Welcome to The Shed, New York’s $475m Arts CentreThe film maker Steve McQueen stands in the centre of an immense, draughty plaza, swinging his arms in time to the blast of brass and drums from the brightly clothed marching band that wheels past him. It’s pouring with rain outside, and plans for a morning rehearsal have been shelved in favour of this afternoon run-through. The opening night for New York’s $475m arts centre, the Shed, is just four hours away.
Its artistic director and chief executive, Alex Poots, could be forgiven for tearing his hair out. Instead he’s standing on a hastily constructed plywood platform, grinning delightedly.
“I always wondered why people didn’t open a building with their planned programme of productions and events,” he says. “Now I know.”
Yet he insists he wouldn’t change a thing — and is thriving on the pressure. Which is lucky, because the unveiling of this new arts space, and the ambition of the artistic undertaking he has planned, have become entangled in the controversy surrounding its setting: the $25bn Hudson Yards, a retail and residential development on Manhattan’s West Side, the most expensive real-estate project in US history. It’s seen as a symbol of the divide between the haves and the have-nots in modern America.
In this context, the Shed, peeping out from a residential high-rise like the foot from a boot, seems like either a good deed in a dirty world or a futile gesture of culture and inclusiveness that is as pointless as draping a grand piano with a tablecloth to hide the shape beneath.
Poots, 51, whose previous job was running the Manchester International Festival, is robust about the criticisms.
“Everyone should get over it,” he says with some force. “We live in an unregulated capitalist system, and whether it is up close like this or you put a bit of distance between it, that is the system. Ultimately I am a positive person, so I am trying to make the best out of the situation I am in. Here is a group of successful men and women who bought the idea that this place could do something useful. Great. Bring it on.”
From a UK perspective, this is the fascinating quality of the Shed. It has been brought into being in its current form by the collision of the Scottish-born Poots’s cultural idealism — “I am a Ruskin man through and through. Art shows us what it is to be civilised” — and the sense of civic responsibility of some billionaires who have decided that investing in an institution whose ambition is to be diverse and inclusive is a good thing. Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, set the ball rolling with a $75m public appropriation from the city just before he left office; he then matched that with a further $75m from his foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The US has a culture of this big-ticket philanthropy, fuelled by its tax rules, which class donations to non-profit organisations as deductibles. As Nicholas Serota, chairman of Arts Council England, notes, giving tends to run in families, and expectations are high. “There is a lot more peer pressure in America,” he says. “If you want to succeed in New York and are known to have money, you have to be known to be a giver. The British tend to offer the place on the board, then ask for money. The Americans ask for money right up front. It’s just understood.”
The billionaire Frank McCourt Jr, former owner of the LA Dodgers, says he feels honoured that the Shed’s hall bears his name, but insists that wasn’t the reason he donated $45m. “What I hope people absorb is that this is an act of civic imagination,” he says. “If we can create a place where this kind of thinking, openness, intellectual activity and artistic expression are welcome, that could be contagious. I like to think of it more as investing than giving, more about impact than philanthropy.”
The donors have also signed up to provide a commissioning fund of about $50m over three years, and a programme of positive action that includes a promise to make 10% of the seats at every paid-for event available at $10 for families on low incomes.
This raises the possibility of your local millionaire sitting next to someone who lives in social housing. That, says the board chairman, Dan Doctoroff, with the silky politician’s skills of the deputy NY mayor he once was, is the whole point. “A big part of why people wanted to participate in this was that this institution says something important about society and what society can be. People love the mission of this being truly inclusive, particularly given the politics of the world today, given the increased lack of access that people without means have. It was the ability to play a role in creating something new and a little bit disruptive that ultimately got people interested.”
It’s easy to be cynical about this, but Doctoroff and the board give every impression of sincerity. At the launch, Poots’s own disruptive qualities were much underlined, and Manchester, unusually, was often mentioned. But perhaps there is something about the creation of the Shed that is reminiscent of the pride in a city and the belief in the power of cultural transformation that built Manchester in the 19th century and is reviving it today.
In the same way, once you look past the architectural statement of its unfolding cushioned shell, the Shed is actually a fairly functional building, its large, plain spaces, concrete floors and heavy escalators reminiscent of arts centres from Birmingham to Milan. It is more flexible than most, but not more glamorous. This, too, is deliberate, according to its lead architect, Liz Diller. “It’s a toolkit for artists,” she says.
The artists are responding. The Shed opened with Soundtrack of America, five nights of concerts devised by McQueen and the music producer Quincy Jones that chart the history of African-American music by asking today’s emerging artists to explore their roots. The first night captured the celebratory mood; the run sold out.
In the Griffin Theatre (named for Kenneth C Griffin, who contributed $25m), there’s Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a shimmeringly lovely collaboration between the voices of the poet Anne Carson, the soprano Renée Fleming and the actor Ben Whishaw. It approaches impenetrability, but is so atmospherically beautiful that it doesn’t matter. Downstairs, the artist Trisha Donnelly puts paid to any notion that the Shed will be timid in its commentary on the society around it with a devastating display of felled trees, their wounds half wrapped in scraps of foamy bandage.
In another gallery, Steve Reich has responded to the art of Gerhard Richter with a wonderfully lively yet melancholy new composition, while a choir in the second gallery sing the music of Arvo Pärt, surrounded by new Richter paintings as serene as stained-glass windows.
That’s a good hit rate for a first raft of commissions, and by last weekend, when the public were beginning to take over, the Shed was looking like the kind of place Poots has dreamt of, full of ordinary New Yorkers as well as tourists, weighing up what was on offer.
Its most valuable work, perhaps, is currently its most invisible. For three years, Tamara McCaw, chief civic programme officer, and her team have been running art, dance and poetry events that aim to engage a wider community in the possibilities of a creative life. “The people we’ve been working with have a different entry point,” she says. “They know the Shed as a free arts programme rooted in social justice that features artists from their neighbourhoods. They get to create and dream together. To me, that is what is different. What happens in communities is as important as what happens here.”
These programmes have been tailored to the needs of the participants. When the city colleges with an intake that is 80% people of colour and an average family income of $20,000 pointed out that even a $10 entry fee for the Shed’s Open Call programme was a disincentive to some young artists, the fee was waived. Those students are also eligible for free entry to events.
It’s that commitment to extend its audience and counter the “billionaires’ playground” tag that attaches to its surroundings that makes the Shed’s mission unique.
“It is unusual,” Poots says. “But I said, why don’t we do something generous? Why don’t we change the energy flow into a generous flow? You can actually do that. You just need to say yes. These men and women did.”