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In April 2019, when The Shed opened at Hudson Yards, it reeled art patrons in for various reasons. The cultural destination doesn’t just commission, develop, and present original artworks, it encourages diversity within its presentations—from music and theater productions to painting and sculpture exhibitions.
Its opening season presented new works by more than 100 artists—all commissioned by The Shed. 42 of those 100 artists were included in its first cohort of “Open Call”—The Shed’s large-scale commissioning program, which artists can apply for themselves. Earlier this year, The Shed also hosted its first-ever free open house. The one-day event, Meet at The Shed, welcomed in around 6,000 people.
Today, The Shed is celebrating a new program entitled “Up Close”—a digital commissioning program for artists of all disciplines. On April 19, its first installation welcomed work by Justin Hicks, Kenita Miller-Hicks, and Jade Hicks performing as The HawtPlates, in conversation with Director Charlotte Brathwaite.
Whitewall spoke with Alex Poots, the CEO and Artistic Director of The Shed, to hear more about “Up Close,” how he’s doing amid COVID-19, and where the future of the art world may be.
WHITEWALL: Tell us a bit about The Shed from your eyes, and your role there.
ALEX POOTS: The Shed is a new commissioning center in New York City for emerging and established artists working across all disciplines. As Artistic Director and CEO, I work with a team of programmers and curators developing and presenting new artworks for the widest range of audiences.
WW: When The Shed opened, it commissioned all of 100 works, and 42 came from “Open Call.” Can you give us a few highlights from this and some of your early commissions?
AP: We opened with the five-night concert series Soundtrack of America, directed by Steve McQueen in The McCourt; Reich Richter Pärt in our Level 2 Gallery; and Trisha Donnelly in our Level 4 Gallery. We closed the season with a major retrospective exhibition of the artist Agnes Denes.
We produced experimental performances by Arca, and we hosted the North American debut of conductor Teodor Currentzis with musicAeterna. We also staged poet Anne Carson’s partly spoken partly sung play, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, with Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming.
And we commissioned street dance pioneer Reggie Gray with co-director Kaneza Schaal to create a socially conscious dance-theater work with teaching artists from The Shed’s “FlexNYC” program. These are just a few highlights of newly commissioned works.
WW: How is The Shed different than most other art institutions, with its approach as a cultural center?
AP: Designed with purpose and built from scratch, The Shed is setting a new organizational paradigm that breaks away from established models. We commission and present new work by artists across all disciplines, both early-career and established. It’s a process that begins with a conversation and becomes a journey of discovery and mutual trust.
Our commitment to this level of artistic invention, transformation, and justice evolved in our first season from theory to applied practice, evidenced in the challenging work we present by artists who are addressing the most urgent issues of our time. We are especially committed to supporting and amplifying the voices of artists from a diversity of communities and experiences. Programs like “Up Close” and “Open Call” are supportive of our city’s entire cultural ecology.
WW: How are you doing amid the Coronavirus pandemic? How are you staying inspired?
AP: It’s obviously a challenging time for all of us. The Shed is temporarily closed and the commissions that were scheduled for this spring and summer are postponed, yet we remain committed to engaging artists and audiences while we are isolated from one another. It’s inspiring to me how an artist’s ability to create and invent cannot be contained, even while the world is on pause. I am buoyed by their tenacity and by The Shed’s dedicated staff, who are working diligently and collaboratively to adapt, pivot and respond to our current crisis.
WW: The pandemic has impacted the way we see and consume art. How does “Up Close” address that?
AP: Artists define culture; they shine a light during moments of upheaval, which might be needed right now. It is our hope that the online artworks we are presenting in “Up Close” will resonate with audiences who are looking for community and connection.
The first installment was a social distancing experiment between a family of artists: Justin Hicks and Kenita Miller-Hicks live in the Bronx, and Jade Hicks is currently in Indiana. Performing as The HawtPlates, the trio shared excerpts from House or Home: 690 Wishes, a song cycle they have been developing with the director Charlotte Brathwaite. Their piece will live on our website, and we will premiere new installments every other Sunday.
“Open Call” is a process of discovery, for The Shed’s team and also for our members and visitors. I look forward to the next cohort who will be presenting their work at The Shed in 2021. I am also looking forward to the intimate and compelling work that emerges from the “Up Close” digital commissions.
WW: Your previous experience—at places like Tate Modern, Manchester International Festival and the Armory—provided great insight into the world of art as it relates to new tech topics and mediums, like the rise of multimedia art. What do you feel we are currently focused on consuming as art patrons? What is next for the art world, especially during a difficult time like right now amid COVID-19?
AP: The urgency for cultural institutions to adopt digital platforms right now is understandable. It’s vital to continue to engage the public during social distancing. What patrons really want is hard to predict but we hope they feel comforted and nourished by cultural experiences. In terms of what’s next, we’ll take our cues from how artists respond to this crisis with their practice.
Right now, I’m thinking about The Shed in the near future and how flexible we’ll need to be when the city re-opens. Our building was designed to adapt to different art forms and audience configurations, so we’re talking about what that might look like. We’re very focused on digital innovations, but I wonder how expectations and behaviors shaped by our current circumstances might shift (or not) once we are together again in the real world.