Hold on to your hard hats: New York's $475m Shed throws open its doors

The escalators need fixing and there’s no bar – but the show must go on, as stars from Ben Whishaw to Steve McQueen open NYC’s first major new arts venue for decades

Ben Whishaw is on stage, stripped to his underwear. Prosthetic scars cover his shoulders and back. He puts a large pad over each buttock as he cross-dresses as Marilyn Monroe. Later, the soprano Renée Fleming warbles the line “They’re fracking the fuck out of the world!”, which raises a big laugh from the audience.

Others watching, however, seem less taken with Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a half-spoken, half-sung play written specially for Whishaw by the poet Anne Carson. The first person walks out of this preview performance about 30 minutes in; over the next hour around another 10 leave, the clomping of their shoes on an uncarpeted floor making them impossible to ignore. More storm to the exits at the end, ostentatiously not clapping, as Fleming and a surprised-looking Whishaw take their bows to the rest of the 500-strong audience.

It’s Saturday night at the Shed. The first major multi-arts institution to open in New York for decades, it is intended to bring culture to Hudson Yards, the controversial $25bn development of luxury flats and shops on Manhattan’s midwest side. Its CEO and artistic director is Alex Poots, formerly boss of the Manchester international festival, whose challenging remit is to show only new work, not revivals, with a brief to mash together different artistic disciplines – established artists with new ones, pop culture with high art. So will it be welcomed by New York’s culture-soaked residents, artistic community and the tourists queuing for the Instagram bait of the Vessel next door?

As the world’s media files into the press conference last Wednesday, it’s clear things are not going entirely to plan. There are workers in hard hats busy hammering together seating platforms, some escalators don’t work, and the main space – under a huge shell that slides back and forth on huge wheels – is horribly echoey. It’s a distinctly rough-and-ready start for a building that cost $475m.

‘Immersive, spectacular performance’: performers from the cast of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise rehearse at The Shed.
‘Immersive, spectacular performance’: performers from the cast of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise rehearse at The Shed. Photograph: Mark Lennihan/AP

At 5pm two days later, however, the echo at least is largely gone – which is just as well, since the Shed will open to the public in three hours with a musical extravaganza – Soundtrack of America, created by artist and film-maker Steve McQueen. “We were tweaking from 10pm to 7am,” says Poots. “The building works were taking for ever.”

We’re speaking in one of the two gallery spaces. There are enormous artworks by Gerhard Richter on the walls, part of a collaboration with the composers Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. Right on cue, a woman in a high-vis vest comes over to investigate a socket at Poots’s feet. “We put this exhibition up in the midst of full-on building construction,” she says. “It was … interesting.”

Reich Richter Pärt at the Shed, New York
In Reich Richter Pärt, two immersive live performances – one conceived by Steve Reich and Gerhard Richter, the other by Richter and Arvo Pärt – explore the shared sensory language of visual art and music. Photograph: Stephanie Berger

Poots is a seasoned impresario, who knows the show must go on. At Manchester, he staged Chinese operas by Damon Albarn, a Kraftwerk gig in a velodrome and a collaboration between the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk and film-maker Adam Curtis, which ended with a man wielding a chainsaw chasing theatregoers out of the building.

It’s his ambitious ideas, proven ability to pull them off, and enviable contacts book that have landed the 51-year-old Scot this gig. Poots will have the whole building to play with – two performance spaces, plus the galleries. MIF was biennial; the Shed needs filling constantly.

The first season includes a collaboration between Björk and the theatre director Lucrecia Martel called Cornucopia; and Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng with choreography by Akram Khan, written by the team behind Kung Fu Panda. Set in Flushing, Queens, at the other end of the 7 subway line from the Shed, it is an “airborne show”, says Chen, one that will make the most of the main space’s six-storey-high ceiling. “I don’t want to do a proscenium theatre show, which you can do everywhere in Manhattan. I want to do an immersive, spectacular performance.”

