The US$500m arts institution New York didn’t know it needed

How the Shed plans to compete in a city already packed with cultural icons


The building will be encased in a glass shell, which which can telescope to enclose an outdoor plaza

In 2014, Alex Poots was asked to interview to be the director of the Shed. “Many of us were asked to apply,” he says. “I kept saying, ‘I can’t apply for this, because I don’t know what it is.’”

In Poots’s telling, the board of the Shed wasn’t quite sure either. They knew where the cultural organisation would live (Hudson Yards, on the far west side of Manhattan), and they knew who would design the building (Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Rockwell Group). They also knew it would be massive — with eight levels and almost 200,000 sq ft.

They were creating “something that was unlike anything else”, Poots says. “It was just, how would it be activated?” The other question was, why? New York has perhaps the world’s finest roster of performance venues. Was another necessary?

From a municipal standpoint, it was. The rail yards near Penn Station had been rezoned for the city’s 2012 bid to host the Summer Olympics. When that foundered, officials solicited plans for a mixed-use development of offices, apartments and retail. The only condition was that developers include space for a nonprofit cultural centre. It was, for a time, regarded as an empty stage.

“Given that this is a cultural organisation, are we really building an event space that can be rented out for private organisations?” asked New York architecture critic Justin Davidson in a 2013 radio interview. “That’s the thing I would hope would be guarded against.”

There are museum-quality exhibition spaces in the building

As Poots looked into it, though, he realised the building represented a unique opportunity to fill a niche in the city’s cultural scene. To create the Shed’s largest performance space — which will be able to seat 1,250 (or hold 3,000 standing) — a telescoping glass shell will roll out, enclosing a cavernous 17,000 sq ft space where a plaza had just been. There’s also 25,000 sq ft of column-free, museum-quality space.

“You have an opportunity to do something no one has done,” he says. The Shed’s ambiguity, then, was its strength: It wasn’t a purpose-built theatre or concert hall or exhibition space. It was all of those at once.

In November 2014, Poots was hired as its first director. (The chairman of the Shed’s board is Dan Doctoroff, the former CEO of Bloomberg LP. Michael Bloomberg has pledged US$75 million [RM301.94 million] to the project.)

With everything falling into place, there was still the question of how the complex would work. It’s one thing to say you have a unique venue — it’s another to take advantage of it.

Seven commissions have been announced, including a play by the classicist writer Anne Carson and a collaboration between painter Gerhard Richter and the composers Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. A live celebration of African American music will be produced by Quincy Jones and British filmmaker Steve McQueen.

“There are two audiences I’m interested in seeing,” Poots says. First are “the engagement seekers, who are very sophisticated and discerning”.

As Poots looked into it, though, he realised the building represented a unique opportunity to fill a niche in the city’s cultural scene (Pic: Bloomberg)

Second are those “who feel a propensity toward the arts, but pre-Shed wouldn’t think that something like this would be for them”. In other words, a Metropolitan Opera crowd and a Madison Square Garden crowd. “I’m constantly telling my team: ‘If I saw those two groups in an audience, I’d be like, I’m coming back.’”

His background should provide a blueprint. Poots ran a special events company in London for almost a decade and, at the time he was hired, was simultaneously artistic director of New York’s Park Avenue Armoury and director of the Manchester International Festival of art and performance.

In the Shed, he saw the solution to issues that had plagued him for years. “When I presented James Brown in the late 1990s in London, my biggest problem was that the Barbican Centre had fixed seating,” he says. “Everyone was up and wanted to dance, but they couldn’t.”

The Shed, in contrast, has a flexible plan: On Monday night he can put on a play, and on Tuesday a throng can bounce around to a work Poots commissioned from pop artist Sia.

That’s not just unique in his career, he says. It’s a rare opportunity for any arts manager in the world. The Shed has a hard opening date of spring 2019. Its building and first three years of programming are set to cost about US$550 million, US$462 million of which has already been raised. There’s a staff of 43, which Poots plans to double by the end of this year. That’s a lot of people and a lot of money.

Still, with a flood of other performance options of every size already in the city, standing out is a lofty but complex goal. “It’s one of those things like nirvana,” he says. “You’ll never get there, but you’re constantly trying.” — Bloomberg