A city’s culture is an ecosystem. Something gets added, something gets taken away and there’s a change in climate that affects everyone. Everything is interconnected; spending more somewhere inevitably means less somewhere else. Every choice contributes to setting prevailing values: What gets supported? What kind of culture do we want?
Into the New York ecosystem now comes the Shed, and the more than $500 million in support behind it.
Programming at the new Hudson Yards performance space, which looks like an airplane hangar wrapped in a down comforter, starts on April 5. It would hardly be good critical practice to prejudge the opening season’s starry collaborations and blockbuster statements of purpose before they’ve begun. What the Shed will stand for in the long run is still T.B.D.
But especially given the closeness in ethos between the Shed and the Park Avenue Armory — which has been presenting similarly grand, often celebrity-driven, boldly advertised events since 2011 — it’s worth thinking, as we fete the arrival of a new shrine to artistic opulence, how it might affect the city’s cultural weather, and what the New York scene will still be wanting after its arrival.
We all have our own ideal versions of that scene. Mine, for example, probably includes more staged opera than yours. We can all agree, I hope, that there should be a vast lowering of ticket prices, citywide, to put into meaningful action everyone’s noble words about broadening access.
And there are certainly specific styles, genres and performers New York should see more of. Classical drama, with the exception of Shakespeare, is remarkably rare. While there are thriving artistic communities in cities throughout the United States, the work produced in those places barely shows up here.
But what’s truly missing is an infrastructure — one not about bricks and mortar. At the moment, the philanthropist-gulping rise of the Shed-Armory nexus — joining the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lincoln Center, which are also focused on working with glitzy art and artists for short stints before they move on — just highlights the comparative lack of resources for patiently stimulating art-making in New York.
It’s not that the glamorous programming of the Shed or the Armory shouldn’t exist; some of what they present, it must be said, may be beautiful, or interesting or both. But the obsession over the construction of new buildings — the Perelman Center, at the World Trade Center, is on the way — and filling them with interchangeable boldface names and their flashy output is a distraction from the longer-term, less high-profile, less gala-focused work of supporting artists in a way that really matters.
What New York City needs is real, significant investment in artistic development, over years and years. The Shed, as it emerges, could be an engine of that.
What the city also needs is less the creation of new spaces and more a reorientation toward funding what might fill the ample range of stages we already have. We need a revision of what cultural giving means: Artists creating new work should be the primary beneficiaries of extended support, not buildings. (Even ones as arresting as the Shed, which, gently iridescent, seems sometimes to billow, its roof and walls rolling back and forth on enormous rails.)
The Shed and the Armory offer commissions, of course. Indeed, the Shed announces its emphasis on commissioning in the first sentence of its mission statement. But commissioning fees alone do not allow for a viable creative life; it is an open secret that many go into debt finishing works that have supposedly been sponsored.
We’re left not even knowing what we’re missing. Gifted artists who might want to stay in the field leave. Those who stay make less, or less daring, work than they might have.
Think of what could be produced — and seen — if just a fraction of the Shed’s millions were redirected toward a vision of substantively building the careers of rising and middle-career artists. Not just for a single piece, as with the Shed’s coming Open Call series, but for several, as the Signature Theater does admirably with playwrights.
This support wouldn’t just take the form of a series of commissions, either. It could also address a fuller range of needs: studio space, career advice, touring organization, production expertise, child care, health benefits. These, for artists who aren’t celebrities, are the conditions required for ambitious work to be made from the ground up.
Providing those conditions is a way of breaking the anxious, unsustainable current setup, in which people are forced more or less to hold their breath, hoping for a once-in-a-blue-moon fellowship like the Guggenheim, Doris Duke or MacArthur.
Changing the paradigm won’t be cheap: The acclaimed choreographer Pam Tanowitz is getting the kind of multifaceted support I’m talking about at Bard College’s Fisher Center, thanks to a gift of $1.2 million from two philanthropists, Jay Franke and David Herro.
So where else could that kind of money come from? Does the answer lie in more, deeper collaborations between existing institutions? Do we need more expansive involvement by the city’s wealthy academic sector, beyond solely offering teaching jobs? (Freeing artists from jobs that aren’t making work is the goal here.)
Any shift of focus will certainly have to be founded on the decisions of individual donors like Mr. Franke and Mr. Herro to influence the nature and vision of the projects and institutions they support. They must demand their money go toward a more varied landscape than fancy shop windows hawking the season’s swanky wares. They must bend the organizations that depend on them toward a fresh, more organic, more real way of doing things.
It’s seductive to think of Renée Fleming and Anne Carson, or Gerhard Richter and Steve Reich, brainstorming and rehearsing together — and to want to get in the same room as them and their work, which will be on display in the Shed’s opening weeks. After all, these are the kinds of cultural figures whom benefactors want to appear in society-pages photos with.
But with that attention on the superficial aspect of art-making, elevating and fetishizing the eminent, the Shed can already feel too much like the cultural equivalent of the Cartier boutique in the mall next door. While there’s nothing wrong with Cartier, do you want to live in a city where it’s the only place to shop?