Landing here after "a circuitous career"

Conversation with Four Freedoms Conservancy's New CEO Howard Axel

Updated 3 years ago David Stone
Four Freedoms Conservancy President Howard Axel
Four Freedoms Conservancy President Howard Axel
Photo courtesy FDR Four Freedoms Park

Howard Axel was promoted to CEO at the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy, replacing the popular and innovative Sally Minard, last fall. We persuaded him to reply in his own words about where he comes from and where the park is headed under his direction. Here is a lightly edited version of that interview.

Daily: Where do you come from, your work and training background?

I was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Long Island. I’ve spent most of my life in the northeast, with only a short time in Santa Monica, CA. I’ve had, what I would call, a circuitous career -- stops along the way have included seven years working for Trust for Public Land here in New York where I spent most of my time helping raise funds to expand and protect public access to land.

This was my first “real” job and I learned the importance of viewing nonprofits through a lens of business practices and standards. I had the great chance to work at Rock the Vote, during the election cycle in 1994 and saw first-hand the importance of activating young people in civic discourse. 

Most recently, I spent ten years managing actors and actresses, helping them build their careers – mostly right here in New York – working on incredible shows like Sopranos and Law & Order. I worked with many of my clients on their “pro-social” interests and helped them leverage the power of celebrity to engage, fundraise, and work on many important issues.

After ten years in this small business, I turned back to the social change sector and was fortunate to work at Grameen America, which was founded by Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus who received the Nobel Peace Prize 2006 and the Four Freedoms Award in 2006. Grameen is the largest micro-loan provider, working to help women in the US, mostly here in NYC, build small businesses and create road maps for their future success. 

As I said, a circuitous career, but one filled with talented and inspiring folks and great social projects. 

Daily: This (becoming Conservancy President) looks like a fairly radical career switch. What interested you about FDR Four Freedoms, and what in your background gave you insight or learning you bring to the job?

I was attracted to FDR Four Freedoms Park for a number of reasons.

First, in many ways it was like “going home,” as it is a State Park, and I had worked for so many years helping create and expand parks in New York at Trust for Public Land. The memorial itself is undeniably beautiful, and at the risk of sounding sentimental, I believe it is one of the most magical, contemplative, and transformational spaces in New York City.  

I really do believe that in many ways this is the perfect culmination of many aspects of my career.  It brings together my experience in open space, running a small business and working with stakeholders, and it leverages my experience working with high profile people to continue building the Conservancy’s funding and visitorship.

More than that, I’m incredibly excited to work on the Conservancy’s mission: to help define and defend the four freedoms. I can’t think of anything that is more timely right this minute in our own national public discourse. 

Daily: Sally Minard innovated with lots of activities that would bring people to the park who might not otherwise get to see it. For example, art training for kids, the Manhattanhenge get together, kite flying… Will you continue these and what new innovations do you see?

Sally was and continues to be a strong voice for innovation! We are very lucky to have her ongoing commitment as our Vice-Chair.

We will continue many of these great public programs you mentioned. Going forward, we will continue to look for ways to align the Park’s programs and events to the Conservancy’s mission of defining and defending the four freedoms. In 2017, you can expect to find programs related to Freedom of Speech and Expression with the aim of deepening our visitors’ connection to that essential human right. 

Our staff has spent some of the past few months analyzing our previous programs and events to see what most resonated with our visitors, and ways that we can advance our offerings.

Next year, you can definitely expect to see programs like Manhattanhenge and Kite Flight for Peace, as well as events for architecture and design lovers, families, and history enthusiasts. We are looking forward to sharing our full schedule of events with everyone in the spring! 

Daily: Will you see you casually at places like Riverwalk Bar & Grill and at more formal events like Quarterly Cornell Tech updates?

Yes, absolutely! In fact, Riverwalk has been a site of more than one lunch with our donors! We are incredibly happy to be a part of the Roosevelt Island community and to work with so many of its wonderful residents. We have wonderful relationships with various organizations on the island, and hope to pursue them and grow them moving forward.  

Four Freedoms Park will continue to participate in community events like the annual Cherry Blossom Festival and the Fourth of July, if it takes place on the East River again.

As always, we hope that Roosevelt Islanders will visit the Park often and use it as a resource. You’ll find me on Roosevelt Island and at the Park often and am eager to connect with community members and community organizations.

Daily: Concerning rumors about FDR Four Freedoms's interest in the Renwick Smallpox Hospital Ruins: Everyone seems to love the ruins, but an informal architect's estimate of the cost of stabilizing and converting the structure to usable space with electricity, plumbing and water comes to around a prohibitive $20 million. Any thoughts or observations about FDR Four Freedom’s interest in the historic site?

The Renwick Ruin does, as you note, have a larger-than-life profile and certainly is a spectacular and unique site.

It is still very early in my tenure here to give you an informed opinion, but I am well aware of the stabilization study conducted by Walter B. Melvin Architects.

The Conservancy itself is focused on operating the Park, ensuring its lasting sustainability, both financially and physically, and creating appropriate and best-in-class public offerings. With that full plate, we think of ourselves as a good neighbor, concerned about the safety of the structure and the potential to create it as an asset to the public, in whatever form the community agrees upon.

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