I n 2014, New York’s braver theatre-goers jostled to get seats for Macbeth in what its designer called “the blood, mud and water zone”. It was a visceral experience, splattering the audience with effluents from the actors and stage machinery. The New York Times praised it as “thrilling”, transforming “the Park Avenue Armory into a war zone”.
That Macbeth was the reason that Alex Poots, then artistic director at Park Avenue Armory, was chosen to be the first director of The Shed. The Shed is a $455m arts centre located on Manhattan’s west side, where the High Line meets the huge Hudson Yards real estate development. Eight storeys high, the Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed shell is moveable, running along rails to reveal an outdoor plaza. From a high-tech space, The Shed is a cutting-edge, contemporary commissioning organisation.
The Shed recently announced its opening program of shows and events, offering a must-see array of works commissioned from some of the most renowned and highly regarded artists in their fields. Turner Prize-winning artist and Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen opens The Shed with Soundtrack of America, his five-night celebration of the "unrivaled impact of African American music on contemporary culture." Beloved poet and classicist Anne Carson brings a typically iconoclastic and path-breaking performance piece to The Shed with Norma Jean Baker of Troy, a dramatic work starring Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming, which melds the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Helen of Troy. A trio of legendary artists - Arvo Part, Gerhard Richter and Steve Reich - have collaborated on two immersive live experiences, collectively titled Reich Richter Pärt. These remarkable commissions clearly establish the radical, progressive and multidisciplinary vision which Poots has established for The Shed and which should lead it toward a tremendously bright, exciting and influential future.
SMN: How did your career develop? You started in music, so how did you end up working across art forms, particularly in performance and visual art?
AP: It happened in stages. I studied classical trumpet but I also played jazz and pop. In the mid-1990s, I started running my own contemporary music festival in Edinburgh. From that, Graham Sheffield [then artistic director of the Barbican Centre in London] asked me to join him: I got my first big break staging the UK premiere of the opera Nixon in China. In 2001, Nick Serota [then director of Tate] asked me to create a series called Tate Live, working with people like Steve McQueen, Wolfgang Tillmans, Arvo Pärt and Jessye Norman. It was my first foray into visual art. I got three amazing years of masterclasses from Nick and his team.
SMN: What are the challenges of doing cross-art forms in an institution?
AP: I’ve always fought against silos. The conversations I have had with artists have always been more holistic than those I have had with organisations. When Philippe Parreno came up with the idea of Il Tempo del Postino, he went to the great Gerard Mortier – one of my heroes, the Diaghilev of his day – and not even Gerard could see the Paris Opera House, which he then ran, putting 15 visual artists making time-based work on his stage. It needs visionary leaders like Nick Serota [then] at Tate, or John Tusa and Graham [then] at the Barbican. They needed to buck the trend: they used to say, "Alex, you need to put on shows that are so attractive that it will force the public to come to the venue they hate most in London."
SMN: You’ve talked about The Shed as “a 21st-century institution” and there will be some talks on this theme during the Prelude event. What’s so special about The Shed?
AP: New York set up The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 19th century, a brilliant copy of what existed in Europe. Then, in the 1920s, New York invented the first contemporary museum, The Museum of Modern Art. It’s no coincidence that this anticipates New York becoming the cultural capital of the world. Nowadays, there are a number of cities investing a lot in culture, and New York is one of them. But it can’t rest on its laurels, it has to keep reinventing itself.
The Shed was the first place that came along that can do pretty much all of the performing arts. It can do pop and the visual arts. We can park the building and do outdoor work, which is very good for audiences – people can bump into things. We are the only part of the Hudson Yards that is on city land. We are a not-for-profit in this dizzying, skyscrapery development that’s being built. The more different, the more adventurous, the more risk-taking we can be, the better this neighbourhood is. If it’s just some bland millionaire’s paradise, it would be terrible.
SMN: How did you persuade the trustees to back your vision for the institution? Doing what you are doing comes with significant financial implications?
AP: I was approached a number of times to apply for The Shed, and just kept dodging, saying thanks but I’m happy where I am. It was getting awkward, so eventually I said: “Why doesn’t Dan [Doctoroff] come and see one of my shows [Macbeth at the Armory]?” And when he’d seen it and loved it, I said: “Look, this show cost $4m to make, the box-office is $3.1m. Do you see the $900,000 as an investment in the arts, in culture and society, or it is a loss? Because if it’s a loss then I’m not your man. I believe deeply in investing in arts and culture, it’s a civilising force in society.” So he said: “OK, you’ve convinced me but will you help me take the board on that journey?”
SMN: Given the high-tech nature of the building, you clearly embrace technology?
AP: We even have a chief science and technology officer, Kevin Slavin, a former professor at MIT Media Lab. He’s doing brilliant work, not only with the building and how we communicate, but helping visual artists develop ideas for their shows. There are some who don’t want it, which is fine, we are very unprescriptive. It’s not just about a high-tech building, it’s about handling a lot of different types of art and production.
SMN: How do you think about the audience and do you ever worry if they will come?
AP: The huge benefit of working across art forms is that you are not talking to the same audience all year round. We are doing performing arts, visual art and popular culture. As long as the different audiences know we are here, and have a moment to look at what we are doing, and if what we are doing is of quality or interest, I believe people are very generous with their interests and their energy.
Tree of Codes is an example. I felt that people would come to see members of the Paris Opera Ballet, with a new set by Olafur Eliasson, music by Jamie xx of The xx and choreography by Wayne McGregor. But we always do due diligence, so we checked with Lincoln Center on the sort of thing they would expect of a contemporary ballet. They said: “Well, maybe four or five nights at the Joyce,” which is about 2,000 to 2,500 people. But I just had to believe that there’s as much depth in the New York audience as there is in London. And 10,000 came. There’s an audience out there that is open to new things, but there needs be some recognition, they need to have a window to look into, to turn their gaze a bit.
The Shed opens April 5, 2019.