Lessons Learned: The World Trade Center Performing Arts Center Project and the Joyce Theater

An interview with Linda Shelton, Executive Director, The Joyce Theater Foundation

Editor’s note: On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, Dance/USA speaks with Linda Shelton, executive director of The Joyce Theater Foundation, about the plans for the World Trade Center performing arts center. Originally, a two-organization complex with a purpose-built dance theater, during over nearly a decade of planning, including budget cuts to the project, the complex has been downsized and reshaped from the original vision. Should the dance field be concerned about what happened to this model project? What, if anything, can and should the dance community be doing now as the project proceeds? This interview is a transcription conducted with Shelton in advance of this 12th anniversary.

Dance/USA: Linda, can you describe what was originally envisioned for the World Trade Center performing arts center project?
Linda Shelton: After the unfortunate attacks of 9/11, eventually a master plan was developed for the entire World Trade Center site and one of the components was to include cultural buildings. We need a temple for dance on the World Trade Center site because it’s appropriate; it’s right. Dance is about the celebration of life. Early on there were two buildings planned: a cultural building and a performing arts center. There was a competition held to see who would occupy these two buildings. Eventually, after a very long vetting process, in June 2004 two organizations were selected for the performing arts center. They were the Signature Theatre and The Joyce Theater.

I recall that time very well because when the Joyce was selected, we held a big press conference in New York and it happened to conflict with the Dance/USA conference, which was in Pittsburgh that year. I arrived at the conference a day late because I had to speak at the press conference. It was so exciting because this was something so positive for dance, a commitment to dance in our country that had never been made before – that a dance presenter would occupy this major performing arts center to be built on the most important [memorial] site in the country, if not the world. When I got to the Dance/USA conference, I walked into one of those ballrooms filled with colleagues and I remember I got a standing ovation — and I didn’t even say anything. The dance community was so excited about the recognition.

Over the next few years the Joyce and Signature Theatre developed plans for what would be an amazing performing arts center. At some point along the way a new governor came in and the project took another turn. It was decided that this building for these two organizations could not be built because it would just be too expensive. Signature Theatre was asked to find another site and with help from the city of New York, they found a site on west 42nd Street. Now they have a brand new building on 42nd and 10th called the Pershing Square Signature Center, and it’s a beautifully designed Frank Gehry building with all of the amenities that the artistic director James Houghton had dreamed of for the World Trade Center site.

At that time, the Joyce was still going to be part of the performing arts center at the World Trade Center site and we redesigned the building so it would be smaller, but it would be totally focused on dance. There would be some complementary programming to include neighborhood and community groups, music events and film, but it was predominantly meant for dance would have the best site lines you could have and everything else you could possibly imagine for dance. It was going to be the 1,000-seat venue that New York needs for dance. That was the plan for quite a while, until December of 2012.

At that point the mayor of New York, Mayor Bloomberg, who is definitely a big supporter of the arts, appointed a board of trustees that would be responsible for raising the money and building the performing arts center. This group of people has very little connection to dance and very little connection to the Joyce Theater and it is in their hands to raise the money and build the performing arts center. This board will have to build what they determine they can complete successful fundraising campaign. And unfortunately it is not the vision the Joyce had originally when it was the sole occupant of the performing arts center.

We have been told by the new board that The Joyce will still have a major role in dance presenting at the WTC PAC. We just don’t know what that role will be. We still plan on it being a major role for dance presenting, but it will not be what we originally envisioned.

What is so disappointing is that the dance community doesn’t seem to care anymore. What is so disappointing is that the dance community doesn’t seem to care anymore. I realize a long time has passed since the selection in 2004 and it has been confusing to follow the latest developments. When we were originally going through the selection process, so many dance companies from New York and around the country wrote letters; they were part of the process and wanted the PAC to be for dance. I think the community itself was one of the reasons why the Joyce was selected: the entire community spoke up and said this needs to be a place for dance. We need a temple for dance on that site because it’s appropriate, it’s right. Dance is about the celebration of life. Now I don’t see that commitment, but maybe it is just too hard to follow the up-and-down saga and negative press about the PAC.

D/USA: Do you think that because the process has taken so long, momentum got lost or do you think the dance community simply changed direction?
Shelton: I don’t know that it changed direction. I think it has to do with lost momentum. People say to me, ‘Oh, is that still happening?’ So I think that has to do with lost momentum. The answer to it is: ‘Yes, this will be built.’ But if it’s going to have a dance focus, the community needs to speak out.

D/USA: When you say ‘community’ you mean national dance community, right? Someone from San Francisco, Albuquerque or Chicago shouldn’t think this project is only for New Yorkers.
Shelton: I say: If they want to come and perform in New York, they need a place to perform and a presenter.

