The Hudson River Park is one of the longest waterfront parks, which starts in lower Manhattan and ends at 59th street. The park hosts year-round events like concerts, sporting activities, and movie nights. Behind these successful events are CEO, Madelyn Wils and Hudson River Park Trust. Wils has lent her ideas and involvement to the Battery Park Conservancy and the Bloomberg Administration for four years. She continues to collaborate with other organizations to fund new events like The Hudson River Park Dance Festival.
Downtown sat down with Wils and spoke about the importance of keeping events low cost in New York and diversifying The Hudson River Park’s programs.
Tell me about Madelyn Wils; the CEO and the New Yorker.
MW: [I have] been a Downtown resident for exactly 30 years on July 20th and I loved it down here. I was on the community board since 1982, I was the chair during 9/11, so I’ve been involved in a lot down here. A lot of the rebuilding, building of parks, building of developments, I was one of the founding directors of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, appointed by the governor after 9/11, I’ve been involved in creating waterfronts downtown, and I built the Millennium High School downtown, I came up with the idea for the ball fields in Battery Park City, so I have a very big imprint downtown. “Madelyn Wils” is a downtown patriot.
What inspired you to start the Hudson River Park Dance Festival?
MW: I wanted to also reach out to a different kind of audience. We have a very young audience that we generally reach and we have an audience from all the boroughs on a lot of our programs. I wanted to reach an audience that might not be coming to our [Rock] concerts, our weekly movies, that may be a little older, both younger and older — something to crossover on the big modern dance buff.
I see dance regularly within New York, so when I went to go see the Paul Taylor dance company about a year ago I was talking to the executive director, John Tomlinson, and started this conversation. Paul Taylor has been at Lincoln Center outdoors and indoors, and I thought it would be great for them to be able to come to our park and maybe get a different audience coming downtown. He came on a tour and looked at the 23rd street Chelsea bowl and said this is where I want to be and a year later this is where he’ll be. So we were able to get the Scripts Foundation, SHS, who supports dance all over the city and country to put in a good chunk of the money and we are supporting the rest along with some help from the Joyce, the Theatre Foundation, and we put together a roster: Paul Taylor, a personal favorite of mine, Parsons Dance, David Parsons — interestingly enough performed after 9/11 at a Gala that I had put on for lower Manhattan after 9/11, he was kind enough to come and perform at that first evening which was raising money for rebuilding downtown so that was great I will always remember him for that. Other than that I also really like his company, and Ballet Hispanico which is a real New York Company who I see also every year at the Joyce and love them as well. I think with these three dance companies we’re hitting a lot of different age groups and again diversifying what we provide in the park to a different audience and providing it in an area that perhaps gets these dance companies new audiences.
Do you plan on making this an annual event?
MW: I would love to, obviously this is one of the more expensive events that we put on, the company has been very gracious, they’re doing this close to pro bono but not quite, but very low fees but I do think if we continue this I am going to need additional funding. So I’m hoping that this will attract some other funders, foundations that will allow us to make this an annual festival within the park. I’d like to grow it.
Other activities like Summer of Fun are contributing to this goal?
MW: Well “Sumer of Fun” is just what we call all of our seasonal events it’s all under the umbrella of “Summer of Fun and that’s the Hudson River Rocks which are alternative rock concerts and the last two years we’ve had live at Pier 97, which is the low cost concerts we’ve had Billy Idol, Meghan Trainor, and about 10-12 concerts summer to fall and again at least twice a week fitness in the park, movies one for family one for possibly chick flicks, more adult films, there aren’t movies currently in the cinemas but just right off being current and big hits. They attract big audiences, so we get somewhere between 2000 to 5000 people in our movies and same thing in our concerts. I expect likely a smaller audience but an audience that really loves dance.
Why is keeping the festivals low cost such a commitment for Hudson River Trust?
MW: Well this festival is free, and I think the purpose is to attract audiences that may not be able to afford to come to different dance performances. I mean look, there’s a big difference between buying a ticket at Lincoln Center and buying a ticket at the Joyce Theatre. Joyce Theater is also committed to low price tickets, but I think if we can have it be free then we can introduce people to contemporary dance who have never been able to see it before and I think that that’s an important piece of what our mission is in the park, it is to not only bring recreation to Manhattan where it’s so hard to get and to give people different experience whether it’s kayaking, paddle boarding or playing tennis, but to bring recreation and performance where it’s hard to come by. I think free contemporary dance by top tier companies is not easy to come by. So I think it helps with the mission of the park, we’ll be able to have new audiences and give them something that they’ll be able to have in another place.
