We’re 18 months out from America’s next Presidential election and lecterns bearing the names of candidates with bold visions are 10 a penny. Familiarity with the sheer number of campaign launches that have been photographed, streamed and reported over the first 3 months of 2019 therefore lent some camouflage to just how heavily The Shed borrowed from the political playbook throughout its press launch this week. Then again, this is entirely apt for the plucky new cultural contender with civic, national and indeed global ambitions — the candidate’s name on the lectern this week was ‘The Shed’.
Putting its best foot forward, the launch of New York’s latest cultural institution ties in to three crucial areas of political success: policy, personality and philanthropy (cash money). The first of these dominated the podium section of the launch. The team at The Shed has carefully built an institutional philosophy that offers a framework for collaborating artists, a brand for New York’s audiences to latch on to and a yardstick by which success can be measured. To this end, it was set out that the venue is to give a sense of ownership and collaboration to the city it stands in and the creative contributors it welcomes. This is to be a venture that champions risk taking, curiosity and adventure. A beacon of innovation on the West Side of New York that reaches out to all of the boroughs as to fund creativity and facilitate exploration. There will be no high and low culture at The Shed, only culture — a message reminiscent of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ message that got so horribly mangled in the UK’s 2010 election. Speaking to this point specifically, Tamara McCaw —The Shed’s chief civic program officer— borrowed from Nina Simone to say that they aimed to ‘reflect and respond’ to the communities of New York City.
On personality, the backers of The Shed are hoping that their institution’s name and reputation becomes synonymous with the celebrated creative DNA of Alex Poots. The founder of Manchester International Festival has proven on more than one occasion that he has the trust (another popular buzzword throughout the launch) of artists, audiences, funders and administrators. Moreover, he’s demonstrated what alchemy can be achieved with this level of artistic belief. Speaking confidently without notes, Poots was compelling and clear about how he sees The Shed’s mission and is convincing on the topic. Perhaps one of the star qualities that would prevent him from running in an actual Presidential race but makes him the perfect candidate for this one is his European-ness. In fact, of the four artistic curators that sat in a panel during the launch of New York/America’s new arts centre, three were European (Emma Enderby and Hans Ulrich Obrist completing the group with Tamara and Alex). The Shed seem to be betting on this transatlantic skillset bringing international flare to the venture, not an uncommon leadership skillset pursued by New York’s established Anglophilic art centres such as The Metropolitan Museum and most recently Lincoln Center.
It was however left to the bonafide politician in the room to say the word that was being skirted around in all the artistic conversations, a word that underpins the ability to get to the point of launching any ambitious American candidacy. Mid-speech, Dan Doctoroff —Michael Bloomberg’s former Number 2— stumbled momentarily saying that it took ‘so money…I mean, so many people’ to pull this all off. It was a moment of accidental humour, a Freudian slip that was disarming in its brief, truthful nudity. It has taken so much money to make this all possible. It was $45million from Frank McCourt that got the ball rolling, a $25million gift from Ken Griffin that kept it on track and the priceless use of City Land that motivated countless other philanthropists, sponsors and supporters to generate an initial budget of over $500million. That’s the money that’s giving the Shed a chance to disrupt the US arts scene and put the wind up veterans such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and BAM. That’s the money that brought in the architectural invention of Liz Diller and David Rockwell to craft a positively European space capable of delivering a mission more akin to London’s Barbican or Southbank Centre. That’s the money that has filled their offices with superstars like Poots who can bring in super-duper stars like Steve McQueen and Quincy Jones to advice that they should bring in yet more star power, lending this clout to the newest addition to an already bulging cultural scene.
Every good political campaign needs a soundtrack; Bill Clinton harnessed the power of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop’ and Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ mantra was fashioned into a harmonised battlecry by will.i.am. To that end, The Shed’s quest for the hearts and minds of New York and the world beyond really gets going in the 5 shows that comprise Soundtrack Of America: tracing the family tree of African American music as performed by the next generation of that mighty organism (a concept devised by Poots and McQueen). Will it be the soundtrack to launch the sort of career that all at The Shed are hoping for? They’ve given themselves every chance of success, it only remains to be seen if the following years deliver the diversity of voters…I mean audiences from the cross-section of their immediate society (and the world) that they’ve so clearly set their sights on.
Explore the length and breadth of The Shed’s inaugural programme here.