Mary Weitzman: Our mission at Wave Hill is to preserve the landscapes, of course, and to preserve the magnificent view, but the most important thing is to get people to connect with nature, and to do that through education, through the arts, anything that gets people outside, and whether it's through taking a photography class or a watercolor class, or going on a nature walk or participating in a family art project. It's anything that gets them to appreciate the world around them.
Jo Reed: That was Mary Weitzman, Director of Marketing and Communications at Wave Hill. Wave Hill is a 28-acre public garden and cultural center. It's in the heart of the Bronx, and considered one of New York City's best-kept secrets. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed. Overlooking the Hudson River, Wave Hill offers visitors an oasis, a refuge from the chaotic hustle and bustle of downtown Manhattan. And I speak from experience. When I lived in New York, I often escaped to Wave Hill when city life just got to be too much. So I was very happy to sit down with Wave Hill's Executive Director Claudia Bonn and some of her colleagues to talk about this treasure on the Hudson.
Claudia Bonn: Wave Hill is an extraordinarily beautiful place to visit, and a place of calm, and a real oasis in the urban landscape. It's also a place where we have very vibrant cultural activities going on. We have a very beautiful art gallery, where we have rotating shows of usually contemporary art. We have music, often concerts, indoors and out. I'm often told by our visitors, certainly the first-time visitors, that they can't believe that a place like this exists within the city limits. I think they're impressed by how hard our horticulture staff works to keep Wave Hill extraordinarily beautiful, well-cared for, but also accessible. Nothing is really off limits when you come to Wave Hill. You can walk through the gardens, you can sit, you can read the paper for an afternoon, read a book. We're celebrating our 45th anniversary at Wave Hill. We are a public/private institution. We partner with the City of New York. Wave Hill is owned by the City of New York and run by a private board of directors, and it's a pretty perfect public/private partnership.
Jo Reed: In keeping with its mission, the gallery at Wave Hill often exhibits art that has nature as its theme. The current show is a case in point. It's called Propagating Eden, and it presents nature prints, which are created by taking impressions from the surface of plants: such as the flowers, the leaves. As Art Director Jennifer McGregor points out, with this show, nature and art enhance each other.
Jennifer McGregor: The detail that you can see in these prints, and the way that the artistry of the prints puts you in one way of looking at plants, and then you walk around the garden and you see the artistry of the garden, and it's a whole other experience. So I watch this all the time, where visitors make the connections between what they see on the grounds and what they see in the gallery, and that I think that underscores their experience of coming here, to be able to have these complementary experiences, and also their way of looking at contemporary art.
Jo Reed: Wave Hill and its gardens are living art working on visitors in the same way great traditional does. Claudia Bonn.
Claudia Bonn: I think it inspires people in their lives. In a way, I think nature changes people. The more opportunity they have to be a part of the life cycle, the change of the seasons, I think it enriches people's lives in innumerable ways.
Jo Reed: Can we talk about why that's so important in a city like New York?
Claudia Bonn: People do come here and use us, in a way. Let me give you an example. So many New Yorkers live in apartments. We know this. The fortunate few have terraces, but most people do not. They have fire escapes, they have windowsills, and Wave Hill is a place that can be their own, because it has that sort of secret garden feel to it. So it can be their front lawn, back lawn, their garden. As a matter of fact, we invite the children to roll down the hills. We tell children and families that they can take their socks and shoes off, because our grass is very clean. As I said, for many, many people, they don't have lawns. They don't have the opportunity to sit underneath a tree and to walk on beautiful, clean grass, so we are different from the other botanical gardens in our community, in that we really let people get very up close and personal.
Jo Reed: Wave Hill is known as being family friendly and this includes its programming for arts education.
Claudia Bonn: Well, we have an important signature program called the Family Art Project, and I might add very generously funded over the years through the NEA, and we're very grateful for that. The Family Art Project is a free program every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, where families come to Wave Hill, and parents and children, or grandparents or caregivers and children, work together in creating an art project. And it's all about the process of involving nature in art. Quite frankly, it is a 20-year-old program. We're celebrating its anniversary this year, and it is such an important addition to the community, for people to know, “I live in an apartment in the community, and I can come to Wave Hill every weekend and do this very affordable art experience with my children.” And people come back for years and years. We even have people coming who came here as children, now bringing their own children.
