Ira M. Millstein

Growing up as a kid in New York, Central Park was everything to me. I played tennis in the park. I played baseball in the park. I almost had my two front teeth knocked out while playing football in the park. Living in a series of small apartments on the West Side not bordering on the park, I always felt that Central Park was still my front and back yard. Those precious times are something you just can’t put a price on.

One of the beauties of the park is that it truly is the people’s park. It welcomes everyone. Race, color, creed, and other so-called distinctions between people disappear. You go into the park on a Sunday and you could be at the United Nations. It is a rainbow. We have at least one of everything and maybe more. That’s the way it was and is exactly the way it ought to be.

Details from watercolor Study 2.

Those memories and the way the park is today—forever the people’s park—is why Janet’s paintings are so meaningful to me. They capture the essence and reality of that great variety of people, doing what they do naturally, amidst the absolute beauty of the park.

Janet’s extraordinary panoramas of a lush green Sheep Meadow are so large that I feel I am part of the actual experience. These watercolors are close to a cinematic expression—capturing the gamut of visitors—all nationalities, races, and ages, even collaged photographs of family members and park visitors—that reveal Janet’s humanity and love of the democratic people’s park. She brings her wonderful sense of humor to her work, such as the transformation of a foreground flock of seagulls to a background flock of sunbathers. In another panorama, Janet celebrates the park’s magic and enchantment by juxtaposing enormous, out-of-scale morning glories and vines with an otherwise realistic view of the landscape.

And like the park, Janet keeps growing and changing, taking visual risks that are, if possible, even more mystical and dreamlike. Her most recent work—my personal favorite—depicts the tango dancers that congregate every Saturday night around the Shakespeare statue on the Mall. Projected onto a painting of that very spot is a video Janet created of the actual dancers, so that painting and video become one. To envision the concept is one thing, but to execute it, to make her vision a reality, called for a real commitment to learn an entirely new medium. And just as we say the park is never finished, Janet thinks of her paintings as works in progress, a symbol of her dedication to change and growth. For that, and more, she is an inspiration to me.

By the 1960s, the park, itself an important work of American art, was a total disaster, and far from the beautiful landscapes in Janet’s artworks. The lush green Sheep Meadow was devoid of even one blade of grass. The Harlem Meer looked like a garbage dump, along with its derelict and graffiti-covered boathouse. All throughout the park were broken paths, lights, and fountains. Nothing worked. New York City was in a fiscal crisis, and the budget for parks was the first to be slashed.

In 1980, a small, dedicated group of citizens founded the Central Park Conservancy to begin the restoration of this 843-acre masterpiece of landscape architecture. Little by little, through the generosity of New Yorkers, the not-for-profit Central Park Conservancy began to transform the park, acre-by-acre, from the national disgrace it had become into the national treasure it was created to be over a century before. And as it was restored, the confidence of the community was restored, and people began coming back to it in record numbers.

In 1991, I was delighted to be asked to become the third chairman of the Central Park Conservancy. I’ve been involved in many different philanthropies over the course of my life, and I’ve never had as much fun, enjoyment, and pleasure as I had chairing the Conservancy’s board for almost 10 years. Nobody was upset when asked for a donation, whether big or small. And because of it, the grass grew, the trees and flowers blossomed, and the kids and their parents rejoiced in the newly restored playgrounds. You could see, hear, touch, and smell the work you did, and where the donations went.

If 100 years from now I were to walk through the park and it was just as pretty as it is today—as pretty as it is in Janet’s paintings—I would say, “That’s great.” We really did something, something special, and something that endures and brings as much joy to the millions of that future generation as it does for us, and for me, today.

I congratulate Janet on her beautiful work, but even more so, admire her love of the park, which shines through her art.

Ira M. Millstein is a senior partner at the international law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, where he practices in the areas of government regulation and antitrust law, and counsels boards on issues of corporate governance. In addition to his active legal practice, Millstein is a Lecturer in Law and co-chair of The Millstein Center for Global Markets and Corporate Ownership at Columbia Law School. He was formerly the Senior Associate Dean for Corporate Governance and the Theodore Nierenberg Adjunct Professor of Corporate Governance at the Yale School of Management. A graduate of Columbia Law School, Millstein is a Life Trustee and former Chairman of the Board of the Central Park Conservancy, Chairman Emeritus and member of the Board of Overseers of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Trustees of the American Red Cross of Greater New York, and Emeritus Director for New Yorkers for Parks. Millstein serves on the Advisory Council of Transparency International. He is a dedicated member of the Board of Directors of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center. Most recently, he has played a key role in the reform of New York State’s numerous public authorities, serving at the request of governors Pataki, Paterson, and Cuomo, as chairman of various task forces charged with overseeing successful implementation of the new public authorities’ laws. Millstein is also currently a co-chair of Governor Cuomo’s NYS Ready Commission.

Above: Sketches of people in the Sheep Meadow.

© 2013 Janet K. Ruttenberg from the book Gatherings