Some while back I wrote about my experience of visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao. What I especially found striking was how many people were prepared to visit a gallery of contemporary art and yet how few a concert of contemporary music. At the time I speculated at possible solutions for this. First I wondered whether contemporary music should try to find its way out of the starched setting of traditional concerts — the rules of concert-going (no coughing, no fidgeting, no leaving early) can be very off-putting, even to the initiated. I also suggested that one way of creating more interest might be through collaboration with artists. Jim Aitchison, who has experience of this, suggested that musicians are considered the poor relations in art galleries, which in turn made me wonder whether we should be seeking out more neutral territory for joint projects.
Such a neutral space could be the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, who have just announced the appointment of Alex Poots as their new artistic director, beginning in the 2013 season. The Armory was built in 1861 by the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard. Occupying an entire city block it is, perhaps, most famous for its 55,000 square-foot drill hall (see photo). Putting that into context, the turbine hall at Tate Modern has about 36,500 square feet and the room at the Guggenheim Bilbao that houses perhaps the largest sculpture commission in history, Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time, 42,000. This makes it a mouth-watering space for ambitious visual artists. And since it was taken over in 2007 it has mounted a fair amount of this type of work: Aaron Young’s Greeting Card, ‘a 9,216-square-foot “action” painting’, Ernersto Neto’s Anthropodino, ‘a multi-sensory labyrinth of fabric and spice’ and Christian Boltanski’s vast contemplation on individuality, anonymity, life and death, No Man’s Land. What I find exciting, however, is that this is a space that refuses to be defined as just a gallery, theatre or concert hall. It has also, for example, staged Bernd Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten, an evening of Stravinsky sacred music as well as Ariane Mnouchkine’s Les Éphéméres, Declan Donnellan’s Boris Godunov and productions of Shakespeare given by the RSC.
Poots has a proven track record as an artistic director, having successfully led the biennial Manchester International Festival (MIF) since its inception in 2007. That festival has established itself very quickly as one of the most important in the country, with a reputation for creating interdisciplinary artistic projects and for finding innovative ways of taking the arts to the masses. It was under Poots, for example, that MIF commissioned the mobile J.S. Bach chamber music hallfrom Zaha Hadid, produced the cross-disciplinary Il Tempo del Postino and achieved the coup of holding the première of the Björk’s also cross-disciplinary Biophilia. Given Poots’ CV and the fact that the Armory is promising to expand its commissioning of new works we can almost guarantee some spectacular new things to come out of the New York venue. Best of all, we can expect composers to play a full part in this.