AN INSTITUTION offering ample funding for artists to create new work. A talented curatorial team to oversee it. A sleek new venue for exhibitions and performances designed by stellar architects. Many readers might regard criticisms of the Shed, New York’s newest cultural institution, as churlish. In most cities, its slate of offerings would be heralded as an unalloyed good. So why is the Shed rubbing so many New Yorkers the wrong way? As Rob Horning writes in this issue, the Shed (like the neighboring Vessel, a shiny architectural folly) is a cultural amenity of the gleaming real estate development at Hudson Yards, which, for many, has become a symbol of entrenched urban inequality. The Shed’s mission statement proclaims its role as a democratic counterweight to its surroundings, promising access for “all audiences” to experience multi-genre, multimedia work—something for everyone. But what does access mean in a part of the city that’s already overfilled with opportunities to encounter contemporary art?
The Shed sits at the northern terminus of a cultural complex that has taken shape over the past decade. The High Line Park, host of its own robust art and performance program, begins just steps from the Shed’s front door. The High Line wends through the world’s premier art gallery district before reaching the Whitney Museum of American Art (which, in turn, overlooks the construction site for Pier 55, a park and performing arts venue that, when complete, will stand on pillars in the Hudson River). In total, this is a cultural feast—much of it free to experience—that blends public and private institutions, nonprofit entities and commercial interests. But concentrated abundance is different from real accessibility, as the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, Tom Finkelpearl, seems to grasp. His 2017 report, “CreateNYC—A Cultural Plan for All New Yorkers,” lays out a framework for supporting arts organizations across the five boroughs, prioritizing public funds for community-oriented, grassroots institutions. It’s a laudable proposal for a more equitable distribution of resources, but it’s being overtaken rapidly on the ground by a process of relentless cultural consolidation.
Debates about arts infrastructure came to a head in Los Angeles this spring, as funding for a new Los Angeles County Museum of Art was approved—an enormous investment of public and private funds in a singular building to showcase the city’s cultural wealth. And there is much to showcase, as essays in this issue attest, even if outsiders have been painfully slow to grasp that reality (too busy griping about subway delays and new museums to notice, I suppose). Kate Wolf considers the five-decade career of Anthony Hernandez, a photographer whose stunning, formally rigorous compositions capture the lived experience of what passes for public space in LA. Leah Ollman, a veteran critic for the Los Angeles Times, visited LA luminary Betye Saar in her Laurel Canyon studio to discuss the artist’s assemblage sculptures, many of which confront the deep currents of racism in American popular culture. A full reassessment of Saar’s work, with separate exhibitions at LACMA as well as the Museum of Modern Art, is on the horizon for the fall.
Disputes about the distribution of arts funding within New York may come across as parochial outside the city. But the centralization of cultural resources is also taking place on a national scale, driving opportunities to the coasts. Two book reviews this month take up the vibrant art histories being made in the middle of the country. Sue Taylor writes on Chicago’s rise as a bastion of postwar artistic experimentation, and Raphael Rubinstein looks at the origins of Houston’s art scene. Rubinstein, who lives part-time in Houston, focuses on the scrappy efforts of the Contemporary Arts Museum to create a world-class program and support Houston artists—all while keeping directors and benefactors happy. This history echoes those of arts communities in smaller cities around the country—communities that likely need the support of institutions and funders far more than those in the middle-west part of Manhattan.