Volume 19 • Issue 7 | July 7-13, 2006

Downtown festivals don’t leave home without AmEx

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel
Some Brooklyn picnickers feasted on shrimp quiche and duck salad at the July 4 River to River concert sponsored by American Express. The firm is also the founding sponsor of the Tribeca Film Festival.

By Ronda Kaysen

The concert had barely begun and already the crowd was thick. Families sprawled on blankets and in folding chairs on Pier 17 in the South Street Seaport. Hipsters clutched plastic cups of beer, the Financial District skyscrapers towering behind them. Tourists peered curiously, watching as Amy Rigby and Robbie Fulks, two alternative country bands, gave a free concert at the start of the long Fourth of July weekend.

“This is so great! To be able to see Robbie Fulks for free,” said Melisse Dornier, a 48-year-old Lower East Side resident. Dornier stood behind the soundboard, grinning as she danced beside her friend, Dann Wojnar, 39, of Queens. The two came specifically to see Fulks. “He used to hang out at a lot of the East Village dives,” she said. “I don’t know much about Amy Rigby, but Robbie’s great.”

The Seaport production was just one of hundreds of free performances happening below Chambers St. this summer as part of the River to River Festival, a $7.5 million summer event that stretches from, well, river to river.

Now in its fifth year, River to River has joined the ranks of the city’s famed summer draws, namely SummerStage in Central Park and Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park. This summer, festival producers estimate 1.2 million people will venture to Lower Manhattan for the 500 River to River events, generating $35 million worth of business while they’re here.

The festival has “made Lower Manhattan a true summer events destination,” said Valerie Lewis, vice president of marketing for the Downtown Alliance, one of the festival partners. “It is truly a cultural center.”

River to River is a Downtown creation led by the Lower Manhattan powerhouse: the Alliance, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Battery Park City Authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the South Street Seaport and World Financial Center Arts and Events, a division of Brookfield Properties. The five producing arms put together 80 events, the rest are unrelated events happening Downtown marketed under the River to River umbrella.

“River to River has helped to make Lower Manhattan a destination at a time when there were concerns that we would instead witness an exodus,” said Stefan Pryor, president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which has given the festival $2.5 million since 2002.

The festival started in 1998 as an ad hoc collection of events with little cohesion or central planning. “We didn’t really coordinate,” said Lewis. “It was just disparate events.” Attendance “was not phenomenal,” she said.

After Sept. 11, when the neighborhood had lost residents and businesses to the disaster, the five producers approached American Express for support and River to River was born.

American Express plays a curious role on the Lower Manhattan landscape. The company has been headquartered Downtown since 1850. On Sept. 11, it lost 11 employees and was displaced from its World Financial Center offices for eight months.

Within weeks of the disaster, it began funneling money back into the neighborhood. It funded an ad campaign, “Business Is Open,” encouraging visitors to frequent the neighborhood again. It poured $5 million into Lower Manhattan non-profit organizations, and became the founding sponsor for two new festivals that have come to be synonymous with Lower Manhattan: the Tribeca Film Festival and the River to River Festival.

“American Express plays a leadership role that’s essential,” Pryor said in a telephone interview. “Starting with their decision to remain Downtown, which they made at a time when Lower Manhattan was very fragile, when there could have been a domino effect.”

River to River’s partners approached American Express with their idea soon after 9/11. Would the festival have happened if American Express hadn’t signed on as the lead funder? “It’s hard to say, but it wouldn’t have happened so quickly,” said Lewis.

Joanna Lambert, an American Express spokesperson, declined to say how much the company contributes to the $7.5 million festival or to the Tribeca Film Festival, although the New York Times reported that the company gave $1 million to River to River in 2002.

“It was an ambitious effort to bring together diverse activities — to help the community here,” said Timothy J. McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation and vice president of the Philanthropic Program. “It’s been wildly successful.”

The company has a long history of philanthropy in the neighborhood. In 1885, it helped fund the building of the Statue of Liberty pedestal and in the 1970s, the company donated $50,000 to the National Park Service to help restore and renovate the statue in time for the bicentennial. In the ‘90s, the company was giving money to the Battery Park Conservancy, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York Downtown Hospital and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Last year, American Express gave $31 million to charitable causes globally.

Charitable giving is not an entirely altruistic endeavor, however. “We are reliant on people using their American Express cards — that’s how we make money,” said McClimon. “We make money off of people spending. Part of the reason we support cultural institutions is because they’re merchants and people are buying tickets.”

And buying tickets they are. Nearly 500,000 people bought tickets for the Tribeca Film Festival this year — a 69 percent increase from the 2005 festival, which brought 275,000 people to Tribeca, according to festival organizers. This year’s festival was spread over venues throughout the city — not just in Tribeca and Lower Manhattan, so the economic benefit to Downtown businesses might not have been felt as keenly.

This year, River to River is reaching out to a broader audience, producing shows that draw a more diverse crowd. Robbie Fulks and Amy Rigby reached out to the alt-country crowd. The annual Fourth of July event this summer—Belle and Sabastian—reached for a younger, more alternative music crowd. “While the festival started out very mainstream, we’ve now broadened our horizons to people who like country, rock, pop, jazz, Latin, avant-garde—we opened with blue grass,” said Lewis. “The reaction up until now has been astounding.”

L.M.D.C. contributed $1.5 million this year for a new “festival within the festival” called Arts on the Horizon that showcases works by the Joyce and Signature theaters, the two theaters planned for the new performing arts center at the World Trade Center and work by the Drawing Center, a museum originally planned for the Trade Center that will now open its new space Downtown with the help of a $10 million L.M.D.C. grant.

“So many cultural groups are making their home in Lower Manhattan and are beginning to thrive here,” said Pryor. “River to River is generating energy and these organizations are making decisions to stay here and program here and it’s all interrelated.”



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