City Parks Foundation (CPF) is a nonprofit that provides programming in NYC parks. City Parks Foundation is the only independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to offer programs in public parks throughout the five boroughs of New York City. The organization is dedicated to invigorating and transforming parks into dynamic, vibrant centers of urban life through sports, arts, community development, and education programs for all New Yorkers. Their programs and community building initiatives — located in more than 300 parks, recreation centers, and public schools across the city — reach 425,000 people each year. Their ethos is simple: City Parks Foundation believes that thriving parks reflect thriving communities.
Recently, Erika Elliott, the Executive Artistic Director of City Parks Foundation’s SummerStage performing arts festival, spoke to the Examiner about the City Parks Foundation and the summer arts program that they plan to arrange for the parks in 2016:
Meagan Meehan (M.M.): How and when were you inspired to start working for City Parks Foundation?
Erika Elliott (E.E.): I have been with the nonprofit City Parks Foundation for over 10 years. I came to my current position from working in traditional music industry positions, primarily working at record labels and booking agencies. Directly before I joined CPF I was booking artists for a 500 person capacity music club. I learned in that position that my true passion was booking shows and being a curator. I was lucky enough to be offered a position to curate the music shows for the SummerStage festival and from there I have grown my work to being CPF’s Artistic Director, where I shape the festival’s artistic themes. I was always inspired by the mission of CPF and the SummerStage performing arts festival and continue to be excited to be part of an organization that is focused on bringing high quality performing arts to people at no cost. This really has been my inspiration for the decade plus that I have led the arts programming for SummerStage. What inspires me day to day is imagining how I can connect New Yorkers to culture and activate all the amazing public spaces we have here in the city. I have seen firsthand through my work the transformative power of music, dance, theater and film and being able to present this to communities across New York City is truly rewarding work. It has enabled my ability to learn about and present music from around the globe and to celebrate distinctly New York musical genres that have a particular connection to the city.
M.M.: Why did you decide to start working in the performing arts realm?
E.E.: I grew up surrounded by music and seeing live music in Los Angeles where I grew up. My father is a huge music fan and took me and my siblings to shows all the time. It definitely made an impact on my world view because from an early age I appreciated the value of music and the impact it can have on people, as well as its ability to bring people together. I think my father’s deep rooted value for artists, and music planted the seeds for me to follow a career path centered on the arts and it is the reason I am doing what I’m doing today. However it wasn’t a purposeful decision that brought me to City Parks Foundation. I honestly was really happy booking at the club I was working at the time, and applied for a position with City parks Foundation mainly because I was encouraged to by colleagues. I myself didn’t think I had enough world music experience at the time. I have felt extremely lucky to have been selected to join the team because it has changed the course of my life’s work. I am grateful to have moved from a more commercial model of music promoting, to arts presenting, it’s expanded my vision and scope to be global and is rewarding on so many levels.
M.M.: Thus far, what has been the most rewarding part of working on SummerStage?
E.E.: There is literally no better feeling than seeing a park transformed and being filled with people who have come to be part of an event you have curated. Standing backstage and looking out on an audience of thousands who are there to see an artist you selected is so rewarding. That feeling is second only to giving your musical heroes –those who opened your eyes and ears — a platform to showcase their talents. The impact that music and the arts have on people is tangible on the faces of audience members, and lasting in ways that are hard to predict. I truly feel lucky to be in a position to do work that I love, in the greatest city in the world and feel that my work is leaving a lasting impact on the cultural landscape of the city – who could ask for more?
M.M.: What are some of the important themes of the festival this season?
E.E.: I’m excited each season to curate shows with a narrative and context. The 2016 season of SummerStage will both showcase exceptional performing artists from around the globe, and will also feature more jazz performances than ever before, with nearly half a dozen planned for Central Park and many more in neighborhood parks across the city. The focus on jazz this season coincides with the upcoming centennial of the musical dawning of the term “jazz,” as well as what would have been the 100th birthdays of late jazz greats including Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Ella Fitzgerald. As an example, this year we are focusing on jazz as a musical genre with strong connections and historical ties to NYC. I wanted attendees to be able to see the legendary artists but also those younger artists who are pushing the boundaries of this art form. As a festival, SummerStage also presents artists that are globally important and pairs them in interesting ways that opens the minds of attendees. The festival also has a focus on booking artists deliberately in boroughs or neighborhoods that they themselves, or their work has a connection to.
M.M.: What kind of performances would you like to see more of?
E.E.: Well as Duke Ellington says, “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind ….” I want to see more good performances.
M.M.: What are you must see shows this season?
E.E.: What I continue to be proud of is the unrivaled variety of offerings and locations that we provide as a festival. We really do have something for everyone, and across all five boroughs! That said, some very special shows this season are:
• Our opening night jazz show with McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes, Ron Carter and guests – This is a chance to see some of the biggest names in the jazz world perform together.
• Terence Blanchard – a world renowned jazz trumpeter in Staten Island’s Clove Lakes Park performing “Breathless,” a work based on the final words of borough native Eric Garner
• Dianne Reeves – pre-eminent soul jazz vocalist in Queensbridge Park
• Liza Jessie Peterson – renowned actress, poet, playwright, educator and activist, whose work most often focuses on trials and tribulations of incarcerated populations as a part of our spoken word/theater series
• “A Ballerina’s Tale” – we will screen the acclaimed 2015 documentary on African-American principal ballerina Misty Copeland who is the first female to achieve the coveted role of principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. Prior to the screening we will have award-winning choreographer Jeremy McQueen present “The Black Iris Project,” a premier ballet collaborative celebrating diversity in art and dance.
• Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show, “Rodney King,” which explores the very timely and sensitive issues of police brutality.
• Mwbonga Star / Batita / Young Paris – This is a chance to see the biggest names in the world of electronic music but with an African twist
• The three nights of our famous Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, but particularly Dejohnette – Holland – Moran who are a trio featuring some of the biggest names in modern jazz. Also Randy Weston, whose sound is inspired by African rhythms and Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles which will feature a full band.
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To learn more, visit the City Parks Foundation website. They can also be followed on social media via the tag @SummerStage