Arts & Culture

Is the Shed the Defining Arts Institution of a New New York City?

Inside the cultural institution's $500,000,000 gamble.
IMAGE JASON SCHMIDT
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Sparks fly inside the Shed. Specifically, in the McCourt, the performance hall whose retractable shell is the signature flourish of the 200,000-square-foot structure’s flexible design. The building, recently named in honor of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, is encased in Teflon-based polymer “pillows” cross-hatched with steel; the pillows are only partially inflated during construction, and the material puckers as men in the baskets of cranes graze its corners.

It’s a Friday afternoon, and the sun is creeping behind the Hudson River as Alex Poots, founding artistic director and CEO of the Shed, the multi­disciplinary arts center set to open here April 5, stands on the building’s eighth level looking down on construction workers milling about like helmeted ants.

The idea was, Let’s create the world’s most flexible cultural institution.

The 4,000-ton chassis retracts telescopically on six-foot-tall wheels to transform the space into an open plaza. The design, by lead architect Diller Scofidio + Renfro and collaborating architect the Rockwell Group, has been described as “gadget architecture,” but Poots says the plan’s malleability was what first appealed to him. “You had a chance for there to be no poor relation in any art form,” he says, noting that the design affords the possibility of commissioning works across disciplines and presenting them with parity.

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When it opens, the space will host some of New York’s most daring cultural programming, from Steve McQueen’s celebration of the history of ­African-American music to a new work by Björk.

“Our mission is one of the simplest ever,” says Poots, a dark-eyed Scot with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair who previously worked as the artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory and the Manchester International Festival. “We commission new work across all art forms for all audiences. That’s it.”


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Alex Poots, founding artistic director and CEO of The Shed.

While the mission may be simple, the erection of the building, a hulking, dimpled rhombus that hovers over the north end of the High Line, was not. In a city with 1,200 existing cultural institutions, and with a budget that ballooned from $350 million to $475 million, it has taken enormous capital—political, social, and financial—to get a project of this scale and ambition off the ground.

Looking through the hull of the McCourt, the neighboring Hudson Yards development rises like SimCity built of glass Legos. Hudson Yards, which stretches from 30th to 34th streets and from 10th Avenue to the West Side Highway, is the most expensive development in U.S. history. Plans for a stadium on the 28-acre tract were put forth in the early 2000s by then-mayor Bloomberg and Dan Doctoroff, his deputy for economic development, as a way to win the 2012 Summer Olympics for New York. When that hope was quashed, the site was reconceived as a new neighborhood, which Bloomberg would sign off on only if it included a cultural nonprofit on city-owned land.

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A rendering of the McCourt

“I don’t know if there are patron saints in the Jewish faith, but he is one of those,” Poots says of Bloomberg, who, in addition to allocating $75 million of city funds to the Shed while in office, has donated $75 million through his Bloomberg Philanthropies. “And the other one is Doctoroff, as our chairman.”

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Sitting in his office at 10 Hudson Yards, with its bird’s-eye view of the Bloomberg Building, Doctoroff says, “Mike always would say that capital follows culture in New York.” So they picked what they believed to be the best site in the mixed-use development and reserved it for a cultural institution. “We are obsessed about New York’s competitive position in the world,” Doctoroff says, toggling through his iPad to find a photo of the McCourt at sunset. “The idea was, ‘Let’s create the world’s most flexible cultural institution, both programmatically and physically,’ ” he tells me, likening the venue to a German kunsthalle. Finding the photo, he says, with a paternal gleam in his eye, “It actually looks better than the renderings.”

The Shed’s board of directors is as imposing as the building itself, and largely the result of relationships Doctoroff has fostered over a 40-year career in business and politics. “He’s the reason I’m there,” says Diane von Furstenberg, one of a group of powerful New Yorkers who make up the board, including Jon Tisch, Andrés Santo Domingo, and Dasha Zhukova. It also includes representatives of the businesses that plan to make the Hudson Yards area their home, such as Related Companies CEO Stephen Ross and real estate developer Frank McCourt Jr., owner of a lot across 10th Avenue and namesake of the performance hall.

