Having come into the world just a year before the coronavirus pandemic started, the Shed — an architecturally ambitious $475 million arts center in Hudson Yards — has weathered a bumpy beginning. In addition to sold-out performances (such as the recent play about Robert Moses starring Ralph Fiennes), the institution has had its share of financial struggles (28 of its 107 full-time workers were laid off in July 2020).
Now, the Shed is making perhaps its biggest adjustment yet, announcing that Alex Poots, the founding artistic director and chief executive, will no longer be chief executive — but will continue to focus on the creative side of the institution as its artistic director.
The change is effective immediately; Maryann Jordan, the Shed’s current president and chief operating officer, will handle day-to-day management in the interim.
“It has become more and more clear to me that, to really take us on to the next chapter, I need to dedicate my entire time to the artistic direction of this organization,” Poots said in a telephone interview, adding that the change was his decision. “I see it as a positive step forward.”
“I’m not going to say it’s not been a struggle, but we’ve gotten through it every time we’ve been confronted with challenges,” he added. “We’re very robust to have built the first arts center since Lincoln Center on an entirely new model with a completely new team.”
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Jonathan M. Tisch, who in April succeeded the Shed’s founding chairman, Daniel L. Doctoroff, and who — with his wife, Lizzie — in 2019 donated $27.5 million toward the building’s construction, insisted this was not a demotion for Poots. “Alex has done a remarkable job over the past eight years of establishing the Shed as one of New York City’s — and probably the country’s — premiere cultural institutions,” Tisch said in an interview. “But it’s a tough job to be artistic director and C.E.O. at the same time. In conversations, Alex expressed interest in stepping back from being top executive to allowing his focus to center on ensuring our success.”
Cultural institutions across the country have struggled mightily throughout the pandemic, primarily because of the lost revenue from closures and canceled performances. The Shed had the added hurdle of being just a year old, without the opportunity to build a loyal audience or donor base.
In the wake of the pandemic, the Shed reduced its annual operating budget to $26.5 million from $46 million in 2020; its full-time staff is now 88.
Last month, Poots sent an email to staff members saying that “in an uncertain economic environment,” the Shed would consolidate some of its artistic operations.
“To align our program developments and resources, we are exploring ways of merging program areas into an interdisciplinary department that works within and between art forms in unified ways,” Poots said in the email, obtained by The New York Times. “After much deliberation, this new model includes the discontinuation of the visual arts Chief Curator position.”
That curator position was held by Andria Hickey, who last February left Pace Gallery to join the Shed. She will be staying on, as curator at large.
Having one chief curator “makes less sense now,” Poots said in the interview, “because we need expertise across a very wide range of disciplines.”
The Shed has also had to adjust to the stepping back of Doctoroff, because of illness. Doctoroff led its successful fund-raising efforts and shepherded the institution into existence after he served as a deputy mayor under Michael R. Bloomberg, who himself supported the Shed.
Other successes include the Fiennes play written by David Hare, “Straight Line Crazy”; the comedian Cecily Strong’s New York stage debut; and an ambitious three-part exhibition by the Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno. In addition, the Shed was among the first arts institutions to reopen after New York’s pandemic shutdown. And the institution managed to raise the remainder of its building costs — $135 million — during the coronavirus crisis, Doctoroff said in an interview.
“We’re still learning,” Doctoroff said. “We’ve started to understand the model. I’m encouraged, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t normal start-up bumps and bruises. I think we will be incredibly successful over time.”