Along New York's High Line, a $500 million effort to bring the arts to everyone

 
April 22, 2019
The arts are for everybody; the arts are elite. The arts are hard to define, because as soon as you call them "the arts" they become associated with ideas of wealth and class, and the institutions that propagate them tend to dictate a certain way of interacting with them. Now, "the arts" -- a lot of different kinds of arts -- have yet another new home, in New York, a city permeated with various modes of "art-ness." "It never ceases to amaze me how New York seems to accommodate more; there's always more," says Jane Moss, the artistic director of Lincoln Center. "We just seem to be able to absorb it."

The Shed, as it's called, officially opened April 5 as part of Hudson Yards, a mega-development built on a platform above a Long Island Rail Road storage site west of Penn Station. From a distance, it looks like a giant silver train car backed into the side of an adjacent high-rise. The Shed -- whose outer skin can actually move back and forth on a set of 24-ton wheels, creating an enclosed performance space or an open plaza -- wants to reach beyond convention and definition to present new art of all varieties. It plans to offer pop music and classical music and theater and visual arts, all mingling on an equal footing, with free and low-priced tickets interleaved among the $150 ones. The idea is to bring the arts to everyone -- or bring everyone to the arts, which may not be quite the same thing. At a cost of more than $500 million, it wants to represent artistic democracy in action.

I head to New York for a tour of the Shed in late March. Detractors say that the site is not close to major subway lines, although there's a new stop nearby for the 7 train, and it's only about 11 minutes on foot from Penn Station. Pedestrians must zigzag to find open sidewalks past all the construction sites, through streets illuminated only by the reflected light from newly erected skyscrapers. Hudson Yards is an unmistakable destination, bristling with mirrored residential towers, a multilevel high-end shopping mall and, at its center, a ghastly $200 million edifice called the Vessel. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick, the 16-story structure looks like a copper-colored perfume bottle as conceived by the sculptor Jeff Koons. It consists entirely of open staircases and landings. Anyone can ascend to the top of this temple to wealth, as long as they're willing to make the climb.

Will people come? critics have been asking about the new complex for months. They're coming already. Wind-whipped tourists make their way around the traffic cones on West 30th Street, stopping to peer through the closed doors of Mercado Little Spain, José Andrés's new mega-restaurant venture, which began its rollout in March. They sit in the cold sun in front of the Neiman Marcus sign and stream along the High Line, the disused elevated rail line turned wildly successful urban park that now leads right to the Shed. All the signifiers are anything but democratic. Yet it's still New York. The sidewalks are dirty. There are hot dog carts parked along 11th Avenue and a sense of underlying grit. It remains to be seen what happens when all the construction cranes drive off, some of that grit blows away and all these shiny surfaces are left to come into their own.

An arts center was always part of the plans for Hudson Yards,
even when the development was no more than a twinkle in then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg's eye. The Shed, all 200,000 square feet of it, occupies the site that the city earmarked for that purpose. The architects began to design the building before anyone was sure what exactly was going to go into it.

"There was no client; we were the clients," says Elizabeth Diller, a founding partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the lead architects on the project, who also designed the High Line. For this project they worked with the Rockwell Group, another gold-chip, cutting-edge firm that focuses on both buildings and what happens inside them. (Diller Scofidio + Renfro have collaborated on projects like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Heavenly Bodies" costume show and "The Mile-Long Opera" along the High Line; David Rockwell, the Rockwell Group's founder, has won a Tony Award for his set design.)

The Shed embraces plenty of buzzwords of 21st-century art and design: flexibility, versatility, inclusivity. There are four floors of exhibition and performance space in a fixed, glass-walled portion of the building, the back of which makes use of the footprint of 15 Hudson Yards, an adjacent residential tower designed by the same architects. (That's the high-rise that the Shed's "train car" backs into.) Around the whole building is a skin that looks solid and silvery from the outside, but from within turns out to be a patchwork of translucent pillowy shields, supported by a frame of giant steel trusses manufactured in Italy. In a mere five minutes, using only the horsepower of your average Prius, the whole outer shell, trusses and all, can roll out to create a huge antechamber for the biggest performances, or roll back to free up a plaza in front of the building, which is emblazoned with the Shed's first commission, a piece called "In Front of Itself." Created by the artist Lawrence Weiner, it consists simply of the titular phrase set into the paving stones in 12-foot letters.

"It's architecture as infrastructure," says Diller, looking down into the antechamber from an upper floor with the relish of someone who likes what she's come up with, both object and description. "What it is is what it does."

As for what the Shed itself will do: Alex Poots, the energetic Scottish-born artistic director and chief executive, has filled the first year with new work by emerging and big-name artists, a lineup that sounds like a Page Six mash-up of many arts worlds: the musicians Bjork, Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt; the visual artists Gerhard Richter, Trisha Donnelly and Agnes Denes; the poet Anne Carson; and the film director Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave"). McQueen, together with Quincy Jones and a team of producers, scholars and artists, masterminded the five-night sequence of opening events, "Soundtrack of America," exploring the evolution of black music across the country, with 25 up-and-coming artists (OSHUN, Terrace Martin, Kelsey Lu, to name a few), each offering their own branch of a giant family tree of what Poots calls the most important music of this nation.

"I wanted to hear some sort of narrative of African American music," said McQueen, speaking by phone from England at the end of March. "If [African American] music was invented in Europe, it would be a Taj Mahal; people would be desperate to know where it came from. But when it came to knowing the origins of this music [in the U.S.]," little was known. Of the Shed, McQueen said: "I hope it will continue to be a place for ideas, fluid, rather than stagnant things that catch dust."

