Riding the ferry to Governors Island on a foggy February morning, it’s easy to imagine that you’re heading to a new and foreign land. Only a half mile from the bustling southern tip of Manhattan, it seems a world apart. In many ways, it once was. A retreat for the British royal governors in the eighteenth century, it later served for 200 years as a U.S. Army and Coast Guard base with its own schools, shops, and places of worship. Off-limits to civilians, it went almost completely unnoticed by most New Yorkers. Things began to change in 2001 when 22 acres of the island, including Fort Jay and Castle Williams, were designated Governors Island National Monument, to be overseen by the National Park Service. In 2003 the federal government sold the remaining 150 acres to the State of New York; a joint city-state partnership, the Trust for Governors Island, was established to oversee the operations, planning, and redevelopment of this portion of the island.

Not much else happened until Leslie Koch came on board as president of the Trust for Governors Island in 2006. Previously chief executive of the Fund for Public Schools, she seemed to know just what it would take to bring the island back to life. Under her leadership, it has become a welcoming public space, alive with arts events, performances, exhibits, art classes, Little League games, a spa, a miniature golf course, grassy knolls, bike paths, and a 10-acre grove with 50 inviting red hammocks. Dedicated to public art, Koch works hand in hand with the island’s advocate for public art, Tom Eccles, whose distinguished record in the field includes serving as director of New York City’s Public Art Fund. Changes that she and her team have brought about have more than paid off. In 2006, 26,000 visitors spent time on the island; in 2013, the figure soared to 398,000.

Koch figured out that to draw New Yorkers to the island the Trust would have to offer something unavailable elsewhere in the city. “Many people don’t have a platform for what they would like to present because most venues are too expensive for them to afford,” she says after welcoming a visitor at Soissons ferry landing. “The Trust could offer them that. All they’d have to do is to get a permit, and they could put up sculpture, hold dance performances or cooking demonstrations—it doesn’t matter. I like the idea of New Yorkers creating events and experiences for other New Yorkers. To me, the key agents are arts, culture, and design—and by culture, I also include food and anything else that makes us people.”

In the coming months, an even greater number of visitors should be drawn to the island. The season now stretches from Memorial Day weekend through the last weekend in September, and the island will now be open to visitors seven, rather than three, days a week. Additionally, 30 new acres of park and public spaces will become available for public use in May, as well as The Hills (composed of recycled construction and fill materials) on the southern half of the island, which will rise 25 to 80 feet. From the tallest point, visitors will get a 360-degree panorama of the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor, and the Lower Manhattan skyline.

Dressed for the weather in sturdy boots and heavy jacket, her reddish blond hair unprotected from the sleet, Koch climbs into the golf cart that she uses for transportation when not on her bike. There are no cars or roads. Everything is covered with snow, the hickory, oak, and chestnut trees bending under the weight. The Dutch named it Nutten Island for these nut-producing trees, after they bought it from its Native owners in 1637. To get to the Hills, we pass by the handsome Victorian and Romanesque Revival houses dating from the mid-nineteenth century. “They are all landmarked,” she says. “In the summer, we open them up for arts programming.”

We arrive at one of the three recently commissioned works, Mark Handforth’s Phone in Tree, which is literally a huge blue phone hanging on the branch of a tree. Looking at it from the neo-Georgian Liggett Hall Arch, she points out how it draws, the eye to the vast expanse of sky and the Statue of Liberty just offshore. His second sculpture, the bright yellow and very cheerful Saffron Star, stands, slightly tilted, in front of the South Battery. He likes to use recognizable shapes.

Handforth was among the first to benefit from the Trust’s new art commission program, which invites a small group of artists to respond to the island and its many layers of meaning. It allows them time to explore, understand, and respond to the actual landscape, history, emerging democratic culture, and symbolic and physical transformation. Created for the site, the pieces will be long-term installations. “Mark’s sculptures embody the spirit of the island as a place for art and play,” Koch says, “and respond with subtle irony to the new landscapes.”

