How the NEA Helped Jump Start the High Line

Today it's easy to look at the High Line and see an almost inevitable success. But back in 2002, it was a crazy idea, and not even I or Friends of the High Line's other co-founder, Joshua David, really thought it was going to happen. One of the many important steps from unlikely dream to vibrant public space was a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Given the political discourse around federal funding for the arts right now, I wanted to share the story of how the NEA helped us at a particularly critical moment in our work to transform the High Line.

In the fall of 2002 we started planning for an ideas competition. This wasn't going to be the kind of competition where the winning design would get built. It couldn't have been: at that point we didn't have any rights to the structure—which was still in danger of being torn down—and we didn't have any money.

But we had a purpose in mind. What we wanted the competition to do was to free people to think about the structure in different ways so that it provoked public debate about what was best for the High Line. Most people still didn't know what the High Line was—even people in the neighborhood—and those who did know about it thought it was an eyesore that should be torn down.

To support the competition, we were lucky enough to receive a grant of $35,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). At the time, this was a huge amount of money for us—helping make the competition and exhibition a success, and also providing a stamp of approval and legitimacy for us that we hadn't had before. It also helped us to raise additional funding from private sources and crucial public funding from the New York City Council.

The ideas competition eventually received 720 entries from 36 countries, and from people from all walks of life. Entries included a variety of fantastical gardens and even a gondola. In July 2003, the entries were exhibited for the public in Grand Central Station's Vanderbilt Hall for two weeks. One of my favorites was a mile-and-a-half-long lap pool; another featured a roller coaster that swooped its way between buildings. Very few of them were feasible, but it didn't matter—it helped people think about the High Line in a different way.

The competition and exhibition did help build public awareness about the High Line, which was important in helping to save and transform it. It also did something more: when it came time to choose a team of designers to create a viable plan for transforming the High Line into a public amenity, we ended up with better results because the competition had opened up a whole new way of thinking about the structure.

Today the High Line is a vibrant public space that welcomes nearly eight million visitors a year and serves our community through amazing horticulture, public art, cultural and educational programming, and much more. That success wouldn't have been possible without the ideas competition and the NEA.

In the past few years, the NEA has become a partner once again—helping us commission and display dozens of new works of museum-quality contemporary art, all of which are presented free of charge to our visitors through High Line Art, our public art program.

You may have heard that President Donald J. Trump's proposed FY2018 federal budget entirely cuts funding for the NEA and its sister agencies. All told, those agencies' budgets comprise less than .02% of the federal budget, but they have an outsized impact on the vitality of our communities. Just look at what NEA did for the High Line.

If you want to learn more about what the NEA does, they have a wealth of information on their website on the impact they have through grants to organizations large and small in every single congressional district, in every community, each year. And the Arts Action Fund has resources for how you can make a difference to help save the NEA.

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