Volume 16 • Issue 52 | May 21 - 27, 2004

A festival runs through it

By Jess Wisloski

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Some of the people who help organize Downtown’s River to River Festival take a break near the Hudson (Left to right): Leslie Schiftic of American Express, a sponsor of the event, Valerie Lewis of the Downtown Alliance, Matthew Albanese of Seaport Marketplace, and Debra Simon of the World Financial Center’s Arts & Events program.

“It has been unbelievable,” said one of the organizers of the River to River Festival, sounding more like she was talking about a sleepover party than the mecca of music, art and dance that has drawn over a million people a year to Lower Manhattan since May 2002. Valerie Lewis, who is the vice president of marketing for the Downtown Alliance (one of the organizations that first launched the festival), bubbled excitedly as she talked, whether she was discussing its inception, the different artists who have performed over the years, or even the financial strain of putting on the festival since the outpouring of support for Downtown had dried up.

Maybe slumber-party thrill is due for a festival that takes a year of planning and grew in crowds and events last year despite a recession. It managed to bring an estimated $32 million to Lower Manhattan by its mere presence in 2003, the festival’s second year.

Indeed, every person interviewed shared, if not Lewis’ extremes of emotion, at least a squeak of the same excitement, when talking about the festival’s opening.

The first events to usher in the celebrations include “Blue Moon” which opens on Friday, when O + A (the artsy pseudonym for Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger) turn the noise of the waterfront into music with a sound installation at the World Financial Center Plaza, and “Breath” by Shirazeh Houshiary and Pip Horne, another sound sculpture piece at Ritz Carlton in Battery Park City at 2 West St.

Though the River to River festival so far has remained somewhat under the radar of the press and larger body of New Yorkers, last year’s crowds of 1.25 million ain’t bad, and the group’s survey revealed that 46% of audience members had not been to a cultural event Downtown prior to attending River to River, and that 95% of them came from outside of Lower Manhattan. The festival, in case you missed the subway ads, tourist kiosks, and program brochures that have proliferated over the past two years, spans over five months, and offers over 500 events from wine tasting, art exhibits, and classical concerts to rock shows, movie screenings, and a tomato festival. It transforms the parks, waterfronts, and plazas of Lower Manhattan into major venues that host free events all summer long. And it brings people who, as Lewis mentioned, haven’t been to the area in 10 or 15 years in as tourists, stimulating the economy and providing for grinning audiences that amble the streets long after the show’s over.

This year’s festival includes some of the most diverse, and biggest, acts yet. The first large event takes place June 3rd, when the world-touring violinist Joshua Bell makes a stop in Battery Park Lawn for an open air concert at 7 p.m. and performs with St. Luke’s Orchestra. Lyle Lovett, who plays July 4th in the Battery Park, will usher in the Macy’s fireworks. He was apparently one of the first acts booked (Lewis said his people had heard the buzz). Castle Clinton, the restored concert site and National Monument, will be hosting shows from up and comers like Beulah and The Stills to oldies and goodies like Mavis Staples and Cecil Taylor. And the Seaport serves up salsa with Hector Tricoche and Bahia, the Bloomberg Blues Jam (in its third year) and a children’s festival sponsored by Target. (These are only a few of the main events, all within the first two months).

Originally, the group of what are now called presenting partners came together to combine what still go by separately titled series, among the larger ones, The Seaport Music Festival (which housed events that used to take place at the World Trade Center and is held by the Seaport Marketplace), The Hudson River Festival (lead by the World Financial Center Arts & Events Program and Battery Park City Authority), Music at Castle Clinton (presented by the Downtown Alliance), and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Presents. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which was one of the founding members, helps in marketing, coordination, provides the space for the headquarters, and contributes several hundred thousand dollars worth of advertising.

At the behest of the chairperson of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Cherrie Nanninga, who is also the C.E.O. of CB Richard Ellis, a Downtown properties firm, the groups collectively devised a strategy in the wake of Sept. 11 to bring people Downtown: continue offering free events, just market the heck out of them.

