Q&A with Rebecca Robertson, President and Executive Producer of the Park Avenue Armory

Company D at the Park Avenue Armory (Photo by James Ewing)

THIRTEEN recently spoke with Rebecca Robertson, President and Executive Producer of the Park Avenue Armory, which is profiled in the second installment of Treasures of New York, airing Thursday, October 27 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN. Here, Robertson discusses the armory’s rich artistic programming, as well as what makes the armory one of the most valuable landmarks not only in New York City, but in the world.

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What distinguishes the Park Avenue Armory from other armories in the city?

The Park Avenue Armory is the only privately funded armory in the country. It was built for the Seventh Regiment and for military practices, but it was also built as a social club, and a place of public gathering. It was very specifically built for that. And, of course its interiors were by the most important designers of the time, including Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White. Also, the structure was built like a European train station, which is unusual. It was done to be rather magnificent.

Are there any little known or surprising aspects of the armory’s history or restoration you can share?

The Seventh Regiment members had their locker rooms designed by the Herter brothers, so these locker rooms are some of the most important interiors in the country, because they are mahogany and they are highly decorated with paintings, elaborate lighting fixtures, matching suites of incredibly important furniture — so they were locker room like no one has ever seen them!

How is the armory’s artistic programming selected?

We have an artistic director, Kristy Edmunds, and the works are by important artists who need an unconventional space like ours to develop something that they are working on. There are certain things that are so obvious – there’s this piece that we’re going to be doing this June with the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert where there are three orchestras and the audience sits in the middle; it’s called Gruppen. It’s rarely performed because it has this requirement. So we go from a piece like that that’s probably never been performed exactly the way Stockhausen wanted it, and we’ll be able to do that, to commissioning artists that are at this point in their work where they want to do something unconventional, in an epic space.

Can you tell us about the Artists-in-Residence program?

For the Artists in Residence program, we generally work with artists in eight to twelve month residencies. They are artists who are working on projects that could possibly use our space. That includes either the drill hall or the historic rooms, particularly our lower-level reception rooms, which we are increasingly using for music and art installations. An example would be Julian Crouch, who is a set designer and puppeteer, who is working on a piece called “The Devil and Mr. Punch.” It’s not a requirement – we learn so much about artists when they work in the space and how they use the space. Shen Wei is maybe even a better example – they are artists in residence here, and they are doing a new commission that will be presented in December. So having them in the space and getting a feel for the space has been essential. Being here has really affected the way the piece has developed. It really is a site-specific response.

The other thing about artists is that they keep you connected to the artistic community – they are always talking to us about other artists who work in this genre who would like to use the historic rooms or the drill hall.

The function of the armory has changed significantly over the years, but it has stayed relevant to New York City. What’s next for the armory in terms of programming and its function?

We’re just four years old, so we’re young yet, and we are still developing our identity and our artistic programming. 2012 will be only our second year doing our own artistic programming, so we’re very much still at a growing stage. I think in the years to come we’ll be doing an increasing amount of programming, working with national companies that present in unconventional spaces like our own, really to bring to New York work that they would not otherwise see. So, I think we’re in a growth period.

What do you hope viewers will take from the armory’s Treasures of New York episode?

I hope what they’ll learn is that they have one of the most important landmarks in the world sitting at 66th and Park Avenue that is now establishing itself as a really dynamic, contemporary arts center. I hope they’re going to discover both of those facts, because I think it’s pretty exciting. We were listed in 2000 [by the World Monument Fund] as one of the hundred most endangered historic sites in the world, along with Machu Picchu. That’s how important these rooms are from an American point of view, and I think people still don’t realize what a treasure they have in this building. If they had realized it, it wouldn’t have deteriorated so much! The way to raise awareness is to get people into the building to see it, it’s part of the city’s cultural life, to come here and really get to enjoy these rooms — both the environment that they are in and the productions that we do.

Major support for Treasures of New York: Park Avenue Armory is provided by The Thompson Family Foundation, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, and the Metropolitan Media Fund.