It is exactly 47 days until the opening of The Shed and Emma Enderby, one of its lead curators, appears, on the face of it, at ease. And, if she isn’t, well, she’s doing a pretty good job of hiding it. Which is fairly remarkable given the project: a huge, civic-minded, pan-cultural multiplex that opens this month in downtown Manhattan. The Shed, according to the New York Times, and just about anyone else you ask, is one of “the most significant additions to New York City’s cultural landscape in decades”. Possibly since the opening of the Lincoln Center in 1962. Possibly ever. And it’s immense: set in the Hudson Yards development, a 28-acre area that stretches from Thirtieth to Thirty-Fourth Street and from Tenth Avenue to the Hudson River, the eight-storey, 18,580m2 space has cost $550m and includes 2,300m2 of galleries as well as a performance space for up to 2,000 people.
It’s not just the structural heft that’s so awesome but the scope of its programming. The Shed, says CEO-director Alex Poots, will be what no institution has managed to be before: a cross-discipline hub that will bring parity among all art forms; a new capital of experimental culture in arguably the world’s capital of culture, already generously served with arts institutions.
So, no pressure, then. “It’s certainly been a challenge,” says Enderby, demurely, with stolid British measure (originally from the UK, she joined The Shed via the New York Public Art Fund in 2017). All the more so, as it’s been built from the ground up, more or less from scratch, in only a few years. “What’s different here, I suppose, is that usually an institution like, say, MoMA or the New Museum, they grow over years, slowly, out of a collection of people, or artists, or patrons. But with The Shed, we’ve skipped that growing phase; we’re going straight out as an adult.”
She says there’s a quasi-official analogy that, in the past year, has been doing the rounds among the project’s now 100-plus staff: “It’s like we’re building the plane as we fly it. Which, I think, perfectly sums up what it’s like to be part of The Shed.”
Still, while programming has been developed fairly quickly, the idea for the building itself was born in the mid-1990s. The plan was to rebuild the site of Hudson Yards in West Manhattan to make way for a stadium for New York’s 2012 Olympic bid. When the bid failed, the city decided to re-zone the area as a “mixed-used development” (think: offices, retail and pricey apartments) with, according to Bloomberg, one condition: it would include a non-profit arts centre. So began the idea for what was called, in 2008, The Culture Shed.
Still, back then, no one knew exactly what it would be. What they did know is who would build it: New York architecture practice Diller Scofidio + Renfro, designers of landscaped walkway the High Line (the inspiration for similar projects in Seoul and Singapore); and the Rockwell Group, who, among other things, create large-scale Broadway theatre sets. With construction starting in 2005, the architecture, it soon transpired, was not going to be upstaged by the art inside. Weighing 3,600 metric tonnes, the structure’s centrepiece is a “telescoping”, polymer-covered steel-frame shell that rolls back on four six-foot “bogeys” (essentially, wheels) to reveal an 1,580m2 outdoor performance space known as The McCourt (named after sports billionaire Frank H McCourt, who donated $45m to the project). It takes around five minutes to open, but despite its scale uses around the same amount of horsepower as a Toyota Prius. Anticipating the opening back in 2016, the New Yorker described The Shed as maybe the city’s “first example of performative architecture”.
But, while the building was under way, the essence of the space itself − what it would actually be, or do − remained sketchy. Until, that is, Alex Poots was hired as artistic director in 2014. By no means a household name, Poots, once a professional trumpet player, already had serious form as an arts impresario. In New York he was artistic director of Park Avenue Armoury; in the UK, his big coup was as founder of Manchester International Festival (MIF) (4–21 July), a biennale of newly commissioned works. Here he began to garner a reputation as something of a cross-discipline arts alchemist. One of his first MIF commissions was the 2007 modern reboot of the ancient Chinese tale Monkey: Journey to the West, a collaboration between theatre director Cheng Shi-Zheng and pop star Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz).
“He’s a visionary,” says Enderby. “He’s very good at putting artists together who may not be familiar with each other’s fields, and finding the right chemistry to develop a successful project − not just for the people working on it, but the people coming to see it.” He’s also known as a boundary- pusher: in 2014, a radical re-staging of Macbeth at Park Avenue Armoury included a “mud, blood and water” zone where the audience were sprayed with effluent. “Thrilling,” said the New York Times.
“And, you know, sometimes they don’t work; because they don’t have the right energy, or there’s no connection,” Enderbv continues. “But he’s very good at knowing where the jewel is.”
That instinct to nurture, as well as a strong sense of experimentalism, is the bedrock of The Shed’s programming, says Poots.“We’re bringing bits of theatre, bits from the visual art world, and then the more experimental or adventurous end of pop – we take strands from all three and wire them into The Shed.”
Ultimately, the board is interested in risk-taking. “The question is: how do you not just create an arts centre that is like all the other arts centres?” Poots continues. “So we have taken some of the format of the festival, some of an arts centre, some of a museum and some of a pop venue, and created a space that can accommodate the lot.”
Sure enough, The Shed’s measured, artistic mish-mashery is evident from the get-go: opening the programme, Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) teams up with jazz grandee Quincy Jones to create Soundtrack to America (5–14 April), a five-night concert series of the roots of African-American music; Reich Richter Pärt (6 April – 2 June) is a collaboration between painter Gerhard Richter and composer Steve Reich.
Still, for all the opening razzle-dazzle, Enderby and Poots both stress that The Shed is not just about big-name blockbusters; neither would have signed up for the project were it not for the fact that the institution was a non-profit. It’s the only part of Hudson Yards on city land and Poots sees The Shed as very much about giving the neighbourhood some edge: “If it was just some millionaire’s paradise,” he said in 2018, “it would be terrible.”
So, it’s by no means just a fun palace for monied Manhattanites. “We want a space that works for all five boroughs,” says Enderby. Which, among other things, means many events are free and those that are ticketed are probably not as spendy as they might be. It also means a properly structured investment in the local arts scene.
To that end, Enderby and chief civic programme officer Tamara McCaw developed Open Call, the centrepiece initiative of The Shed’s civic-mindedness that offers grants of up to $15,000 to emerging New York-based artists to produce new work. Of the 900 or so artists who applied for the opening season, 52 were chosen. From the visual arts side, that includes Nigerian activist-sculptor Onyedika Chuka, who will make a kind of large “protest fountain”, and Harlem sculptor Hugh Hayden, who will create a piece from salvaged Christmas trees. “Oh, and there’s the Illustrious Blacks,” says Enderby. “This incredible duo from Brooklyn who do a show that’s this kaleidoscopic, amazing extravaganza between music, art and fashion.”
Either way, this summer, Enderby will curate all the visual arts shows. She will also be looking for the next wave of artists for 2020. In a city as unforgiving as New York, surely that’s a pretty tough gig? “Yes, there are certainly a lot of critical voices here,” she says with British reserve. “But, then, I think it’s the same with any big city.”
So how does she cope? “The team are really supportive. You know, Alex doesn’t put himself on some pedestal, he’s very much in the trenches with us.” Other than that? “Yoga,” she laughs, finally cracking. “And jogging. And then a bit more yoga.”
The Shed opens on Friday 5 April