On a sweltering afternoon in mid-July, I'm on West Thirtieth Street in Manhattan, looking for the entrance to The Shed. Scheduled to open this spring but still under construction, The Shed is New York's keenly anticipated new year-round, all-purpose cultural emporium for music, dance, theater, and visual arts. There are no signs, though—this is Hudson Yards, where one of the biggest urban-renewal projects in New York City is in full swing, and the landmark I'd been given, a pizza parlor, refuses to reveal itself. But then, hooray, halfway down the block I see a blonde woman waving both arms, and I breathe a sigh of relief. It's Kathryn Spellman, a sociologist and visting professor for Islamic Studies at Columbia University and the wife of Alex Poots, The Shed's founding artistic director and CEO.
"Alex is inside with the graphics team, talking about signage and 'way finding,'" Spellman says, laughing. She's a vivid, effervescent beauty in a colorful sleeveless Missoni shift and sneakers without laces. We go in a side door, put on hard hats, and walk up to the second level—a vast, 12,500-square-foot, column-free gallery—moving gingerly to avoid electrical cables and other obstacles. At the far end, Poots is in conference with the "way finders." The 17,000-square-foot adjoining hall (it's called "The McCourt") is usually exposed to the skies when its outer layer is nested into the fixed building, but at the moment, it's covered by The Shed's most distinguishing feature: a telescoping shell made of steel and a clear, lightweight polymer that moves out (and back) on gigantic rail tracks, turning it from an outside plaza to a large-scale performance space for 3,000-plus people.
A compact, boyishly intense 51-year-old in a white dress shirt and neat ink-blue jeans, Poots joins us. "He used to always wear black," Spellman says. "But then he noticed that artistic directors all wore black, so he decided he'd only wear blue." Poots may not look like the most commanding impresario of our time, but nobody else comes close to matching what he's already done in commissioning and producing new, cutting-edge, mixed-media works for London's Tate Modern, the Manchester International Festival, and the Park Avenue Armory in New York. Matthew Barney, Tino Sehgal, Jessye Norman, Björk, Steve McQueen, Abida Parveen, Zaha Hadid, Marina Abramovi´c, William Forsythe, Alice Walker, Arvo Pärt, James Brown, Martha Argerich, Steve Reich, Gerhard Richter, and Chen Shi-Zheng are just a few of the prominent artists he's worked with.
The Shed's opening date is nearing, and the pressure to complete the building and develop the season's initial productions is building up. "The other day someone said to me, 'You're trying to fly the plane while you're building it,' " Poots tells me. "It was kind of accurate. Because we're commissioning all new works, we're trying to do a few things—fifteen to 20 a year—really well. We're making work for the future, rather than vessels for collections."
Daniel L. Doctoroff, The Shed's board chairman, tells me by phone, "This may be one of the largest art start-ups of all time, a $450 million–plus building with a new staff. We're programming it all ourselves and opening it all at once. I'm not sure anyone's ever done this before." The city government contributed $75 million, but most of the money has come from private sources—Bloomberg Philanthropies, Shed board member Frank H. McCourt Jr. and his family, and many others. The Shed will help finance its operations by renting out parts of its multipurpose event space, accommodating seated dinners for up to 450 people.
When Doctoroff and his high-powered board started to look for an artistic director and CEO, one of the people they went to for advice was Glenn D. Lowry, head of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Lowry told Doctoroff and his high-wattage COO, Maryann Jordan, that what they needed was a "truffle hunter" who could root around for new ideas and talent; he also suggested that it be somebody who had run an arts festival and could juggle a lot of complex projects and personalities. Poots was a good fit on both counts, and what Doctoroff describes as his "unique combination of charm, patience, and persistence" persuaded the board that he was the right man for the job.
As we make our way through The Shed's multiple spaces (designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Rockwell Group), Poots launches into a description of Soundtrack of America, one of the highlights of the first season. "Steve McQueen phones me up eighteen months ago and says, 'I've got an idea for you.' I'd been badgering him for two years." What McQueen came up with was a series of concerts, "a family tree of African American music" ranging from its earliest origins in the seventeenth century to present-day hip-hop. Poots and McQueen put together a team of experts that includes award-winning record producer Quincy Jones, NYU music professor Maureen Mahon, producer Dion "No I.D." Wilson, and A&R exec Tunji Balogun. Referring to African American music, McQueen says, "It's about the soil, it's about America, it's about the air that one breathes, it's about how influential that sound was around the world. It's touched everyone."