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The Shed’s board of directors. From left: Andres Santo Domingo, Diane Von Furstenberg, Benjamin F. Needell, Marigay Mckee, Daniel L. Doctoroff, Stephen M. Ross, Deborah Winshel, Gale Brewer, Christina Miller, Christina Weiss Lurie, Dasha Zhukova, Lew Frankfort, Debbie August, Jonathan M. Tisch, Alex Poots, Darla Moore, Jed Walentas. At top: Colby Mugrabi, Harvey Spevak.

In the fundraising rat race of New York City nonprofits, a $550 million inaugural campaign has the potential to raise people’s hackles. It can be argued that every board member the Shed gains is one another arts organization loses. But Doctoroff insists this is something he went out of his way to avoid. “Most of the people involved were not traditional funders of cultural institutions,” he says. The board members at competing institutions don’t think it’s so simple. One, who asked not to be named, says, “The people aren’t interested in funding other projects now,” and some say that involvement with the Shed has led its board members to decline engagement elsewhere.

A board member of two other New York arts organizations asks who is on the Shed’s board, and when I’ve listed just five names interrupts me: “We’re done! There’s your $500 million. What is this, rocket science?” Doctoroff describes Shed donors as “people who see themselves as kind of disruptive,” like the institution’s programming, and refers to the nonprofit as “the first 21st-century cultural startup.” That view is what attracted board vice chair Jon Tisch, chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels. When Doctoroff pitched the idea to his friend in 2012, Tisch went home and told his wife Lizzie, “This is a project we need to be a part of.” They made their initial commitment within 24 hours. “The Shed, to us, represents the future of New York,” says Jon Tisch.

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The Shed, a new arts center opening April 5 in Manhattan, is as interesting outside as in. The $475 million building was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and the Rockwell group.

A recent arrival in New York, Dasha Zhukova was approached by von Furstenberg and Bloomberg about the Shed several years ago, but, she says, “the vision really solidified for me when Alex Poots came on board.” Zhukova, who founded the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, had her pick of the city’s cultural centers (a board member of one competing institution says her board “would have killed” to have Zhukova), but she was attracted to the Shed because of its multidisciplinary focus.

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“The program is experiential,” she explains, “which is something that people are craving these days.” Underscoring the Shed’s appeal, Zhukova notes the difference between working with the Shed and with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she’s also a board member. “Just as the building of the Shed is very nimble, the experience on the board feels a bit more nimble as well,” she says. “The Met has a huge board; it’s an encyclopedic museum, so it’s just a completely different process.”

"You won’t go to the Shed for Hudson Yards. You’ll go for the building and the programming."

Still, some wonder whether billionaire-backed cultural institutions like the Shed, or Barry Diller’s $250 million man-made island, Pier 55 (set to open in 2020), or Ronald Perelman’s anticipated performing arts center at the new World Trade Center, are needed in a city with so many already. A curator from one New York museum says he’s not alone in wondering why the city has put so much money into the Shed when there are so many ­institutions struggling to survive.

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Others wonder whether there’s enough attention to go around. When Renée Fleming, who will co-star in the Shed-commissioned Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a dramatic musical work exploring the lives of both Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe, is asked about cannibalism in fundraising, she says, “I worry more about cannibalizing audiences… The new, bright shiny thing is always attractive.” But Rebecca Robertson, founding president and executive producer of the Park Avenue Armory, dismisses such fears. “When we started we got the same criticisms,” she says, but she has never heard a complaint from another institution. “There’s talent, money, and audience to go around.”

