Governors Island Public Art

Governors Island, New York, NY, USA

What started this project: 

Paggank, or the Island of Nuts, so named for its bounty of hickory, oak, and chestnut trees, was the first beachhead for Dutch settlers to New York. The island is recognized as the birthplace of New York State. During the British Colonial period, the island was reserved for the use of the New York Colonial governors, and has since been called Governors Island. During the American Revolutionary war, Continental forces used the island as a defensive position against British ships attempting to enter the upper reaches of New York Harbor and capture the valuable territory of New York City. From 1783 until 1966, for 183 years, the island served as an outpost of the US Army, and from 1966 until 1996, as a Coast Guard station. After the Coast Guard’s departure left the island vacant, including two historic castles and battlements, the New York community entered a phase of exploring the island’s future as a public asset. Eventually, through a complicated period of negotiations (and during the 9/11 terror attacks, which occurred nearby), the federal government sold to New York State and New York City the island, with a joint agreement with the National Park Service. Eventually, in 2010, the city agreed to take full control of the island through The Trust for Governors Island, an organization that oversees the management and development of the site. Through an international design competition, a Dutch firm, West 8, was selected to imagine the island’s future. Its proposal called for the careful demolition of historically insignificant buildings (many late-twentieth- century buildings had been developed on the island’s southern half), the preservation of important historic structures, and the creation of new landscapes and green spaces. While New York has no paucity of cultural assets and green space, the opportunity to define a regional asset like Governors Island was an important moment for the city. As an island, it wasn’t directly associated with any borough; it was in the middle of New York Harbor, a workhorse of New York’s military past. The geography under design was the island itself, but based on this ambitious plan, the leaders of the project felt it should become an amenity for all of New York City.


When you find 172 acres in the middle of one of the densest and most populated urban centers in the world, how do you make it feel “of place” and relatable to the diversity that is New York? Even more, how do you persuade people from all over the city to travel by subway or bus, then by way of a ferry, to an island that was a decommissioned military installation? The leaders of The Trust for Governors Island, and other community stakeholders, knew early on that arts and culture would be a key ingredient in the success of the entire enterprise. The intent of the new public space was not to make the island feel like a museum or historic site, even though the preserved structures and legacy would make up a large part of the experience. They wanted the park to feel alive and dynamic, a part of New York’s cosmopolitan culture. The renovation of the park would also take time, many phases over many years. During this long period of development, the island would be open to visitors and activities; this was not to be a “grand opening”- type milestone. This was a challenge – building excitement around a partially complete park – but it was also an opportunity to pilot new ideas and organizations. The success of the entire project would require training New Yorkers to think of this long inaccessible island as a public space that could become part of their summer rituals, just as would other places like Rockaway Beach, Central Park, and Coney Island.


To accomplish these goals, The Trust for Governors Island devised a multifaceted arts strategy that focused on opportunistic partnerships and local artistic practices and tested these ideas slowly. Three dimensions of this strategy can roughly describe these groups of activities. The first was a revolving public arts program, eventually called Art CommissionsGI, that brought diverse art installations to the island for periods of varying lengths. The second included participatory cultural activities, such as housing local arts organizations in various historic buildings and the immensely popular Figment Arts event. Thirdly, The Trust for Governors Island partnered with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to host rotating artist residencies on the island, bringing diverse cultural producers to the space even when the crowds were absent. Governors Island celebrated informality and openness. It took advantage of New York’s longstanding position as a leader in cultural expression, whether that was a leader in the global art market or an entrepot of worldly cultures. The Trust developed a strategy of inclusive artistic expression, blending cultural practices from the rich panoply of artists, cultural organizations, and community organizations in the city. Aesthetic democracy is a term that has been used more than once in the context of Governors Island.


In 2009, the year before the city took full control of the island’s management, the site received 275,000 visitors; seven years later, in 2016, the island saw a record-breaking 600,000 visitors, doubling the number of people who took the ferry to play, watch, eat, and learn. Many visitors commented on the heterodox and populist bent of these expressions: open to any performers, artists, or organization, and tied intimately to participation and shared experiences. This openness played a substantial role in visitor growth over the past eight years. In 2014, the first phase of West 8’s masterplan opened, followed in 2016 by the opening of The Hills, a handmade landscape of rolling, green mounds, some up to 70 feet tall. The Art CommissionGI program, now curated by Tom Eccles, executive director of Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies, has created a forum for established contemporary artists to engage with the public spaces on the island.