It will all happen in The McCourt, with its movable shell, which is located just where the High Line ends. (The bad news is that it's uncomfortably close to Thomas Heatherwick's $150 million Vessel, the "stairway to nowhere," as it's been deemed by some, a cumbersome architectural folly that has no connection to The Shed.) Some people will be seated in The McCourt, while others will be standing. "It's a whole new format," Poots says. "Sometimes we'll use the set-up of the art gallery for performances, where you're not in a fixed seat; and other times, we'll use seating to heighten the concentration of looking at art. The Shed is very interested in how we can change the rules of engagement. The idea is to help audiences expand their minds through the arts, but to do it in a convivial way."
After a somewhat exhausting tour, we go for dinner to a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurant called Taboon, on Tenth Avenue. Poots is a Scot, and Spellman grew up in Iowa. Their two children, eleven-year-old Lucy and seven-year-old Thomas, are in Coney Island this evening with their babysitter. "They love the really scary rides," Poots says, "the ones that terrify me." Spellman checks in on them by phone before we order. The kids are in a French day camp—Poots's mother is French, "so that's the language we're starting them with," she says. They all love New York, where they and Milly, their Maltipoo, live on the top two stories of a rented town house on the Upper West Side. "The other day Thomas announced, 'We have the best family in the world, and all because of Milly,' " Spellman says. The life of an impresario keeps Poots on airplanes more or less constantly, scouting new talent, meeting with artists he's commissioned or hopes to work with, finding coproducers, and raising money. Both Poots and Spellman are at ease with people, and their sense of humor keeps them afloat. At a big dinner party given by Diane von Furstenberg, a Shed board member, Poots tells me, he recognized Fran Lebowitz, whom he had never met. "I asked her, 'May I sit?' 'By all means,' she said—and she immediately got up and left. Kathryn couldn't stop laughing."
The family spent the rest of their summer visiting Poots's family in Edinburgh and Spellman's in Iowa, where she spent her mornings writing her contribution to Gender, Governance and Islam, co-edited by Spellman, Nadje Al-Ali, and Deniz Kandiyoti. (Spellman, who kept her tenured position at Aga Khan University in London when she moved to New York, is now developing a joint master's program at Columbia and Aga Khan, focusing on Islam and modern societies.) Poots joined the three of them for weekends, and then they headed to Bryce Canyon, in Utah, which Spellman had loved as a child.
Poots met Spellman in London in 2005. She had come there as a nineteen-year-old sophomore in 1991 for her semester abroad. She fell in love with the city and stayed for 25 years. Instead of becoming a lawyer, like her father and five of her six siblings, she became a sociologist and received her doctorate from the University of London in 2000. Poots was working for the English National Opera back then, developing ideas for new productions. One was an opera about Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, and Poots needed advice. Spellman, who had been to Libya and met Qaddafi several times, heard about the opera from colleagues. A meeting was arranged at the 2 Brydges Club in London, where she waited 20 minutes before going up to a pair of men and asking one of them if he knew Alex Poots. The stranger gestured to his friend and said, "That's Poots!" He'd been there all along but had assumed that she was much too young and beautiful to be a professor. A year later, Poots enlisted her help on Queen and Country, a project about British soldiers killed in the Iraq War that Poots was working on with McQueen for the Manchester International Festival, which he had recently founded. McQueen told both Spellman and Poots, separately, that they belonged together. The pair reconnected at the Edinburgh Festival. "At that point, I'm in overdrive," Poots recalls. "There was no stopping me."
They were married in 2007, in the Scottish capital, and spent their honeymoon at his parents' country house, a picturesque old mill two and a half hours away. Poots's mother insisted on driving them there from the city. "How else are you going to know where everything is?" she asked Spellman. "To be fair, she did leave," Poots adds. Their first night, they went for a walk and found a baby lamb stuck in deep mud. Poots managed to pull it out, and then, concerned that there was no sign of its mother, he stayed with it while Spellman went home to take a bath. "It got dark, and I started to worry," she remembers. On his way back, he had come across a full-grown, pregnant ewe with its legs kicking in the air, struggling to turn over, and of course he'd felt obliged to help. "And this was our wedding night!" Spellman says, laughing.