D/USA: What can we, the dance community, learn from this? This center was so close to becoming the first purpose-built performing arts center dedicated entirely to dance using public funds and support. So what can we learn so we don’t find ourselves in a similar situation if an opportunity like this comes around again?
Shelton: I think the advocacy has to be ongoing. Just like the other advocacy work that Dance/USA, the board, and the Performing Arts Alliance do on behalf of dance, it can never stop. Even with this project, it’s not too late, but the community HAS to speak out. We have to write to the board and I would suggest Patricia Harris, because she is the deputy mayor of the city of New York for a few more months. She also holds a place on the PAC board and she has been very responsive and supportive of the Joyce and the PAC. Patty needs to know that the dance community wants this to happen and still cares about the project and the role that dance could play at the WTC PAC.

D/USA: What’s interesting to note is that when Mayor Bloomberg created the board there were no dance stakeholders on the board, were there? What should we as a community to do get ourselves at the table before something happens?
Shelton: Well, in this case [to serve on the board] it was a $5 million give or get. So that requirement was pretty steep. The Joyce did not identify anyone to put on the board. But, even now, the field could still advocate for a Joyce representative to be on the board, maybe with less of a financial requirement.

In a sense, this is a wakeup call for the field to begin building connections with stakeholders with big pockets. We need to learn to look where the money is, don’t we?
Shelton: Yes. But maybe this interview is really about what you can do without money but with advocacy. We need to realize what’s at stake for the dance community if we don’t speak as one voice. We  must continue to advocate or we’re going to lose the role, even though it is diminished, that we have now. We need to realize what’s at stake for the dance community if we don’t
speak as one voice. We  must continue to advocate or we’re going to lose
the role, even though it is diminished, that we have now.

This could conceivably become a model for other cities and communities to look toward if a purpose-built public center for dance gets built. Other cities could see what this center can do to revive the lower Manhattan area.
Shelton: Yes. That was always the idea. The city looked at what the Joyce did for Chelsea when it was pretty run down. That was one of the reasons why we were selected: We keep this neighborhood active morning, noon and night. That’s exactly what they wanted for this new performing arts center.

Moving forward what steps is the Joyce taking?
Shelton: We are constantly getting to know this board. We are asking people to advocate on our behalf. We do presentations to the board to keep them informed of what we’re doing and we’re asking the field to get involved also by speaking out for this center.

It’s important to remember that the PAC is not a memorial tribute to those who lost their lives on 9/11. The WTC Memorial is a beautiful, moving and sacred place, separate from the PAC. The PAC is a stand-alone performing arts center adjacent to the memorial and the nearly completed Tower One on the original 16-acre World Trade Center site.

Why is it appropriate for a dance organization to be a part of that complex?
Shelton: Because I think that dance in many ways is about the celebration of life. I think that the memorial does an unbelievably beautiful and moving job of paying tribute to what happened on that site. There are also office buildings on the site and there should be room, and there is room, for more. We have to celebrate that there is life and that we are rebuilding after what happened on that site. I think that dance really speaks to this idea because of the universal language of dance and it can be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone in the world who might be visiting that site because of the importance of what happened there.

The vision that we have is important because we are seeking something that doesn’t exist [presently] for dance anywhere in the world: a place with 1,000 seats, with the best site lines, with amenities for dancers and audiences, rehearsal studios. Of course, that vision has changed and the center will have to also be used for other art forms but if there’s a way to keep dance a major presence, that’s all we can ask for.

Linda SheltonLinda Shelton is presently the executive director and a trustee of The Joyce Theater Foundation, a position she has held since 1993. Prior to her current position, she served as general manager of The Joffrey Ballet. Before The Joffrey, she managed tours for the Bolshoi Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Moscow Virtuosi, Sankai Juku, and several Philip Glass productions. From 1982–1988, she held management positions at The Twyla Tharp Dance Foundation. 

Shelton began her work in the dance field as an intern at the New York State Council on the Arts Dance Program. She holds a B.A. degree in dance education from New York University and has completed work toward her Masters in Arts Administration, also at New York University. A Dance/USA board member for over ten years, Shelton served as chair from 20002002 and was also chair of its 1996 National Roundtable.

In 1999, Shelton was appointed Chevalier of France’s Order of Arts and Letters for her contribution to furthering the arts. With her leadership, The Joyce Theater received the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Liberty Award in 2011. 

Shelton has taught at Marymount Manhattan College and is currently an adjunct professor in the graduate program of arts administration at New York University. She has also served on panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project, American Masters: Dance, Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Toyota Choreography Award in Tokyo, and the Benois de le danse in Moscow.


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