The Shed, which is next to Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel (right) in the Hudson Yards development of New York.
The Shed, which is next to Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel (right) in the Hudson Yards development of New York. Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Tickets are cheap by New York standards and Poots says there will be $10 ones available for each show “and not just in the nosebleed seats”. There’s also a full-time community arts programme, including a free display of work this summer by 52 emerging artists chosen via an open call and funded by the Shed. But, while the Shed is a public building, it’s still situated in one of the most despised private urban developments of recent times. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” says Poots. “We live in a world of unregulated capitalism. There’s a lot of money in this area. I said, ‘If everyone is asked to invest in a centre for all arts – that encourages audiences who may feel like the arts isn’t for them – then I’m down with the neighbourhood.’”

So far the Shed has raised an astonishing $500m. As is traditional in the US, where public funding for the arts is minimal and institutions rely on philanthropy, the names of the biggest donors are prominently displayed in the foyer. These include companies such as Coach and Google, who have neighbouring offices and stores. “We’ve got [wealth] right there in our face,” says Poots, “and as long as they keep being generous, this kind of ecology is a transformer for arts. Call the Shed the Robin Hood, but let’s see if it works.”

Certainly, he says, artists haven’t been put off by the surroundings. Even Boots Riley, the communist director of Sorry to Bother You, is doing an event. “I showed him round here a year and a half ago and I could tell he was checking me out, because why would he come here? And then, when I shared with him some of the people we were working with, it was quite encouraging – because here were artists looking beyond the prejudice of where we are, and realising this is an opportunity to do good work.”

‘We’ve got wealth right there in our face’ ... Alex Poots photographed in February at the entrance to the Shed.
‘We’ve got wealth right there in our face’ ... Alex Poots photographed in February at the entrance to the Shed. Photograph: Christopher Lane/The Observer

Big ideas, however, will count for little unless the work stands up. The first to be shown to journalists is the collaborations between Richter, Reich and Pärt. A 14-piece orchestra plays a specially composed Reich work at one end of the gallery, while at the other is a film made by Richter. Based on his book Patterns, it depicts lines of colour building up into an abstract picture, and then degenerating back into lines.

Reich is at the private view, a fast-talking 82-year-old in a baseball cap who says the work was an interesting exercise in scoring a soundtrack, but one he’s not keen to repeat. “The film was done before I began,” the legend of minimalism says, “so I timecoded the whole thing which I’ve never done, and honestly I don’t think I’d do it again. I am the master of time, and for somebody else to give me time that I have to be a slave to is something that I learn something from, but my original instinct was right.”

‘I don’t think I’d do it again’ ... an audience at the private view checks out Reich Richter.
‘I don’t think I’d do it again’ ... an audience at the private view checks out Reich Richter. Photograph: Stephanie Berger./Stephanie Berger

The other art commission, by Trisha Donnelly, is an installation in a darkened room. What appears to be an entire tree has been chopped up and placed on low trolleys, some of the stumps wrapped in packing material. A sound system, also on a trolley, plays the Habanera from Carmen at punishing volume on a constant loop. What it all means must be decided for oneself – there is no explanatory wall text – but it certainly stakes a claim for the Shed’s avant garde credentials.

Renée Fleming and Ben Whishaw in Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, which inspired walkouts on one preview performance.
Renée Fleming and Ben Whishaw in Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, which inspired walkouts on one preview performance. Photograph: courtesy the Shed

If Donnelly and Norma Jeane Baker of Troy – which conflates Monroe and Helen of Troy for the era of fake news and #MeToo – represent the highest of high culture, Soundtrack of America, which aims to show the richness of black music history, is surprising for the opposite reason. The first of five shows starts with a stunning coup de theatre as a marching band and an army band – both comprised of young African American musicians in full regalia – play and move in formation through the audience. After they give a black power salute, the show then essentially turns into a gig directed by McQueen, with musical direction by Quincy Jones, who on the opening night describes himself as a “bald-headed, bow-legged bebopper”.

Riskily, the five lead performers each night are largely unknown, representing the latest flowering of black music tradition, which has been sketched out by academic adviser and black music expert Maureen Mahon. Which is why it’s a little startling that the first night culminates in a Whitney Houston medley by Sheléa. Taking in such bangers as I Have Nothing and I Will Always Love You, it’s undeniably entertaining – especially with McQueen frugging nearby in cropped trousers and yellow trainers – and spectacularly sung, but also skirts surprisingly close to X Factor territory.