Nanninga recalled she had been to a performance of Evening Stars on Sept. 10, 2001. “After 9/11 it became clear that we had to bring people back Downtown,” she said. “So we all got together and talked about it.”

At the time, she was director of real estate for the Port Authority and with her position at L.M.C.C., attracting crowds to arts events was forefront in her mind. “We got behind this festival that we were going to put together for this whole summer by pooling our resources. It was the first time we’d really partnered Downtown — we’d all kind of done our own thing for many years, and it was a pretty powerful concept.”

For years the Downtown Alliance, under then-V.P. of marketing Debra Simon’s watch, had pulled together a summer brochure which encompassed all the organizations’ events, but the move to come up with an umbrella name for the festival, River to River really evolved in the months following Sept. 11.

“I think it’s been a remarkable Downtown-wide event where partners have come together and created something much bigger than what any one partner could have done on their own,” said Simon. Now, as the executive director of the Arts & Events program at the World Financial Center, she maintains her vigil over many of the events, and said she believes, “The festival just keeps getting bigger and better.”

By the time the festival was conceptualized in February 2002, it was time to seek out sponsors.

“American Express came on as our sponsor, God bless ‘em,” said Lewis, and they have remained the title sponsor through the years, even when in 2003 the organizers found it more difficult to cull resources.

“They’ve been our fairy godmother, basically, in terms of supporting the festival and brining in other sponsors,” added Nanninga.

“We were able to pull off a multi-million dollar arts festival that lasted the full summer,” she said.

But who does the actual pulling off? As Lewis said, the Downtown Alliance does much of the marketing and administration, but what about the glamorous work of organizing the big names, like Lovett?

The executive producer of River to River, Bill Schreiber, has his hands full.

“It’s this time in the festival where we’re cooking with gas, as they say.” He’s busy getting ready for the launch event on June 3rd. Schreiber’s duties include advertising for that, planning promotions with the advertising agency and public relations group, making sure the Parks Department is up to speed, and wrangling all the other bits and pieces that come together for this first show, and those to come after it. Think of him as the Mad Curator. The staff for such events, though hired individually by each organization, number fully in the hundreds throughout the summer, and his job is to make sure every show is fully coordinated before its big day comes.

“We do a lot of coordination among the partners to be sure they’re not trying to book the same artists, and try and help them curate their series in a way that, so the festival produces a very diverse, exciting product that will bring lots of different people from families to individuals to jazz fans to classical music fans to modern dance fans to classical dance fans Downtown to participate in the festival. We do whatever we can to help them improve the quality of the production.”

Though he’s hired every year for the gig as a freelancer on contract, he said, “It’s like a full-time job.” Not that there isn’t the occasional opportunity to get out and enjoy what all his hard work results in.

“It’s very exhilarating,” he admits. “What I love about what I do is that every show is different, so it’s like taking a different job each time.” His favorite part about it is being able to go to one of the venues, see the show, and watch the audience enjoying themselves. “I’m a music person at heart, so for me, relaxing is going to see a band that I’ve either never seen before or I’m looking forward to seeing, that’s relaxation for us. When we have shows at 7:00, that’s a good thing for us, because it sort of gets us out of the office to go see one of the events, which is great. And it’s fun.”

While a whirlwind of action now, Valerie Lewis never stops thinking about the potential for future summers. Though she said the model they work with now is great and functional, she’s interested in housing the festival some way, but hasn’t seen a successful model comparable to the scope of festival they have. “I see it going on for many many years, and I see it growing and evolving,” she said, but isn’t sure what the future holds for the festival. And as far as Downtown goes, she’s got a very specific view.

“Everybody’s talking about Downtown and where it will be in five or six years, what’s going to be built,” she said, “but doing this kind of festival and being concerned with the current arts situation sets the ‘brick and mortar’” for tomorrow’s cultural development, she explained.

“I’m very excited to see what the future holds, but my concern is right now, what are we doing to stimulate the cultural community and develop one right now. And the answer is River to River.”

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