Poots's background is in music. His father was an Irish dentist, and his mother taught French literature at the university level. (She was also a gifted pianist.) Poots spent summers with his French grandmother, in her ancestral house in a forest near Bordeaux, where she had hidden Jews and American paratroopers during World War II. "She was a rebel and a real inspiration," he says. Poots started playing his father's cornet when he was five and went on to become a serious student. He graduated from City, University of London with a degree in music history and supported himself for several years as a trumpeter. He was passionate about all kinds of music. "There was no hierarchy for me," he says. "You can't say a Schumann song is better than a Nina Simone song." After a few years, he gravitated toward concert management and got jobs at the Barbican Centre and Tate Modern. This led to his breakthrough appointment in 2005 as founding artistic director and CEO of the Manchester International Festival, where he plugged into the Zeitgeist by bringing music, dance, theater, visual arts, opera, and pop culture together in a prolific mix. Poots "seemed to have his finger on a new pulse," said Sir Nicholas Serota, the former director of the Tate.
During dinner at the restaurant, we talk about what Poots has planned for The Shed's opening. In addition to Soundtrack of America, there's Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, a futuristic kung-fu musical about a Chinese sect in Queens that has the power to prolong human life. It's directed by Chen Shi-Zheng—his Monkey: Journey to the West was a big hit at Poots's first Manchester Festival. The words are by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, screenwriters of the wildly popular Kung Fu Panda animated films, with songs by Sia, the Australian singer-songwriter, and costumes by Tim Yip, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This one will play in The McCourt. Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, by the poet Anne Carson, will be in the 500-seat theater on the sixth level. Based on Euripides' Helen, it stars Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming. An exhibition in one gallery, Reich Richter Pärt, explores resonances between paintings (Gerhard Richter) and music (Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt), while new work by the artist Trisha Donnelly (who hasn't had a solo show in New York in eleven years) will be shown in another. Poots knows a lot less about the visual arts than about music, and so he formed a close relationship with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the curator, art historian, and all-round art-world insider. (He's currently artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London.)
It's a full docket, but these are by no means the only things that will be going on there. Other Shed programs taking place inside and outside the building include the Lab, studio space for ten to fifteen artists, and Open Call, which Poots describes as "a multi-million-dollar investment in young, early-career artists." Nearly a thousand people from New York's five boroughs applied for Open Call. Each of the 52 lucky winners gets a one-year stipend (between $8,000 and $15,000) to develop work that will be shown at The Shed. "We produce, curate, and install the work," Poots says, "and the audience gets to see it for free."
Two other programs run by The Shed are brewing throughout the city. FlexNYC, which builds on Flexn, the homegrown African American dance form whose participants use their bodies to improvise personal stories, is already being taught in 20 public schools and community centers. DIS OBEY involves workshops for high school students to help them explore creative action and protest about civil issues (gun control, sexual harassment, et cetera) through poetry, rap lyrics, and spoken word. The program came out of an ongoing conversation between Poots and Spellman regarding the worldwide drift toward tribalism and objectification of "the other." "Is The Shed going to be silent about this, or are we going to do something?" Poots asked her one night. "Kathryn told me a poignant story about Saadi, a thirteenth-century Persian poet who wrote Sufi poems of defiance against oppressors. These poems are unearthed by Henry David Thoreau 500 years later and inspire him to write Civil Disobedience, which massively influences Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights movement. So a thirteenth-century Persian poet changes American politics in the 1960s. It shows these kids the power of art to affect the future."
The ratio between hits and misses in this wide diversity of programming is impossible to predict—there are no out-of-town test runs, and New York is a much tougher venue than Manchester. But Poots has an amazingly good track record, and one of his great strengths is that he is never afraid of failure. "I'm a risk-taker," he says. "Each year we're going to fail. This thing is not going to happen in one year. But each year we're going to bust our gut trying to do better."
The Shed is also dedicated to bringing audiences together in new ways. "Instead of people having their earphones in all the time, experiencing music in isolation, Alex wants it to be a communal experience," Spellman says. The Shed can be seen as an antidote to the boundless loneliness of the internet and the inertia of on-demand streaming. "This is what I worry about," Spellman adds. "People are withdrawing, becoming increasingly more introverted within their small bubbles. We have to pop those bubbles. It's so important for us to meet each other, talk with each other, feel each other. That's what really breaks down barriers." It costs nothing to enter The Shed's spacious and welcoming lobby, Poots points out: "We're encouraging people to come in and hang out."
We've finished dinner at Taboon, and Poots has just realized they're late for the Radiohead concert at Madison Square Garden. "I only found out this morning that we're going," Spellman says. She calls the children again. "They're alive and they're home," she reports. Poots gets on the phone and says, "Good night, gorgeous kids." Out on Tenth Avenue, they look excited and radiant. "When Alex and I met," Spellman says, "it was the first time in my life I was with someone who walked at the same speed I do—quite fast. He felt it, too. It makes life easier."