Poots is sensitive to these concerns; he says that when he joined the Shed he met with most of New York’s cultural leaders. While many were, in his words, “rightly suspicious because there was no mission,” Poots found that lack of direction liberating. In fact, when he came on in 2015, construction had been underway for three years, but he made significant, expensive changes, nixing a planned restaurant to make room for a rehearsal space and studios for local artists. “I wanted the Shed to be part of the solution to the problem of gentrification,” he says, describing literary and dance programs for young people and a commissioning program for New York City artists that have not yet received major institutional support.

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Liz Diller, Frank H. McCourt Jr., Alex Poots, and David Rockwell.

Despite this kind of outreach, cynics gripe that the Shed is nothing more than an amenity for Hudson Yards. Indeed, when Related Companies took over the development, it was decided that the Shed would be built into 15 Hudson Yards, an 88-story high-rise with apartments listed for up to $32 million. Because the Shed would have to nest into the building, Doctoroff persuaded Diller Scofidio + Renfro to design the tower, a coup for Related, as the architects had not done residential developments in the past.

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Reached by e-mail, Related’s Stephen Ross sticks to the script, maintaining that “we have always believed in the significance and value that culture, design, and art bring to a city and a neighborhood.” Of course, it’s not ideal for the Shed that the other two cultural landmarks at Hudson Yards are the Snark Park, an Instagram-bait exhibition space from Snarkitecture, a design studio known for its installation, The Beach, a pit of plastic balls, and Thomas Heatherwick’s 150-foot-tall “Vessel,” a honeycomb staircase to nowhere nicknamed “The Social Climber” by Ross.

But Doctoroff insists, “We never, ever, viewed the Shed as a way to help ensure that Hudson Yards would be successful. It was rethinking an entirely new part of the city.” Poots is more realistic. “They won’t like me saying this,” he says, “but I imagine that the developers of Hudson Yards view the Shed as something they need to help make Hudson Yards more appetizing.”

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Thanks to a series of wheels six feet in diameter, the Bloomberg building will be able to expand on command.

Still, you won’t go to the Shed for Hudson Yards. You’ll go for the building and the programming. Only the first half of the inaugural season has been announced, but it features a robust roster of cultural leaders interacting with one another in unprecedented ways. The opening program will be Soundtrack of America, a musical series conceived and directed by Steve McQueen, with Quincy Jones as chief music adviser, and such works as Dragon Spring, Phoenix Rise, a kung-fu musical with remixed songs by Sia, and Reich Richter Pärt, a pairing of pieces by composers Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt with artwork by Gerhard Richter. All of the Shed’s programming will be commissioned, with space reserved for private events (Danny Meyer will provide catering), such as New York Fashion Week.

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On our way down, Poots peeks through every doorway, even the ones he knows he’s not yet allowed through. In the theater he sees a newly painted ceiling—not the most thrilling aspect of the Shed’s construction—and earnestly says, “My god, look at that. So exciting!”

Another level down, a trio of construction workers are loading wood into a dumpster. He greets them eagerly, like a mathlete wanting to be friends with the football team: “Hey guys! How’s it going?” His zeal is contagious and confirms the belief of many that in an undertaking once deemed “perhaps the most soulless large project in New York’s history” by art critic Jerry Saltz, it is Poots who gives it soul.

“The Shed, to us, represents the future of New York."

A few days after my tour, Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of London’s Serpentine Galleries and the Shed’s senior program adviser, has come directly from the airport to the Shed’s temporary office, luggage in tow. Sitting in Poots’s office, the two men recall their collaborations over the past decade.

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“We were always saying how amazing it would be if there were an institution where we could do that every day,” Obrist says. “It’s not only that it didn’t exist in New York, it didn’t exist in the world.” With the opening of the Shed, that will change. “I think it’s complementary in a city where you have all these different art museums, opera houses, and theater venues,” Obrist says, flashing his hands like a magician. “And then all of a sudden you have one institution that mixes these things. And it’s great that it starts here.”

This story appears in the April 2019 issue of Town & Country.

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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