Figuring out what works on the island isn’t necessarily easy, however, Eccles explained later. “While it seems ideal for public works, its size and open spaces can be daunting. It’s also a challenge because of the many events that take place there,” he says. “You don’t want to tell people to be careful when they’ve come out for a day of fun. We had to thoroughly consider what we would put up and where. But the freewheeling aspect of the island means it’s a good place for art. People don’t come and go; they usually stay for the day.”

Handforth enjoyed the challenge. “Governors Island is an unusual place for sure,” he says, “with a very strange history and a different kind of role even now—not exactly a park, not exactly a monument, kind of a wild chunk of nature in the bay but also originally mannered and ordered by the military. People do what they please and the island lives for all kinds of disparate events and energies. Clearly any artwork there has to hold its own, while also engaging with all that craziness and playing with it, loving it. I’m hoping my work will engage with people at whatever level they’re approaching it—the full gamut of experience.”

He selected materials that float and stay loose, for their ability, as he says, “to weather the weather.” The bronze will blacken but not weaken, the cast iron will rust but not fade, and the painted aluminum surfaces are bold and graphic and will stay that way. “People go to the island and enjoy it in many different ways for many different reasons,” he says. “I tried to make work that would speak to that messy freedom but not cramp it. If art is a conversation, then you could really talk to all kinds of people there.”

Sound artist Susan Philipsz’s piece Day is Done had not yet been installed for the season in Liggett Terrace, but Koch waxed lyrical about its haunting beauty. Simply an aural experience, it consists of the playing of “Taps” over speakers every evening. The hope is to connect every visitor not only with the island’s past but also to larger themes of military culture and death. The traditional bugle call is played every evening at every American military base in the world but also at the funeral of every veteran.

Once back in her high-ceilinged, old-fashioned office, decorated with colorful posters from past events, Koch elaborates on how the Trust works. “We don’t select,” she says, “and we’re not partners with the people who bring their projects here. It’s completely open—we want young, emerging artists as well as established artists. The point is to allow them to create an experience. We’re asking, ‘What is a performance?’ and intentionally blurring the lines between traditional cultural experiences and what’s new and happening now.” The Trust has never turned anyone down.

Koch spreads out other posters, to give some idea of the range of groups that have presented work on the island. The Trust creates posters for them all. They have included the International Center for Photography, the New-York Historical Society, the Sculptors Guild, the Unicycle Festival, the Jazz Age Lawn Party, FIGMENT, the Earth Matter Compost Learning Center, Rite of Summer Music Festival, and choreographer Jody Oberfelder Projects. Among the most unusual was F.te Paradiso, a collection of vintage carousels. In 2011–2012, Storm King Art Center exhibited Mark di Suvero sculptures all over the island.

“Since 2006,” Koch says, “our trademark has been freedom, offering organizations both free space and free rein to create exhibitions, events, and experiences without a traditional selection, funding, or curatorial process.” The Trust’s program OpenHouseGI continues in 2014, with more than 150,000 square feet of indoor space in the island’s historic homes and acres of green space available for the special mix of free cultural and recreational programming that have made the island lively and loved.

“We embrace the diversity, risk, and serendipity that come with our open process,” Koch says, “but we also recognize the unique opportunity the island offers artists. There is truly no other site like it in the nation, and few in the world.”

Photos courtesy Axel Taferner, Jessica Sheridan, Eric Ferrar, Ashley Simone, and Guru Sno Studios under Flickr Creative Commons License, Trust for Governors Island, and FIGMENT NYC.

In the following video, listen to Leslie Koch—president and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island—visitors, and artists share about the role of public art in transforming a once-overlooked island in the middle of the New York Harbor.

Video produced by Line Break Media.

Music: Perspectives by Kevin MacLeod.

This video was made possible through support from the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation.