The Shed Opens with an Inclusive Mission in an Exclusive Part of New York

 
April 4, 2019
Walking west from Penn Station, dodging potholes on the bumpy streets of Hell's Kitchen, the glassy high-rise buildings of Manhattan's Hudson Yards appear like a hallucination over low-hanging storefronts and crumbling brick buildings. The freshly minted neighborhood's sleek new arts nonprofit, The Shed, fits in well with its dazzling surroundings: luxury condos and high-end retail stores. But on the inside, The Shed looks deliberately unfinished and feels more experimental. It seems to be defining itself in contrast to the posh aesthetics of Hudson Yards, which has been called "New York's most hated new development" and termed an "ultra-capitalist Forbidden City" targeted at the 0.1 percent.

"We are trying to create a place... where all artists and all audiences can meet, a place that goes beyond binaries of art and sacred, or East and West, public or private, woman and man," explained Alex Poots, artistic director and CEO of The Shed, at a press preview on Wednesday. "The Shed is a place for artistic invention [and] that happens in all walks of life. It's not just in the so-called 'high arts.'" Liz Diller, lead architect for the project, echoed the sentiment, calling The Shed an "anti-institutional institution."

The Shed is already cutting across art forms with its multidisciplinary inaugural exhibitions and performances. The space will stage its first ticketed performance on Friday: Soundtrack of America, a five-night homage to African-American music directed by Steve McQueen. Two other performances begin on Saturday: Reich Richter Pärt, a multisensory collaboration between painter Gerhard Richter, minimalist musician Steve Reich, and composer Arvo Pärt; and Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a reimagining of Euripides's Helen, written by poet Anne Carson. And the first art exhibition, a solo show of work by conceptual artist Trisha Donnelly, will also open on Saturday. A floor-based text piece by Lawrence Weiner is the only permanent installation at The Shed; it reads "In front of itself" in the artist's signature capital letters.

Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in collaboration with Rockwell Group, the building -- a structure with a sliding shell that can be deployed to form an indoor performance space, thereby doubling its footprint -- feels as fluid as the multidisciplinary productions it will house. When expanded, the sprawling indoor performance area called The McCourt (after Frank H. McCourt Jr. and his family, who donated $45 million to The Shed) is framed by exposed support beams on three sides and the glass facade of the stable building. The boundaries between indoor and outdoor, stage and audience, are deliberately vague. On the chilly morning of the preview, cool outdoor air spilled into the space, and sunlight shone in through the white frame of the outer shell. It feels quite literally -- and perhaps intentionally -- like a supersized shed. Dan Doctoroff, chairman of The Shed's board of directors, reminded us that the definition of a shed is "an open-ended space with tools." And in this case, the tools are for artists.

A $500-million, city-sponsored project built on public land, The Shed boasts 25,000 square feet of column-less gallery space and a black-box theater that can be divided into two smaller theaters, among other features. Built for everything from concerts and theatre performances to gallery-like exhibitions and large-scale installations, The Shed is truly modern -- Bauhausian, even. It has a form that follows any function.

In this regard, The Shed stands in stark contrast to its neighbor, the Vessel, less kindly referred to as the "Wastebasket" and likened to a beehive. A labyrinthine network of staircases that lead to nowhere, the Vessel has been criticized as a wasteful vanity project.

The opening of The Shed comes at a particularly tense moment for Hudson Yards, the largest private real-estate venture in American history. New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman recently decried Hudson Yards -- and leader of the project, Stephen M. Ross -- for failing to integrate the new neighborhood into the city grid and showing little consideration for urban design. And after Amazon withdrew its plans to build a new headquarters in Queens, collective ire was redirected toward the West Side development, which, it turns out, received much greater tax breaks and government incentives than the tech giant would have received.

And while The Shed may be successfully blurring the lines between different disciplines of art, transcending the class disparities that the high-end real-estate behemoth has been accused of exacerbating will likely prove more difficult.

The Shed has placed public programming and education at the center of its mission. Tamara McCaw, chief civic program officer, remembered being drawn to The Shed by Poots's mission: "Alex said, 'We are not interested in doing sort of arts education or community stuff down the hall. We really want to center that work and center it into our mission and commissioning.'" And there are plans to make underrepresented groups center stage.

To highlight emerging artists, The Shed has Open Call, an initiative that invites 52 New York–based artists to showcase their work in the space. The Shed has also already partnered with around 20 schools across New York for educational initiatives, such as a poetry program called DIS OBEY and FlexNYC dance classes -- the latter of which will culminate in a performance at The Shed.

Working with government partners, NYCHA, and tenant residents, the team is also working to make the space more accessible. They will reserve up to 10 percent of the seats of every live performance for low-income New Yorkers, and they plan to keep parts of the building free and unticketed to allow the public to explore; additionally, exhibition tickets will be free for CUNY students and anyone under 18. (Tickets to exhibitions are $10 for everyone else, and the cost of performances varies.)

As a cultural institution aiming for inclusivity and striving for accessibility, The Shed has the potential to be a shining light in Hudson Yards. For one, it places an emphasis on music -- a much more ubiquitous part of everyday life than other art forms -- and it already has boldface names involved, like Quincy Jones and Björk (whose theatrical piece Cornucopia will be presented from May 6th to June 1st).

It's also opening at a fortuitous moment, as some of the city's major institutions that show contemporary art are in flux: MoMA's forthcoming expansion will leave it closed for summer 2019; the Met is renovating its modern and contemporary wing and will halt exhibitions at the Breuer building in 2020; and the Studio Museum in Harlem is running its program itinerantly (including in partnership with MoMA) as its new David Adjaye–designed building is being constructed.

David Rockwell, the architect who partnered with Diller on the project, described moving to New York over 40 years ago. "The New York I fell in love with was not the more typical architectural fantasy of a vertical city, but it was the real messiness and the vitality of the ground floor," he said. Will The Shed manage to create the former in a neighborhood that embodies the latter?

The Shed may have a promising strategy for linking Hudson Yards with the rest of Manhattan, but it is bound to face a number of challenges along the way. Despite its aims to subvert the institution, break binaries, and collapse high and low distinctions, the Neiman Marcus down the block, $15 salads around the corner, and work by one of the world's most expensive living painters on display in The Shed's gallery suggest that some economic and cultural disparities might prove immutable.

Artsy
By Kelsey Ables