Linda Herring dreams of creating a performing arts alternative to Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera House, Broadway and even the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As executive director of the Tribeca Performing Arts Center at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in downtown Manhattan, her primary duties are fund-raising, creating programs and managing the center. But the Pittsburgh native envisions TPAC, with its 900- and 262-seat indoor theaters and outdoor terraces for summer and spring presentations, drawing more visitors as downtown rebuilds after the terrorist attacks of September 11.
“I’m hoping to fill the void that the major performing arts centers are not filling, and that is to give up-and-coming artists, national or international, an opportunity to showcase their work to major audiences and particularly to the diverse cultures of New York City,” she says, surrounded by the colorful art, paintings and photographs that decorate her TPAC office.
Herring fell in love with New York City on her first visit while an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. Seduced by the artistic scene and the promise of a career, she sold her belongings and moved in. She has never looked back. “I decided this was the place where I needed to be, so much so that I left before graduation just in case my courage faded,” she says. She eventually received a master’s in performing arts and a second master’s in dramaturgy from Brooklyn College.
Herring is palpably passionate about TPAC’s Artists-in-Residence Program, Jazz in Progress concerts and the Lost Jazz Shrines series, which brings music lovers to the old underground scene for concerts, lectures and photo exhibits each spring. The series pays homage to the old pubs and bars, such as The Five Spot, the Café Society and the Village Gate, which gave artists such as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and a young Aretha Franklin a place to perform before they became international stars.
Through the Artists-in-Residence Program, composers, directors, and writers are given the opportunity to create new pieces. Herring wants TPAC to be a hub for artists when their art is most vulnerable, when it is simply an idea learning how to crawl so that it may walk and eventually run. “In many instances you find that we keep celebrating the same artist year after year. I want our center to give life to new ideas, new images and new thoughts to continue the artistic influence,” she says. The artists showcase their work twice in the academic year, with a final performance at year’s end.
You can sense that jazz holds a special place in Herrings’s heart. “I believe that jazz tells the story of the African-American experience. Jazz is an American creation rooted in the lives of African-Americans and it has evolved and improvised just as the circumstances of African-Americans have in this country,” she says.
She grew up in a household filled with music, much of it jazz. If she were ever stranded on a desert island, she says, she would take with her jazz recordings that only a true jazz aficionado would recognize: Red Clay by Fred Hubbert, Just Lee Morgan and Cobra Black by Lee Morgan, and anything by Cannonball Adderley.
TPAC’s Jazz in Progress program gives the winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, presented by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., an opportunity to perform a solo concert.
Herring sees art as an invaluable part of the makeup of a community and its business. “Artistic performances create a destination for people to visit and it spills into the businesses built around the location,” she says. Although TPAC has lost some of its funding from businesses that either left the area or that merged and subsequently downsized philanthropic giving, TPAC remains a premier spot for artists like poet and social activist Sonia Sanchez and actor T. C. Carson of Living Single. Carson performed with Sanchez in December 2004, during the poet’s first tour to promote her Full Moon of Sonia CD.
Herring and her staff are promoting ideas and shows that, they hope, will heighten TPAC’s visibility in the same way that the Tribeca Film Festival brings visitors to the area. “But my measuring bar is to really duplicate what BAM has done for downtown Brooklyn. I would love for TPAC to have that kind of recognition,” Herring says.