It was Poots who crystallized the Shed's function when he arrived in 2014. Now 52, the energetic impresario has spent his career bringing together art and artists and finding the right places and ways to present the combinations. Trained in classical music (trumpet and composition), Poots after university almost immediately embarked on a career of helping new work find its proper home in various British venues, from the Barbican to Channel 4.

In 2007, he founded his own mixed-genre playground, the biennial Manchester International Festival, where he commissioned everything from Bjork ("Biophilia") to Bach performances with a set by Zaha Hadid. In 2012, he added the artistic directorship of New York's Park Avenue Armory to his portfolio; highlights included "Macbeth" with Kenneth Branagh and"Goldberg," in which the pianist Igor Levit played Bach's Goldberg Variations while the artist Marina Abramovic had his piano slowly rotate before the silent spectators. Coming to the Shed meant moving to New York full time, uprooting Poots's wife, Kathryn Spellman Poots, a tenured sociology professor, and their two children, now 7 and 11.

Poots immediately made tweaks to the Shed's initial concept. The building had to be soundproofed so that multiple performances could take place at the same time. There had to be parity between all the arts. And everything it presented had to be new. The Shed has many features and artists in common with the international festival circuit, but everything it presents is a new commission -- from the musical "Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise," written by the creators of the Kung Fu Panda movies, to a production involving the form of street dance known as flexn, the vehicle for a program the Shed has already initiated in New York City schools, calling it "a citywide residency in dance activism." Adding the commissioning component, Poots says, "changes the energy flow from taking to giving."

"We're not about event culture, which has its own problems, because it wears thin after a while," he explains. "It's about human artistic invention. ...  The starting point is identifying a wide range of talented artists who are trying to make work. The question is not about being different, it's, 'Is this somewhere where artists from all walks of life, if they have a really good idea, can we help them make it real?' "

In the weeks leading up to the Shed's opening, Poots's own energy flow was clearly directed outward as he juggled rehearsals and last-minute building details, overseeing a space in which curators were hanging art in galleries still filled with construction crews. Poots also had to raise another $29 million to make it to the projected $550 million needed for the first season -- though he still couldn't pin down his annual operating budget.

"We don't know how many people are going to come. We don't have a set capacity," he said. "We think we know what it's going to cost to install our shows, but we only found out eight days ago what the rate would be," referring to the fact the contracts with the stagehands unions were not negotiated until March. Furthermore, he pointed out, "If our $10 takeup of tickets is successful, we will have willfully reduced box-office income." All of these uncertainties, he said, could amount to a variable of as much as $3 million to $5 million.

In the arts, as in media, the biggest successes often come to those people or organizations who, rather than breaking new ground, are finding ways to amplify or reformulate ideas already resonating loudly in the world. By this measure, the Shed is poised to be a big hit. Across the country, arts organizations are talking about diversity and collaboration and breaking down the divisions between genres; about working with artists to develop their ideas rather than fitting them into a preexisting framework; about finding new spaces for the art of the 21st century, and new ways to get audiences to come to the performances. The Shed offers a visible focal point, and testing ground, for all this rhetoric.

It may even be in the vanguard of new spaces. This fall, the Kennedy Center will open the Reach, a state-of-the-art, $175 million extension to the mausoleum-like 1971 building. The Reach is a network of flexible spaces and studios that can be used for performance or rehearsal or education, all with audience involvement.

"It's much easier to build a new concert hall," says Deborah Rutter, the Kennedy Center's president, speaking by phone shortly after seeing the Shed for the first time. "Difficult as it is, you know what you're trying to do in the space. We're creating spaces with an idea of what might happen." Outlining the mandate of the Reach, she unknowingly echoes Poots's sentiments when she says, "We're trying to create a place where artists can come work, not just display the finished polished product."

"It's riskier," she notes, "but now that we have a couple of [these spaces], I think there might be more of that."

Lincoln Center's Moss, who for years has placed productions both on the main campus and in other spaces around the city, anticipates that the Shed's program will be "complementary" to Lincoln Center, rather than in direct competition, although the first North American appearance of maverick Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis with his orchestra at the Shed in November will be a hot ticket in the world of the "arts" that Lincoln Center tends to represent.

"An overall shift that a lot of us have seen -- I call it going from people buying a ticket to a performance to buying a ticket for an experience," Moss says, speaking by phone from her office in New York. "Any venue that gives you flexibility helps immeasurably on the experience side -- assuming it's an appropriate space. It will be interesting for the Shed, because obviously that space will dictate a certain kind of work too." Adds Moss, who had not yet seen the Shed: "We all want to see him succeed."

The question is how you define success in such an expensive showpiece. Poots, fortunately, is sensitive to the question. "If we sell a bunch of high-priced tickets to a bunch of rich people, is that good?" he asks. "And if we do free concerts, we lower our box office -- to some people, a negative."

Poots has other metrics in mind. He has hired a director of intersectional marketing to go out into the city's neighborhoods and get tickets into the hands of prospective audience members who might not think to come down to Hudson Yards and wait on line for free tickets -- who might not even think, he says, that a performing arts complex is for them. Or who might, one could extrapolate, be attracted to the institution's folksy name, rather than its gleaming and expensive reality.

"Success for us," he says, "will be in the range of audience that we have interested, rather than the quantity. If we have a more intersectional audience, that's interesting." However many millions it may cost to get it.

The Washington PostBy Anne Midgette