The New York Times today reports on the goings-on at Governors Island, a 172-acre cultural refuge just 800 yards off the shore of a larger island of somewhat more cultural renown, Manhattan. The article describes how, over the past four years, as the Manhattan boom reached a peak and then turned quickly to bust, artists have begun a daytime habitation of the non-residential island. (Governors Island is described a quirky amalgam of empty Victorians, a high school, forts, parade grounds, ball fields, an artificial beach, and an “encircling promenade.”) It describes the happenings today as “ingrown and wildly experimental,” akin to an Art Wonderland.
Governors Island was originally, before the 20th century, a military base. It has been managed through the years by the State of New York, the U.S. Army, and the Coast Guard, until it was finally was shuttered by the federal government in 1997. Thanks to the efforts of Leslie Koch, who runs the Trust for Governors Island, the island now is replete with such ongoing cultural whimsies at “artsy miniature golf, avant-garde theater and whimsical sculpture.” Its participants include “trapeze artists, bicyclists, conceptual artists, D.J.’s, musicians, dancers and dramatists,” and its attractions range from “a free miniature-golf course designed by an arts group, where fanciful stations allow players to take metaphorical potshots at a national missile defense shield or putt a ball in support of carbon-neutral footprints” to “outdoor dance performances in one of the island’s forts, a mock archaeological dig meant to play with ideas of the island’s past, an African film festival, outdoor Shakespeare,” an Art Fair, “and Civil War re-enactments.” So far, this season the island has attracted 250,000 curious gawkers, a sharp uptick from only a year ago.
Course, I don’t have to remind you what usually happens next; once the artists have brought a place back to life, once the culture of the formerly dead and dilapidated and all-but-destroyed parts of our society is restored, then come the moneyed interests, the developers, the scammer, skimmers, and other scabs who would never do the hard, dirty work and who capitalize on those who do. The article notes a “master plan” that outlines “development zones,” phases of construction, and so on. And Ms. Koch herself makes no bones about using artists as a launching point for creating an “island culture,” even as her $12.5 million budget includes no money to pay artists or for programming. She talks, without apparent irony, about the island’s “brand” being “summer vacation with irony.”
Still, as this is the new feel-good CAFA, we’ll not be our usual cynical selves and just try to enjoy the whimsical, populist, free-ranging and free-spirited Art Wonderland that currently inhabits Governors Island. Then, when island development inevitably takes off, and the artists are shuffled off in the usual unceremonious fashion, we’ll go find the next Art Wonderland that artists create.
(Photos are courtesy the Figment Project)