The following day I install myself in the Shed’s foyer (which has opened without a bar or cafe, making the performances alcohol-free zones) and call Braxton Cook, a young jazz musician who’s playing on night two. McQueen, Cook says, is “a genius mind. I wanted to do a song by John Coltrane, my main inspiration, and an original tune I wrote for Trayvon Martin. Steve [suggested] pushing the whole thing together into one performance and thinking about it more conceptually.”

The Shed in New York
The Shed at Hudson Yards in New York. Photograph: Mark Lennihan/AP

Cook particularly appreciated one of the Shed’s founding principles – collaboration between established artists and emerging ones. “It’s really inspiring to have someone at Steve’s level giving you that pat on the back,” he says. “It’s hard to carve out your space and you need all the help you can get. If I’m ever in a position like Steve McQueen or Quincy to do something like this, I would love to do that because people need it.”

So will Cook, who lives and hangs out in Harlem, be a likely regular at the Shed? “Absolutely,” he says. “They’ve really beefed up that area of town, I want to spend a lot more time there. Björk’s coming. In Harlem, we didn’t have a hub like that, so this could be something special that our generation really needs.”

Earlier, I had asked Poots how he thought success would be measured. “I think the quality of the work,” he replied. “Risk taking, the breadth of what we present. Did we state that we were going to be very broad but actually end up not being that broad? Have we been a force for good? Did we make it welcoming and inviting to a wide range of audiences? How much did we help local artists?”

In the midst of the Hudson Yards glitz, New York’s next generation of artists are depending on him.


Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Reich/Richter review – two artists with the power to disrupt time and space
An ever-shifting new composition by Steve Reich is set to a Rorschach-like new film by Gerhard Richter, with wonderfully disorientating, hypnotic results

John Lewis

24, Oct, 2019 @11:05 AM

Article image
Steve Reich: Reich/Richter review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
The patterns of a work by Gerhard Richter inspire one of Reich’s most impressive recent pieces, elegantly performed in 2020

Andrew Clements

09, Jun, 2022 @2:30 PM

Article image
The best art of the 21st century
Steve McQueen in bed, Ai Weiwei in trouble, Pussy Riot in church and Ragnar Kjartansson in the bath – they’re all included in our countdown of the best art since 2000

Adrian Searle, Jonathan Jones, Sean O’Hagan and Hettie Judah

17, Sep, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Vera Lutter's best photograph: the death knell for New York's Garment District
‘I blacked out my windows and turned my studio into a camera obscura to capture this high-rise being built opposite. The exposure took six days’

Amy Fleming

28, Mar, 2018 @2:28 PM

Article image
The Light in the Piazza review – Fleming shines over feelgood musical
Full of lazy, hazy nostalgia for classic romantic encounters in Italy, this picturesque show is rescued from cliche by Renée Fleming’s soaring star quality

Erica Jeal

19, Jun, 2019 @2:37 PM

Article image
Play what you see: how graphic scores can unleash your inner musical genius
When musical notation failed the great avant garde composers, they drew a picture instead. Now, a new project hopes everyone else will follow in their footsteps

Phil Hebblethwaite

30, Aug, 2020 @1:00 PM

Article image
‘We finished every bottle!’ Berlin's cultural legends on the night the Wall came down
It divided families, trapped half a city and symbolised the cold war. Then, 30 years ago this Saturday, the Berlin wall fell. Wim Wenders, Ute Lemper, Daniel Barenboim and more share their memories

Interviews by Simon Usborne

05, Nov, 2019 @1:10 PM

Article image
The last thing you'll ever hear: what is the world's best deathbed music?
The makers of a new show about the perfect musical farewell turned up a lot of names, from Celine Dion to U2 to Susan Boyle. But there was one clear favourite: the light-filled music of Estonia’s Arvo Pärt

Kate Molleson

08, Nov, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
The most unmissable culture of 2016
Tarantino goes bounty-hunting, Botticelli takes you to hell, Bowie goes dark, and Jericho fills that Downton-shaped hole … in our bumper guide to the best 150 arts events to look forward to this year

Guardian critics

04, Jan, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
‘We won’t be bouncing back’ – the unsettling truth about the big reopening
Next week, after 14 months of closure and despair, the arts are reawakening. But the damage caused by Covid runs deep – and recovery is by no means assured

Charlotte Higgins

12, May, 2021 @5:00 AM