The Shed’s open-door policy

Left to right: Poet and performer Najee Omar and visual artist and writer Kameelah Janan Rasheed, advisors on The Shed's DIS OBEY pre-opening program for young artists, with The Shed's assistant producer of partnership productions, Maria Fernanda Snellings. Photo courtesy of The Shed
Manhattan’s newest arts center is an ambitious undertaking — with a lofty goal of attracting diverse audiences by engaging youth in Chelsea.

Want people to show up for the arts? Then bring the arts to the people.

That ethos is a driving force behind artistic commissions at The Shed, the new arts center currently under construction where the High Line meets Hudson Yards at West 30th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. No matter that the futuristic structure isn’t scheduled to open for another year. Two pre-opening commissions, both of which engage youth in Chelsea, and throughout the five boroughs, in the arts are already in full swing.

“We want to make sure our audience reflects the diversity of New York City. That’s something we want to aspire to — to make sure that no matter if you live in the high-rises that are being built right adjacent to us, or whether you live in Fulton Houses or Chelsea-Elliot, that you feel that you have ownership in our building, and that it belongs to you,” says Tamara McCaw, chief community officer at The Shed.

The first of two commissions, FlexNYC, is a dance residency in partnership with Flexn dance pioneer Regg “Roc” Gray and the D.R.E.A.M. Ring dancers. The intensive, eight-month program is led by teaching artists-in-residence in schools and community centers throughout the five boroughs. Approximately 400 students from first-graders to high school seniors participate; a high percentage of participating schools serve subsidized lunches. With roots in Jamaican Bruk Up and reggae dance halls in Brooklyn, Flexn, at its core, is about self-expression through movement, says McCaw.

“A lot of what makes Flexn unique from other street styles of dance is that it’s really based on storytelling. It’s an opportunity for students to talk about the issues that matter to [them], that matter to [their] community.”

In Chelsea, participating schools include Landmark High School on West 18th Street, where about 25 students are involved in the program. Landmark principal Caron Pinkus says she’s seen an increase in confidence among student dancers not just on the stage, but in other areas of their lives as well.

“Several of our dancers have stepped into leadership roles in the school. For example, three of them are currently serving as peer mentors, where they are helping to guide and assist their ninth-grade peers,” says Pinkus. “Two of our dancers joined the restorative justice advisory and are planning and facilitating circle discussions with their peers. Three of our dancers enrolled in College Now and are taking college level classes to earn college credits.”

As The Shed’s opening approaches in spring 2019, some students may have the opportunity to perform at the new art space.

Dis Obey

Following in the tradition of the Persian poet Saadi, who in turn inspired Henry David Thoreau, the second commission, Dis Obey, uses poetry and interdisciplinary arts to explore how nonviolent engagement and civil disobedience can be vehicles for social change.

Led by artist and educator Kameelah Janan Rasheed and poet and performer Najee Omar, the program is designed for students involved “to think about how their art can actually impact society, and how their work can raise awareness about particular issues,” said Rasheed.

Though just getting off the ground — the program began March 12 — Rasheed notes that each of the three teaching artists is using their own strengths and experiences in the classroom. For the poet and teaching artist Jayson Smith, that means focusing on the radical potential of close reading the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and others.

It’s a crucial skill, says Rasheed, at a point in history when people are spending a lot of time not reading as closely as we would like them to.

“For them to focus on poetry and close reading is a great extension of the skills of being aware and understanding nuance outside of reading poetry,” says Rasheed. “What are the radical potentials of thinking through who I am as a person, and how who I am as a person is a useful asset in the world?”

Dis Obey may culminate in an anthology of work or a public performance, as well as participation in City Council or community board meetings, where students can directly impact issues they’ve engaged with through the arts.

Says Rasheed, “The main goal is that the work leaves the setting that it was originally created in and actually has a public presence so that young people can see their work being engaged with by the public, rather than by just the smaller cohort of their class.”

Public Engagement

If The Shed’s eclectic inaugural commissions are any indication, the institution is trying to attract audiences where high art and pop culture intersect. In early March, The Shed’s artistic director Alex Poots announced commissions to launch in spring 2019 that include “Soundtrack to America,” a concert series conceived by Quincy Jones and Steve McQueen exploring the history of African-American music from 17th-century spirituals to modern-day hip-hop. Inspired by Euripides’ “Helen” and the life of Marilyn Monroe, the poet Anne Carson is commissioned to write a play titled “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy.”

In addition to commissions, The Shed is trying to engage community artists in various ways. In early March, the institution put out an open call for emerging artists to submit proposals for a six-month residency at The Shed. Artists who look at the urgent issues of our time are encouraged to apply. It’s part of the proactive effort the institution is making to engage the community, says McCaw.

From youth commissions to engaging tenant associations at NYCHA’s Fulton and Chelsea-Elliot Houses about ticket access, local hiring and internships, The Shed is reaching out to the community long before tickets go on sale. But how these ambitions play out has yet to be seen.

“We’re aware of the location we’re in, right?” notes McCraw. “We’re part of this very large-scale development, and we’re very appreciative of that. But we’re on city-owned land, we’re a nonprofit institution that has had significant public investment, and we take that very seriously. There’s a responsibility that we have to make sure all New Yorkers feel they belong to our institution, and that we belong to this neighborhood.”