So Hudson River Park is pretty big, is there a reason why you choose to host the event in the downtown section?
MW: No, I mean we do a lot of events on Pier 84 on 44th street. We’re doing all the JBL rock concerts on 57th street, this is just on grass, we’ve figured out how to put a stage so it’s not on the grass, and I think that the Paul Taylor Company just really liked the idea of people sitting on blankets and being able to watch. It’s also kind of like a romantic spot with beautiful sunsets.
How would you describe the dance culture in downtown Manhattan?
MW: There’s Dance New Amsterdam, which has struggled to stay alive on Chambers Street. I think dance is very hard. There’s Cedar Lake, who’s also downtown who’s having their last dance as a company. It’s very hard to have funding as dance companies and dance is very fragile. You need lots of support to keep people choreographing and be able to afford to have these companies, survive, and be on tour. I think that dance in lower Manhattan is doing whatever else it does in the rest of Manhattan and I think it’s an expensive place to be and dance is just like art, you’re always struggling to find space. So again being able to have a free performance in the Park helps. You have people who may not go up to Lincoln Center and spend $100 or $250 a tickets to see dance, they might at the Joyce for $40, but people who may not know this is something they will enjoy might be introduced to another art form that they think that they will like to be part of.
How has New York’s artistic cultural impacted you and your daily life?
MW: Just from a personal point of view, I started as an actress way back when, so the arts have always been very important to me. I have a background in music, dance, and theatre. I think that being in New York City and being able to participate in the arts is really one of those things that make New York special. You can live any place else and have a bit of that, but the ability to access different art forms in New York are both paid and for free is unique to being in New York. I feel very strongly about the arts. I like the idea of bringing art to people who may or may not have the wherewithal to access it. I use to go to the New York City Ballet when I was 17 on a regular basis, I use to find a way to get in to see them, I didn’t know a lot about dance but for some reason the New York City Ballet just took my breath away as a kid. I remember just seeing them until I got narrow on a daily basis.
Besides the new festivals at Hudson River Park, what else can we expect?
MW: The educational offerings are something we’ve been growing, again a part of our mission is to educate about the estuary. The estuary is a confluence of tidal salt water and fresh water they come together in the lower Hudson and you have two hundred types of fish that live here and so we teach about the habitat within the lower Hudson. We’ve been increasing our programs. I think we’re the model for other parks like the Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island follow, we have set the stage for educating all ages, but mostly children. We started programs in the public schools, and we have now 270 school and camp groups this past year come to Hudson River Park and learn about the habitat and the insects and the birds. We started ,this past year, to go into the NYCHA housing that’s along the Park and actually go to them to start to teach them about the Hudson River.
What’s in store for the future of Hudson River Park?
MW: Our intention is to build out the Park so we have more public access, more piers, more boating, more activities, and we’re looking forward to breaking ground next year on Pier 54 and 55, where Barry Diller will actually be operating a not for profit to put on new theatre works so that’s going to be a huge boom to the New York City cultural community. We look forward to finishing Pier 57, there will be a new rooftop park there again with abilities for TriBeCa film festival to do some activities up there. As we build the Park out, we also look at what else we can be doing here to enrich the life of New Yorkers. It’s not just the Westside of Manhattan; we have people coming from all over. In our environmental education program about 60 percent of the kids come from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. We get people from all over.
Where would you like to see the future of downtown’s art culture?
MW: This can go off into lots of different directions, but I do believe that the city and state should continue helping to subsidize artist and artist groups, ones that provide services and access to people, because as I said before downtown use to be a huge art community and people have gotten priced out of not just lower Manhattan, but Brooklyn and pretty much all the boroughs. I think that what makes New York so different than other cities is the level of art and culture here, but if we don’t give the ability for these groups to be here, survive, flourish, and create here, then we are going to be like any other mercantile city. I think it’s very important to figure out how to support artistic endeavors and keep the creative community in New York City.
By: Krissy Lewis