While New York has no shortage of distinguished museums and concert halls, it has limited venues for enjoying art en plein air. Apart from the Delacorte Theater in Central Park and the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, there are few permanent, large spaces for displaying and performing art outdoors in the city.
In the coming years, though, New Yorkers will have a new center for outdoor art: Governors Island, the 172-acre island off the tip of southern Manhattan, which the federal government turned over to New York City in 2003. The island opens to the public on Saturday, and this summer the offerings will include a sculpture exhibition organized by the Sculptors Guild; a weekend-long festival of participatory art called Figment; a weekend-long "Jazz Age Lawn Party," with swing dancing, croquet, and an exhibition of 1920s cars; a concert by the New York Philharmonic; folk music concerts; performances by some 200 punk bands, as part of the citywide festival Make Music New York, and performances by the Battery Dance Company and the Pulse Ensemble Theatre. And this list does not include what will probably be the most-discussed and most-visited event of the summer: Olafur Eliasson's "New York City Waterfalls." One of the waterfalls is built right by the ferry dock on Governors Island, so that it is visible both coming and going.
Although the design for a new park on the southern half of the island has not yet been completed, it will most likely include an amphitheater for concerts and many venues for other kinds of performance and public art.
"It is a critical part of our mission to open up the island to more and more of the public," the president of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, the body that manages most of the island, Leslie Koch, said. "We think the arts are essential for that."
In December, city and state officials announced the winners of a design competition for the park, a team of firms made up of West 8, Rogers Marvel Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Quennell Rothschild, and SMWM. The actual design will be announced in 2009. In the meantime, Ms. Koch said, she wants to experiment with as many ways as possible of bringing art to Governors Island, both to introduce new visitors to the island and to figure out what works best there. The result is a dramatic expansion of arts programming from last summer to this one.
The goal, Ms. Koch said, is to bring as many different groups of peoples as possible to the island, and to figure out what the right mix of programming is in the long term. If an amphitheater does end up being built as part of the park, the New York Philharmonic would probably perform there frequently, but there would also be a "'healthy mix' of other offerings," Ms. Koch said.
"It's a magical place," the executive director of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta, said of the island as a setting. And while the Philharmonic currently does summer performances in city parks, as well as at out-of-town venues like Bethel Woods, an amphitheater with fixed amenities and seating would present a different kind of opportunity. "There isn't anything like that in the city," Mr. Mehta said. "It's very exciting."
Part of the challenge of doing performances on the island is getting people on and off. Governors Island is accessible by a 7-minute ferry ride from Lower Manhattan. In the past, when few people visited the island — 8,000 came in the summer of 2005, compared to 56,000 people last summer — ferries left every hour. Now, on weekends, additional ferries run, and for events like the Philharmonic concert, which Mr. Mehta predicted would have an audience of as many as 10,000 people, ferries will run continuously. (Each weekend's ferry schedule can be found on GIPEC's Web site, govisland.com.)
Other arts groups are interested in using the island. The president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Maggie Boepple, took her staff on a field trip there earlier this year. As they toured the island, "We kept on saying, 'We could do this here and that there,'" Ms. Boepple said. "People came back completely fired up." One possibility is to present some of the dance performances in LMCC's Sitelines series on the island. Already one choreographer, Pat Graney, has proposed doing a piece in 2009 in Saint Cornelius Church, one of the island's two churches.
LMCC also plans to submit a proposal to use one of the buildings — Building 110, which is visible when one disembarks the ferry — for its artist residencies. It "has incredible views over Lower Manhattan and the bay, which would be of huge interest to photographers and landscape artists and video artists," Ms. Boepple said. "We've been drooling over that space."
Ms. Koch said that she wants the arts to be "integrated with the new park from the beginning." At least two members of the design team, West 8 and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, have extensive experience working with art and artists. The principal in West 8, Adriaan Geuze, restored a sculpture park at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands; Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in addition to designing the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the redeveloped campus of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, have collaborated on projects with Creative Time (another group that is in discussions to do projects on the island). The design with which the team won the competition, which is not the final one, included a botanic forest filled with large-scale public art pieces.
The park is supposed to be completed by 2012 and is expected to cost $400 million. The bulk of the funding will come from the state and the city, although there may be opportunities for public-private partnerships, Ms. Koch said, pointing to the model of Chicago's Millennium Park, which includes the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the BP Bridge, and the AT&T Plaza, among other features.
New York City's commissioner of cultural affairs, Kate Levin, said in a statement: "Governors Island is an incredible venue for the arts in the center of New York Harbor, and this summer's programs will offer a great opportunity for audiences to explore the site. Looking ahead, there is a great opportunity here to create a range of cultural spaces that serve both artists and audiences."