With a flair for risk-taking and knack for next-level, Scottish-born Alex Poots is one of New York’s most powerful cultural arbiters. In the run-up to the opening of his brand-new brainchild, an innovative cross-cultural arts centre on Manhattan’s west side, Omar Nasir examines why he and the city are such a great fit.
As someone who lives in and loves New York City, I can’t help but feel instantly connected to the electric pulsations and vibrant art scene that are so unlike any other in the world. There is a palpable energy evolving and shifting in the socio-economic and political sectors which trickles down to the world of the arts. And in that space, we experience our realities through the eyes of multi-cultural artists from all over the globe. Whether traditionalist or contemporary, they employ schools of thought that shift cultural movements. Every neighbourhood in this city is its own microcosm of blended sensibilities – from the sophistication of Uptown, the inclusive Hell’s Kitchen, the international Times Square, the innovative Lower East Side, to Brooklyn, of course, with its waves of hipsters finding their way into every nook. Step into this vortex of cross-cultural forces and you’ll be swept away to the portals of your deepest imagination.
One figure in the art world receiving widespread praise for his non-conformist theories is Alex Poots, who will serve as CEO and artistic director of the Shed, an upwards of $500-million arts space, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with the Rockwell Group and set to open this spring.
Poots, 51, began his illustrious career as a programmer at London’s Barbican in 1996. After four years, he moved to Tate Britain where, among the many live events he commissioned, there was an eye-opening production by Steve McQueen and Jessye Norman. He then left London and accepted a position as artistic director of Park Avenue Armory, in New York City. During his tenure there, he became known for his risk-taking instincts, which yielded successes such as the world premiere of Paul McCarthy’s film-and-sculpture installation ‘WS’.
As founding director of Manchester International Festival, Poots commissioned works across various art forms, from the likes of Matthew Barney, Marina Abramović and Olafur Eliasson. It was his decision to re-stage Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory that not only drew record audiences but solidified his position as a potent cultural arbiter in the city.
The soft-spoken yet charmingly focused Poots doesn’t skip a beat when discussing the motivating factors behind his vision of the Shed:
“Three filters came to mind,” he says, “which I think should be applied to any idea. One should be that it must be unique. Another is that it should be complementary. The third is that it should be useful.”
In the high stakes of achieving economic sustenance, Poots is well aware that the Shed must be singular in its mission.
“If you looked around, there was no place that brought all the arts together under one roof,” he says. “The Metropolitan Museum and New York Philharmonic were founded in the 19th century. Then in the late 1920s, MoMA came along. It was the first museum of modern art anywhere in the world. What was interesting to me was that at the start of this century a growing interest among a range of artists began to develop into where these different art forms have connections. This is not a new thing, of course: Diaghilev did it with the Ballets Russes. Although very stylised, opera is also a form of that. There is an interest in art forms not only working together, but cohabiting a space too. So if you go to see an exhibition, you could also see a piece of theatre.”
Breaking barriers in the art world is exactly what millions of people travel to New York each year to experience, so the modern spaces in the city have to house art forms that are diverse in scope and intention. Aligning himself with the ever-cross-cultural connections, Poots realises that audiences are looking now more than ever for that dynamic combustion. Growing up as a musician and then studying the trumpet at university in Scotland, he avidly questioned the classist structure of art.
“As a professional musician and composer,” he says, “I never understood why there seemed to be more reverence for the music I played that was written by a classical composer than if I was playing jazz or performing with a pop group. Inherently, I don’t think one art form can be greater or worse than another. Why would someone consider a work by Schumann more relevant than a song by Nina Simone?”
Poots has steadily built a career centred on translating his personal views into an artistic mission. When asked about the intentions of his new role at the Shed, he answers:
“There’s always been a need for spaces that commission artists to do work. That was something I’ve spent my career doing – whether it was at the Tate or the Barbican or more recently at Manchester International Festival or Park Avenue Armory. I was always committed to commissioning artists across a range of art forms, including performing arts, visual arts and pop culture.”
Poots is quick to acknowledge the importance of reaching a broad audience with the performances.
“When you are commissioning artists across these platforms, you inevitably end up with a very wide-ranging programme and that should pique the interest of a wide range of audiences.”
Poots exhibits a profound understanding of New Yorkers’ innate curiosity and desire to be knocked off the edge of their seats. Citing a re-staging of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Marina Abramović and pianist Igor Levit, Poots recognised that in New York anything is indeed possible:
“We created this show and approximately 7,500 people went. An artist such as Igor Levit would invariably be placed in a 1,000-seat hole and people initially thought we were crazy for producing a show like that which would run for several consecutive nights, but there’s an artistically rich and experienced audience in New York City who is interested in experiencing a new approach.”
Faced with a plethora of choices, New Yorkers, including myself, want to be enticed. We’ve seen it all before. What drives us to these spaces is the thrill of encountering the unexpected.
The Shed is in Hudson Yards – the city’s most expansive urban development in recent years – and seems poised to make Poots’s vision of a cross-cultural space a reality. When finished, the impressive, one-of-a-kind structure will be a 2,300 sqm, column-free, quality space, with eight levels, two galleries, a 500-seat theatre, a main hall and a telescoping exterior glass shell that operates on railway tracks to create a climate-specific sculpture court or an arena for up to 3,000 spectators. As Poots explains:
“Depending on the artist’s need, we can divide our two galleries up into six galleries. In our theatre, we can go from 500 seats to 200 seats, for a more immersive experience. The main hall can be light-filled or completely dark. We have developed a producing team with a wide range of skill sets who can respond to an artist’s ideas even if the idea strays away from the art they started with.”
Bridging communities and artistic disciplines, the Shed will serve as a laboratory of innovative concepts. Drawing the vigour of early career artists into the mix, Poots understands that visitors are seeking an overall experience of cross-cultural diversity.
“We look to more established artists, such as Steve McQueen and Trisha Donnelly, as well as to early career artists. We have something called the Open Call, which is our commitment to early career artists in all five boroughs of the city, placing them in our A-list spaces alongside more established artists. So when you buy a ticket to see a more established artist, you can also learn about the early career artists for free.”
The New York City of today is about stepping into an overall experience – an event that allows us to place art in a historical context while introducing us to avant-garde concepts. Droves of artists migrate here every year to make their impression on the city that never sleeps. They arrive with their own distinct ambitions to serve the unexpected and make us all experience with awe their artistic visions. Whereas the ‘old’ New York of the 1980s and 90s was governed by what some historians might term elitist institutions, the ‘new’ New York has flipped that proverbial concept on its head and replaced it with a code of conduct that supports inclusivity, expansion and cross-art collaborations.
No real distinction exists between high and low art these days. Street art is as relevant as an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Poots’s over-arching vision as artistic director reflects artists’ need to create and audiences desire to experience new forms of art. With trends swiftly coming and going and a shift in how we perceive art, Poots exhibits an insight into the city’s core foundation and its absorption of evolving artistic tenets.
My New York City is about casting predisposed ideas and gliding into the future. The single rule nowadays is that rules simply do not exist anymore.
The Shed will be New York’s first multi-arts centre, designed to commission, produce and present all types of performing arts, visual arts and popular culture. Located where the High Line meets Hudson Yards, the unique and flexible building can physically transform to support artists’ visions and the work they create – from hip hop to classical music, visual art to literature, film to theatre and dance – with collaborations across these disciplines and beyond, welcoming the broadest range of art forms and audiences all under one roof.