Every musician comes to New York to play. And one of the best venues to see the widest range of styles for free is Central Park SummerStage.
I was lucky to attend SummerStage’s first season, which began with Sun Ra’s Omniverse Arkestra, later followed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and a rare concert by Astor Piazzola. Subsequent years saw such highlights as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the last performances of Curtis Mayfield and Celia Cruz, a half-nude Grace Jones, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain improvising a duet with a large moth as it flew across the stage, and the radiant voice of Oumou Sangaré. If one of the glories of New York is the collision and juxtaposition of people and cultures, then Central Park SummerStage is where that combination shines the brightest.
After several years of work in the music industry, it was only inevitable that SummerStage would eventually call us. And when they did, the first thing out of my studio partner’s mouth was “What took you so long?”
Along with the ability to serve a client that we absolutely believed in, there was the added opportunity/responsibility to address SummerStage’s audience, which in effect was the City of New York and beyond. Even though, early on, founding director Joseph Killian had a mission to “bring the downtown arts scene uptown,” SummerStage had grown their audience to a point where the marketing needed to have a broader sensibility.
Our first mission was to kill the poster.
Prior to our involvement, SummerStage had produced a series of two-sided posters which jumbled together schedule, sponsorship space, park rules, and donation coupons. They were hard to find and we had never, ever seen a SummerStage poster displayed in a friend’s home or office. So we proposed taking the same amount of paper, reducing the number of colors and publishing a brochure which could fit into someone’s pocket and have a longer lifespan.
This required about a month of internal negotiations before it was approved as a one-time trial. So to make as much of the opportunity as possible, we specified shiny metallic-silver ink as the main brochure color.
The result was immediately positive. Brochures were easier to distribute, and the audience grew significantly. Plus, the visual clarity of the brochure format made it easier to take individual graphic elements and expand the brand across other marketing formats and merchandise.
The new approach also allowed SummerStage to develop their media partnerships, increasing advertising from a handful to approximately 50-60 ads across a variety of publications and audiences — from Time Out New York to the New York Observer, from El Diario to specific DJ-culture magazines. And the new partnership with Time Out New York created an opportunity to introduce the season with a bit of panache, when in 2003 we first glued the brochure into a two-page spread in the summer concerts issue.
Central Park SummerStage was originally programmed by the Central Park Conservancy — a public/private group dedicated to bringing the Park back from decades of decline. Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern and administrator Elizabeth Barlow Rogers intended the first series as an way to revitalize the mall around the Naumberg Band Shell, which, according to Mr. Stern, was rife with “drugs and a bad element.”
With the growing popularity of the series and the restored tranquility of the Band Shell, SummerStage moved in 1990 to the Rumsey Playfield, which could accommodate a larger stage, new sound system and a larger audience. Several years later, SummerStage management was transferred to the City Parks Foundation, whose sole purpose was to program arts, sports and community events in parks throughout all five boroughs of New York City, including the two-day Charlie Parker Jazz Festival and City Parks Concerts.
In 2004, after the success of our previous work, we were asked to design material for both the Charlie Parker Festival and City Parks Concerts. This set the stage for the 2005 season, when we were asked to give all three a more cohesive, and more “City Parks Foundation,” look and feel. 2005 was also the 20th anniversary of SummerStage, so a commemorative compilation album of notable performances from previous years was produced.
Eventually SummerStage’s individuality was fully absorbed into the City Parks Foundation’s brand to the point where it no longer produces the variety of materials it did under our watch. It had become too big, the lines to get in had become too long, and the number of fund-raising concerts had begun to outshine the free ones. The annual audience count was in the hundreds of thousands and it had drawn increased attention from city officials, neighbors, promoters, and sponsors. In a way, it had become a victim of its own success.
Now, SummerStage is used as a catch-all for a series of concerts in 17 parks across all five boroughs. And Rumsey Playfield is often rented out for concerts programmed by large music industry promoters or private corporate events.
Admittedly, it’s a bit sad to see the ongoing growth and broad dissemination of what had started out as a small, but hip music festival. SummerStage was a product of the 1980s, just after the 1970s, when New York suffered disastrous blight and bankruptcy. The 1980s in New York was a magical time of wondrous cross-fertilization between genres, classes and cultures. Between academic composition and the anarchy of punk. When money hadn’t yet fully reached the art world and AIDS hadn’t yet fully reached the bedroom. When you could go to an obscure loft performance or to a SummerStage concert and find yourself sitting next to John Cage.
This is the sensibility from which this work comes from. It was an absolute blessing to serve the SummerStage ideal, the amazing performers and the people of New York City. Because fewer things are more relevant than having the opportunity to create such a place for so many people.
Executive director, City Parks Foundation: David Rivel
Executive producer, Central Park SummerStage: Alexa Birdsong