Another Billionaire-Backed Cultural Center in NYC Raises Familiar Questions

 The Shed will be a half-billion-dollar arts center in hudson yards on manhattan's west side

The Shed will be a half-billion-dollar arts center in hudson yards on manhattan's west side

In January, the Metropolitan Museum of Art postponed the construction of a $600 million wing. Soon after, New York Philharmonic President Matthew VanBesien announced he would step down, further complicating the philharmonic's long-delayed, $500 million gut renovation of David Geffen Hall, renamed after its namesake's $100 million gift in 2015.

And in March, Crain's New York reported that a dispute between local agencies could jeopardize federal funds for the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center. Perelman made a $75 million donation to the center in June of last year. Meanwhile, a proposed new island park and performance center in the West Village—financed by a $130 million pledge by Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg—has been bogged in litigation for several years now. 

It seems cutting a huge check for a massive capital project in New York has become the philanthropic kiss of death as of late. Michael Bloomberg, however, is undeterred. He recently donated $75 million to a new arts center known as The Shed, located on the Far West Side of Manhattan, being built within the Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project. 

The gift shouldn't come as much of a surprise when you consider his stint as mayor, when the arts were central to his tenure, as well as his arts giving via Bloomberg Philanthropies.

But as this post's introduction suggests, the gift also comes at a time when high-profile capital projects turn out to be far more complex—and expensive—than originally intended. What's more, some detractors point to another unintended consequence of the capital mega-gift: the widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the arts world, and in urban life more broadly. 

We'll take a closer look at this latter dynamic in a moment, but first, let's explore the larger philanthropic context of Bloomberg's gift, starting with the backstory, which involves Mayor Bloomberg.

Bloomberg's administration allocated $50 million, which became $75 million, to The Shed in 2013. It represented the largest cultural capital grant that year, and, as the Times notes, an "unusually generous contribution to an arts group that had yet to hire staff members or set a construction budget." Construction began in mid-2015.

The Shed, in short, was Bloomberg's baby, and it still is. He clearly remains committed to both the center and the redevelopment of Hudson Yards—a sprawling development rising at the northern end of the High Line Park, itself a creation of a Bloomberg-era public-private partnership that several billionaires financed. The recently opened Whitney Museum sits at the southern end of the High Line. Taken together, these projects are transforming Far West Chelsea, a Manhattan neighborhood previously known for its auto repair shops and self-storage businesses.

Plenty of elites in New York are excited about what's happening here, and we won't be surprised to see more gifts to The Shed in the run-up to its 2019 opening. Barry Diller and Stephen Ross are among the other wealthy donors to the center. Not everyone in Chelsea, though, feels the same way about the overhaul and upscaling of their neighborhood—which first brought throngs of tourists to the High Line and now promises to bring the sort of new residents who can afford the pricey real estate at Hudson Yards. The first condos offered for sale in the complex ranged from $3.74 million to nearly $14 million

Now let's zoom out and look at how the gift fits into Bloomberg's larger philanthropic giving.

While he's best known for his large-scale giving on public health and climate change, Bloomberg has long been an active and innovative arts funder. Bloomberg Philanthropies emerged as a leader in promoting public art with the creation of its Public Art Challenge back in 2014, encouraging U.S. cities to develop "temporary public art projects that enhance cultural and economic activity," while establishing "robust public-private partnerships between local government and other funders."

As this recent piece suggests, many funders have followed Bloomberg's lead. Donors find public art and the related field of creative placemaking to be effective strategies in engaging diverse audiences, shaping urban planning initiatives, and providing students with art experiences in an era of budget cuts.

Bloomberg acknowledges as much: "I've always believed the arts have a unique ability to benefit cities by attracting creative individuals of every kind, strengthening communities, and driving economic growth," he said. "The Shed will help New York achieve all three goals."

Indeed, Bloomberg's gift to The Shed bears some of the hallmarks of a public art/creative placemaking give. Yet at the same time, it's a lot of money for a single institution. And recent evidence—anecdotal and otherwise—suggests that large gifts earmarked for capital expenditures can exacerbate inequality in the museum world.

The proliferation of mega-gifts comes at a time when the most important financial lifeline for smaller museums—public grant dollars—is being cut. Adjusted for inflation, public arts funding is 15 percent lower today than it was 20 years ago.  

"When grant funding is slashed, the organizations that suffer most are the smaller groups, which have lower levels of visibility among other donors," notes a recent reportDiversity in the Arts, by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management. 

In Bloomberg's defense, he is acutely aware of the struggles facing smaller organizations. Bloomberg Philanthropies' Arts Innovation and Management program provides unrestricted funding and management training to hundreds of small and mid-sized organizations in select U.S. cities. He and his foundation are certainly looking out for the little guy.

Nonetheless, Bloomberg's $75 million gift comes as his successor, Bill de Blasio, has made combating inequality, including within the city's arts ecosystem, a key goal of his administration. 

In early May, the de Blasio administration began re-examining New York City’s $178 million arts budget. The goal? To give a higher profile—and perhaps more taxpayer money—to smaller institutions in disadvantaged neighborhoods. As the Times notes, city officials could be setting the stage for an "art-world version of class warfare, with cultural giants and their well-heeled patrons pitted against smaller, less-glamorous institutions that focus chiefly on serving racially and economically diverse local audiences."

Karen Brooks Hopkins, president emeritus of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, sums up the challenge succinctly: "What is needed is more money—there is simply not enough."

And so smaller arts organizations may look at The Shed gift and wonder: What's the best use of $75 million—funding a project situated amid multi-dollar condos in a borough already rich with cultural offerings or funding dozens, if not hundreds, of New York's cash-strapped small to mid-size arts organizations? (Bloomberg's gift brings the total funds raised so far to $421 million of the projected $500 million budget.)

That being said, it's worth noting that The Shed, as a new organization, may not be at the front lines in a looming "class warfare" battle. It's not an established "legacy institution" like, say, the Met or the New York Philharmonic. Indeed, as this piece by Eileen Kinsella in ArtNews illustrates, planners consciously frame The Shed as the "museum of the future."

In reality, though, the Shed is more of a "center for the arts" than a museum in the traditional sense. So what will it look like? No one knows. "Two years away from its opening, organizers are admittedly unsure of the programming themselves, emphasizing instead how open-ended and fluid their approach is," says Kinsella.

But planners have provided clues. Having been tasked by Bloomberg himself—and I'm quoting Daniel L. Doctoroff, The Shed’s board chairman and president, here—to "do something that will keep New York on the cultural edge," the center has begun a free, citywide program that explores "social justice issues through dance." 

That's a good idea. As recently noted, national grantmakers are "edging politely but firmly away" from "legacy" institutions in New York City that cannot "demonstrate a significant contribution to solving or soothing specific social or economic traumas." And so The Shed may in time come to resemble a kind of hybrid arts organization, funded by a cadre of billionaire donors with a forward-looking vision to address pressing social concerns.

To celebrate Bloomberg's gift, on May 24th, Doctoroff and Alex Poots, Founding Artistic Director and CEO, provided the a "first reveal" of the complex to roughly 500 artists, cultural leaders, dignitaries, city officials, business leaders, fashion designers, and philanthropists.