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Interview with Jenny Gersten, Executive Director of Friends of the High Line

By David Sokol

This article first appeared on Architectural Record.

March 06, 2014
Jenny Gersten, executive director of Friends of the High Line, on the elevated rail line.
Photo courtesy Friends of the High Line © Liz Ligon
Jenny Gersten, executive director of Friends of the High Line, on the elevated rail line.

The term “Off Broadway” may assume a vertical dimension as Jenny Gersten’s vision for the High Line takes shape. In January, Gersten officially started as executive director of Friends of the High Line (FHL), the nonprofit responsible for the elevated park, which connects New York’s West Village neighborhood to the future Hudson Yards development. In addition to management and fundraising, the role will have her focusing on the High Line’s cultural programming, to which Gersten brings a wealth of performing arts experience. The native New Yorker was most recently artistic director of the renowned Williamstown Theater Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and associate producer at Manhattan’s Public Theater prior to that.

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Gersten’s joining FHL is the latest step in an important pivot for the organization. Cofounder Robert Hammond announced that he would step down as executive director last February (cofounder Joshua David is staying on as president of the organization). Construction of the third and final phase of the High Line, which will be integrated into Hudson Yards, should be complete by the end of this year. RECORD spoke with Gersten about the organization’s shift from capital investment to operations, and how airborne performance can see the High Line into this new era.

Your mother Cora Cahan is president of the New 42nd Street (a nonprofit organization that oversaw the redevelopment of seven historic theaters in Manhattan and operates three of them) and a founder of the Joyce Theater, and your father Bernard Gersten currently serves as executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater.

My parents are passionate arts advocates and have deep personal commitments to performing arts. Their commitment to live experience and to supporting artists impacted me deeply; in this digital era, what I love most is making something you have to be present for. They also taught me to be somewhat fearless about fundraising, that if you believe in what is possible, you can create transformations. 

What did your work at the Williamstown Theater Festival teach you about arts programming?

In both my experiences as artistic director, first at Naked Angels (a Manhattan theater company) and subsequently at Williamstown, I came to accept that as a programmer, I was making creative choices. And I learned how to take the lumps when the vision I had for those projects didn’t come through to the public, and to triumph when it did.

What previous lessons apply to an open-air forum—in other words, how does the High Line position culminate everything you know thus far about programming?

I like your choice of the word forum, because the High Line is like that: a place for diverse perspectives on this great city to come together. In our food program, in our visual art program, and in our performing arts and community programs, it is also a cultural playing space. So my passion for live experience is completely satiated by working at Friends of the High Line. When cofounders Joshua David and Robert Hammond created this organization, their guiding principles were to build and protect the elevated rail line. I think the reason I’m here now, as Robert moves on, is to help shape this next chapter of life here. That’s going to be focused mostly on how we interact with our nearest neighbors and New Yorkers at large, and utilize the High Line for creative programming that matches the level of excellence in its concept and design.

In a recent RECORD interview, creative placemaking advocate Carol Coletta said that a project succeeds in the long term only with programming tailored to that community.

Carol’s point is very well taken. And I sincerely hope that my selection is due in part to my interest in working with area partners to develop programs that engage and support local residents. My first job was at a theater-mentoring project with young people in Hell’s Kitchen, called The 52nd Street Project, and my five years there influenced me greatly. Here, local members continue to be instrumental in the High Line’s success.

How does the High Line perform best as an asset to residents today, and how can it better engage the permanent community?

Those are the very questions we are asking ourselves these days. Already, we have great volunteer and teen programs for local residents, and we want to further make the High Line a resource to those who helped it come into existence. Many in the neighborhood take pride in the High Line. But if we can deepen our connection to those who were with us when we started, and continue to make it feel like a place of value and a place that cares about its neighbors, then we’ll be fulfilling our role.

Can FHL also serve as a think tank on subjects like infrastructure conversion or public art stewardship?

I think we have an interest in applying our vast knowledge to help like-minded projects get accomplished. As someone who’s always thrilled to recognize and champion good ideas and talented people, this job truly leans toward what I love. 

What are the High Line’s strengths and weaknesses, in light of it being the second most popular tourist destination in New York?

Ric Scofidio (of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which designed the High Line with James Corner Field Operations) said to me recently that the High Line is different from most parks. Whereas most parks offer an escape from the city, the High Line provides a new kind of entrance into the city. I think that’s one of its finest features. Of course, it’s not just about an entrance, or about the city. It’s about how everyone who steps onto the High Line can make it a unique experience; each person creates their own story on the High Line. There is an open-source nature to the place. On the most beauteous of days, we naturally reach peak capacity, and sometimes it can feel crowded given the width restrictions of the rail line. However, Section Three, which opens up later this year, will feel more capacious, particularly in certain areas. There are some very exciting plans not only for Section Three, but also for the Northern Spur (which juts across 10th Avenue, north of Chelsea Market), which may very well be the most thrilling new element of the High Line yet.

You have an almost personal investment in this evolution.

My childhood bedroom window looked west over Eighth Avenue and 14th Street, so I spent a lot of time daydreaming around the view out that window. But I didn’t have a lot of consciousness about what it could be, not the way Robbie and Josh did. My first time on Section One was an absolute wonder, and that sensation hasn’t diminished in subsequent visits, even though I’m on the Line with some frequency now.

How would you describe your preparation for this new role? 

You should see all the reading I’ve been doing! What’s been most tremendous about the process of learning this new language and culture is the people. It probably sounds like palaver, but believe me when I tell you that the High Line attracts very genuine, passionate people who believe in the extraordinary nature of the place, and are committed to making the place even more extraordinary. It’s a privilege to be among them, and I expect I’m going to learn so much.

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