By Donna Schaper
The Shed has opened its doors at Hudson Yards—and it will benefit from the best tax write-off yet for a structure that probably wins the prize for the most public money ever given to a development in New York City. That takes some doing. Calling itself “a new ritual space,” bothers me much more than the amount of money I gave in taxes to the project.
I don’t want to be a Marxist here, although you could argue that the amount of tax support the Hudson Yards got was a form of extreme socialism. Note, I didn’t say democratic socialism because I don’t remember voting for the project. Democratic socialism involves people participating. This version of socialism is a nearly invisible form of money laundering. Actually, I am glad about more and new ritual spaces in New York but I don’t think they need to cost that much. When we are told daily that we can’t afford more parks or more affordable housing, or better transit it is very hard to understand why we can afford billions for a #7 train to a “ritual space” or a bunch of high-end boutiques.
I’m not anti-Shed. I also love ritual spaces. Indeed, the arts and artists need money. There is nothing funny about “the starving artist.” Democratic socialism might want to tax everybody $25.00 a year to support artists so they don’t have to be “big” to create works. But in New York now, as with the Shed, some artists make obscene amounts of money while others stumble along impecuniously.
We run our whole Judson Arts Wednesdays programs, with emerging artists and free food, for about $50,000 a year. That is surely less than any one of the 32 positions listed for hire at the Shed will cost. I’m dying to see the job description and salary for the “Chief Customer Experience Officer.” I’m betting it would fund our ritual space experience for more than a year. The bigness and cultural appropriation of so many small arts groups—not just Judson’s—is just obnoxious. And I am not the only one self-interested enough to notice.
Joanna Stone wrote on March 11, 2019 in the art school report about Tisch at NYU, “A prime example of this avant-garde theater scene was the Judson Dance Theater, founded in 1962 by artists such as Deborah Hay and Steve Paxton in the basement gym of Judson Memorial Church. The church is a center for liberal views and political activism located on Washington Square South across the street from what is now NYU’s Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life. The artists who worked at Judson are the contemporaries and mentors of many teachers at Tisch. Much of the curriculum at an acting studio that costs upward of $70,000 to attend was created in a socially conscious church basement at no cost.
In 1964, two years after Judson Dance Theater started, NYU embarked on its own rezoning agenda by buying up much of the property on Washington Square. This privatization and increase in property value are part of what has caused the area to no longer be a viable option for the working-class artists it once attracted. The situation bears a little too much similarity to what is currently going on in Hudson Yards, and however appealing the $500 million project may seem to the socially artistic populous of Manhattan, the Shed is not necessarily the “haven for creative expression” it advertises.
Pioneer Works is a Red Hook version of the Judson model. Wikipedia describes it as “a non-profit cultural center in Red Hook, New York City. The center builds community through the arts and sciences to create an open and inspired world.”
There are a lot of us out here—decentralized low-budget shelters for artistic expression. We could use a little—not a lot—more money.
There is a typical difference between the kind of arts that play in all the “Judson Yards,” Pioneer Works, and hundreds of other smaller venues and the kind planned for Hudson Yards. One of these has too much money; the others have too little. One is emergent and endangered as a species; the other is established and secure. Overly centralized, overly financed art, art supported by public money without the public’s participation—this is what happens when art gets too big. Why do eleven institutions in NYC get all the money—proclaiming the “emergent” as their monikers—while everybody else gets nickels? I don’t care if the Shed is moveable. I care about whether Judson has an elevator that works. I care about genuinely pioneering works.
One way to figure out if something is really emerging is to find out what the artist’s day job is. One is atopic, meaning placeless; the other is place-ful and playful.
I really don’t want to be a Marxist reductionist. I don’t object to a good gig or 401K for any artist. Instead, I want to imagine another kind of world. That’s what the arts and artists do; we imagine.
My friend Susannah Lessard has written a new book about landscape. It is called The Absent Hand. She came up with so many good ideas but I will only steal three here. One is that word, atopia, which means placelessness. Hudson Yards will never be a place. It will always be a “destination.” The second is that she felt strongly about the loss of landscape and place in our time but didn’t want to be a reductionist materialist about it and go off on capitalism again as the source of all our problems. So, she invented a term, “the hand of work,” to manage the causes of our not really liking much to travel anymore because every place is so much the same. We’d rather be home. (Readers, do you resemble that remark as much as I do?) Work has changed and therefore leisure has changed. We live on our screens while fussing with our children to stop stealing our cell phones. Places are not economically necessary. Is art economically necessary? Is art work? Where will these questions get noticed, if not by the outsiders and the scrappy?
Places need to be small and have enough money but not too much. The new work is likely to have some advantages over the old work and vice versa. By the way, ritual space is another language for liturgy. And liturgy is the work of the people. I hope the Shed finds a way to become a place—without insulting any more churches or small places along the way.