Jo Reed: The Family Art Project is run by Noah Baen. Projects range from Up Pops Spring, a chance for kids to make pop up cards and pictures to Be a Bee when the children outfit themselves with wings, and antennae and a kazoo to live the life of a bee on an early fall weekend. But according to Baen the most important thing is to create an environment for exploration and curiosity.
Noah Baen: What we want to offer for the kids and for the parents, too, is really some avenues to seeing and experiencing the land and the landscape, to identifying with it in a way that they may not have before they came here. It's really crucial, it's really important to us, that we're creating an open-ended environment where people can explore, based on their own priorities and their own perceptions. That's really what creativity is about. We've been doing this for 20 years, and feel like at each step, I pull back a little bit, and more and more focus on creating the setting and giving people what they need to take off in their own direction, because we're dealing with people who might range in age from 2 to 82. What we're here to do is to kind of open up possibilities for people and let them explore.
Jo Reed: And this is all bilingual?
Noah Baen: Yes. The assistant leader, who's been with us for ten years, Martha Barerro is a native Spanish speaker so we do a lot of our programming in English and Spanish and Martha's always here to welcome and to orient Spanish speaking families. We have a very wide mix of participant and it's not uncommon to hear four or five or six or more languages being spoken at any one time, whether its Spanish, Danish, Japanese, Hebrew on and on.
Jo Reed: The years have taught Noah that Wave Hill is doing more than introducing kids to nature.
Noah Baen: We're building community. I think that's probably one of the things that's come to understand over the 20 years, is that it's not just about a lesson or a take-home message, though those are important, and we want people to know that trees are alive, and the river is important for the well-being of the city; but it's building community and connections that extend from the land, from roots in the earth, through the neighborhoods, through the city, through the sense of working with your children, with your family, in a setting where you're with people of many different backgrounds, and all of you focused on creativity and a sense of wonder.
Jo Reed: Still, he sees that often Wave Hill provides the only exposure to art that these kids have.
Noah Baen: I hear, time and time again from parents, that we're giving these kids something that they're not getting in their school experience, that there just isn't room in a school now for the kind of open-ended, really creatively oriented arts program, sometimes not any arts programming at all, with, you know, kind of the emphasis on testing and basic skills that are dominating the school experience. But our goal and our function here is to really broaden their perspective, to put imagination and creativity in the forefront, and to allow children and adults to understand that those things--the imagination and creativity--are kind of essential elements in engaging and thinking about the world, and making who you are and making how you approach the world and how you pursue your life.
Jo Reed: Wave Hill also creates school-based arts education programs in partnership with both private and public schools. Executive Director, Claudia Bonn.
Claudia Bonn: The education program at Wave Hill is very key to what we offer our community. We have partnerships with local and public schools throughout the Bronx.. We have a variety of different programs in which we work with public schoolteachers and also private schoolteachers. Any school in the area can partner with Wave Hill. We will work with teachers. We come right into the classroom. We actually do have … our education department did create a play about the Hudson River that helped teach the children what the Hudson River was all about, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson sailing up the river. So we do create school-based programs for children as a way of teaching them about the river, teaching them about the garden, teaching them about honeybees, teaching them about trees and pollination. Hundreds and hundreds of schoolchildren come here every year to visit the grounds.
Jo Reed: The art and education programs, the concerts, the spectacular gardens all serve a common purpose.
Claudia Bonn: While we are a living museum, and we refer to ourselves as a living museum, I think people are really struck by how welcoming Wave Hill is. You can come with your stroller and your young children and they can run. And you can also come with senior citizens. Nature speaks to everybody at every age. And if people come away thinking that Wave Hill is a little part of something in their lives, then we've really done our job.
Jo Reed: That was Claudia Bonn. She's executive director of Wave Hill. The music is Ludwig von Beethoven's Sonata No. 2 in A Major. It's performed by Seymour Lipkin, from the album The Complete Beethoven Sonatas, used with permission of Newport Classic. The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next time, we discuss the legacy of dance great Merce Cunningham. To find out how art works in communities across America, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.