, we want them to see us as a help.”
A potter who has participated in 37 solo or group exhibitions, Welch came to the Arts Council after 17 years — 10 as director — at Greenwich House Pottery in New York. Since 2010, he has been a lecturer at Princeton University. He is also a critic focused on the artists and activities of contemporary art. He lives with his wife, a fashion designer, and two daughters, in Hightstown.
Welch begins an interview by warning his visitor, “I like to talk.” And talk he does — tracing his background from a childhood in suburban Virginia through matriculation at several colleges, displaying impressive recall of the names of teachers and mentors who have influenced him throughout his life.
Art wasn’t a major player until the eighth grade, the first time he saw a demonstration on a potter’s wheel in the art department of his school.
“It was magic,” Welch says. “I was just floored. I was already handy with my hands. I was always building something out of wood. But they wouldn’t let us take pottery till 10th grade because of safety rules having to do with dexterity and hand/eye coordination.”
Finally, he was old enough to have a seat at the wheel. “I loved it,” he said. “Meanwhile, I struggled with everything else. I had started skipping school a little, experimenting with pot and the things adolescents tend to do. The principal (he remembered her name — Ann Monday) pulled me into the office and said, ‘What will we do?’ I said, ‘Let me take two pottery classes.’ By my senior year, I was taking three, which wasn’t usually allowed.”
With pottery taking up half of his school day, Welch quickly became proficient in clay. “In my junior year, I sold $1,800 worth of pottery,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’ll be a millionaire!’ I bought a wheel.”
Welch laughs at the memory of his get-rich plans. Instead, he drove across the country with friends in a Volkswagen van (which he is currently restoring), and fell in love with Ashland, Oregon. When it came time to further his education, he settled on Southern Oregon State College. “But the ceramics program there wasn’t so good,” he says. It was time to move on.
Next was Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. “That school is amazing for ceramics. It’s in the mountains,” Welch says. “My sister was living nearby, and she was a single mother. So, it was a good place for me to be. I finished college there. I spent morning, afternoon, and night on ceramics. Total dedication.”
But Welch also found time to develop a deep interest in Native American art. “I call it the Dances with Wolves syndrome, where you idealize cultures other than your own,” he says. “I met natives and learned more about their culture. I was fascinated.”
He traveled to Alaska to further his interest. “I found Nathan Jackson, a guy in Ketchikan who makes jewelry and takes on non-native apprentices,” he says. Jackson, who also creates totem poles, is considered among the most important living artists in Alaska.
“I stayed a week,” Welch continues. “And I went back summers for eight years, living in his garage and carving totem poles. I worked in a grocery store at night. I became very close with him and his wife. He actually married my wife Rachel and I.”
Welch continued his work in ceramics, eventually enrolling in graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University, which is highly rated for its ceramics program.
“It was a very academic approach, different from what I was used to,” he says. “It pushed me to read and find out what they were talking about. I got really interested in critical theory and philosophy. I was able to start thinking rather than making. I decided to be a kind of bridge between the two. I saw an opportunity to be an intermediary. I wanted it to be put to some purpose. I transitioned into being an art critic, writing in ceramics journals.”
Welch and his wife next moved to Brooklyn for her work, and he applied to 32 different colleges for teaching jobs. None panned out. “So I did odd jobs in New York,” he says. “One was at Greenwich House Pottery in Greenwich Village, where I started as a student liaison. I did secretarial work, construction, all kinds of things. I gave up searching for teaching jobs, though through knowing someone I did teach at Kingsborough Community College for a while.”
Greenwich House Pottery, which honored Welch this past fall, has been a major influence on his work. He was its director for a decade.
“More than half of my ceramics life was shaped by that place,” he says. “It showed and shaped my sense of what it takes to be in a community. I cut my teeth on it there. I raised the number of students, classes, and revenue. They had had an absentee director before me. I learned what not to be, which is absent. I immersed myself in all the things she had ignored, and I started teaching there too, so I’d be informed.”
As their family expanded, Welch and his wife moved to Hightstown, and commuted to New York City. “It was four hours a day. I felt like I was building a community for someone else,” he says. “That’s when I started as a lecturer at the Lewis Center [at Princeton University], while still at Greenwich House.”
Soon, Welch had two exhibits of his ceramics at the Arts Council. When longtime director Jeff Nathanson left at the end of 2016, he applied for the job, but didn’t even get a phone call. The position became available again when Nathanson’s successor Taneshia Nash Laird departed in 2018, and Jim Levine [currently the director of Princeton Makes] took over as interim executive director. Welch decided to try again.
“It was nine months before I heard back,” he says. “But then COVID hit. They interviewed me during that time. I told Rachel that this was the only place I could see leaving Greenwich House for. I got the job. I miss Greenwich House, but I’ve never wanted to go back.”
Among those who recommended Welch was Ross Wishnick, founder of Send Hunger Packing Princeton (SHUPP).
“I did recommend him, several times,” Wishnick says. “I had met him at a fundraiser in Hightstown and asked him if he’d be interested in helping create some bowls for our fundraiser. He did, and since then has always been so supportive of what we’re doing. He’s an interested and caring guy, and the stuff he makes is phenomenal. I had a sense that Adam was the right fit for them. From what I can see, I was right.”
Since signing on in September 2020, Welch and his staff have worked to create increasingly inclusive programming, both inside and out. “I love this building,” he says. “And I love the idea of public art as well. I love museums and galleries, but public art is one of the great equalizers. It’s for everyone — people who are trained, and ‘normal’ people who aren’t integrated into this secret code.”
Put off by the white and mint green walls when he arrived, Welch painted the inside of the building in several hues. “I said, ‘Let’s have some color!’” he says. “We’re doing a lot of investment in the building. I tell the board, ‘This will pay back!’ I’m walking around and getting out and making stuff. The staff is energized.”
Welch’s dedication to inclusivity is appreciated by members of the surrounding community.
“He is what I would call a godsend to both the municipality and the Arts Council,” says Councilman Leighton Newlin, who lives in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. “Wow, did the neighborhood get the benefit of the home run that the board created when they selected him. He’s open and accessible. He’s an idea guy who doesn’t just look around and see all the good that’s been done. He sees that, but also looks for holes in programs. That bodes well for a programming-centric community that is trying to build community through the arts.”
Newlin continues, “He has always given the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Association access to the building for meetings. It goes beyond that. It speaks to the long history of the building and its African American heritage with regards to the colored YMCA. It makes people who live in this neighborhood feel at home again in the building, where for some time they have not.”
Welch is proud of initiatives like Porchfest, which debuted last April in place of Communiversity; the ART OF series; Interwoven Stories; the Princeton Sketchbook Club; and the Arts Council’s ever-expanding public art program, including the rotating murals on Spring Street.
“We want two-way conversations,” he says. “We are really conscious of bringing things back to the town. So, things like Day of the Dead and Sauce for the Goose are held outside on Paul Robeson Place, instead of inside the building. We’ll do another Market in May before Mother’s Day. We don’t have food or drink, because we have a whole town here with great places to go, and we want to encourage that.”
Newlin got a sampling of Welch’s energy when he happened to drive by the Arts Council building one day and saw him outside, blowing leaves.
“I thought, here’s a man for all seasons,” says Newlin. “He gets the community. And he has really hit the ground running as a true ambassador of the arts.”