Several years later, and with a lot of Diller’s money — $260 million, plus a pledge of $120 million for future use — the result of that civic cold call is a remarkable new fixture of the city’s cultural and recreational life. Rising whimsically on 132 tulip-shaped pillars that resemble a concrete forest of clenched fists, Little Island opened on May 21. And almost immediately, it has helped reset the conversation about how a city showcases the arts.
On 2.4 acres of lush lawns and man-made, sculptured hills, Little Island percolates daily with creative energy, fueled by talent recruited everywhere from the theaters of Broadway to the platforms of the subway. Some of it is a work in progress, but much of it reflects deep pools of local inspiration. Morning poetry, afternoon dance, evening concerts: Crowds nosh under umbrellas in the food court and wander into two performance spaces all day, all summer long. (Park events continue through September.) The setting incorporates a bit of New York dazzle: The centerpiece, a 700-seat horseshoe-shaped amphitheater called the Amph, opens up to expansive views of the Hudson River. As the sun sets and sailboats and ferries drift by, a spectator gets a hypnotic eyeful of the city’s liquid border.
Little Island’s executive director, Trish Santini, recalled a talk with Diller when she came aboard during the planning 4½ years ago. “When I first met Barry,” she said, sitting in the Amph on a recent afternoon, “I asked him, ‘What do you hope you’ll see here?’ And he said, ‘I would like to look around and see all different kinds of people — and they all look happy.’ ”
That might sound like a syrupy thesis for sophisticated city dwellers accustomed to entertainment with a side of wry. But after the pandemic-constrained year and a half New York has just endured, simple diversions go a long way. I have been to Little Island several times for both free and ticketed shows in the Amph and its sister gathering spot, the Glade, a smaller cabaret venue nestled in a grassy knoll. I have found these sojourns to be transporting getaways.
Emerging from the Amph on a rainy night, after a 90-minute, storm-interrupted performance by the Broadway Inspirational Voices choir — during which park staffers handed out dozens of ponchos — I looked up at the skyline. It took me a moment to get my bearings. Little Island managed to accomplish what islands sometimes do: hold you for a spell in a world apart.
Located at the site of Pier 54, where ships of the Cunard line once docked, Little Island already seems to be a draw for a cross section of New Yorkers; it’s a slice of the state-run Hudson River Park, which wends for several miles along the river and is reachable by a pair of pedestrian bridges at the western ends of 13th and 14th streets. Women in hijabs, men in yarmulkes, big and small families of every color can be seen lounging on the grass and climbing the pastoral peaks, designed by landscape architect Signe Nielsen. (The island itself was designed by U.K.-based Thomas Heatherwick and his Heatherwick Studio.)
“We want it to look like the inside of a subway car,” Michael Wiggins, director of Little Island’s engagement and education, said of the target visitor demographic. “And that we’re all in the same car.”
Visitors are required to book timed-entry reservations for admission after noon each day; mornings are unregulated. You can stay on the island for as long as you want. On many days, the reservations are completely snatched up.
Though some come for the scenery, I came for the art, which is abundant, and mostly free; a month-long NYC Free festival, which begins Wednesday and runs through Sept. 5, will bring 460 artists to Little Island, for 160 performances. With Diller’s wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation pays for all the programming, which is a luxury in the world of nonprofit arts ventures. Some events do charge, but prices are capped at $65. That the island’s staff of more than 100 includes no fundraising department attests to how much of an outlier Little Island is.
“I had to undo that part of my brain,” said Santini, a veteran of the nonprofit arts world. The volume of offerings reflects the wealth of options: A typical day might include workshops in the morning for kids, organized by the New Victory children’s theater; a lunchtime of storytelling by an avant-garde director or choreographer; and a nighttime performance of tap or a DJ’s mix of funk and Afrobeat music.
“Where we started was, what was the vision for the park: a place where nature and art can commingle and amplify each other,” said Julia Kraus, Little Island’s producer. “We wanted a breadth and depth: dance, theater, music, circus, spoken word ….”
One recent evening, the Broadway choir, under the direction of Michael McElroy — one of Little Island’s resident artists — was the marquee event, in a program of show tunes with a gospel twist. On another, I attended a 100-minute concert of songs by director-composer Shaina Taub, who is writing a musical version of the movie “The Devil Wears Prada” with Elton John.
“These are the first concerts I’ve played in 22 months for live audiences!” declared Taub, who has co-directed musical adaptations of works such as “Twelfth Night” for the Public Theater’s venerable Shakespeare in the Park. Onto the Amph stage she brought a bevy of actor-singers — Jose Llana, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Darius de Haas among them — and accompanied them on tunes from her own songbook. On still another occasion, Joshua Henry, who played Billy Bigelow in the 2018 Broadway revival of “Carousel,” starred in his own hour-long concert with a backup band in the Glade.
To help shape the programming, Kraus and Santini signed up a small coterie of New York artists-in-residence — in addition to McElroy, they include playwright-director Tina Landau, tap artist Ayodele Casel and PigPen Theatre Co., seven actors who met at Carnegie Mellon University and formed a band and theater troupe. PigPen curated a storytelling festival for Little Island that included both traditional and improvisational performances. “We thought, why not be a vessel for the community to tell stories in the way they want to tell them?” said PigPen member Arya Shahi.
This resulted in a session in the Glade, at which storyteller Daniel Nayeri, with PigPen’s instrumentalists providing a soundscape, collaborated with the audience on a tale of a pirate queen and a fox who sewed her gorgeous gowns. It thoroughly delighted the kids in the crowd — fulfilling a fundamental tenet of Diller’s vision.
“Most things I get involved in in the area of art, TV, movies, 90 percent turn out to be less than you had hoped,” Diller said. “This turned out to be more, and that’s really rare.”