Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Get local news delivered straight to your phone

On November 30, officials at the George Washington University convened a town hall for students and faculty at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design. The school’s Flagg Building is part-way through a stem-to-stern renovation, which is making life difficult at the Corcoran. The session did not go over well.

“My body is not happy with the air quality in the building,” says Layla Saad, a junior in fine arts. “There’s dust everywhere, constantly. They do have air filters that are going, which is another problem, because they’re extremely loud and very disruptive for classes. It’s not really even fixing the problem.”

For the last year and a half, students have levied escalating complaints about conditions in the 120-year-old home of the former Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design. When the Corcoran failed as an institution in 2014, George Washington University absorbed the school and its building at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. The university soon after launched an unprecedented renovation, and decided to keep the school open to studios and classes for the duration.

This work has introduced disorder to students’ lives, they say. From ever-present rats to jackhammers drowning out instructors to catcalls from construction workers, their complaints detail a classroom environment that could be called messy at best. 

During the November town hall, attendees described issues that go well beyond daily nuisances. Headaches, respiratory disorders, nosebleeds, and rashes were among the physical symptoms they enumerated. Some students, teachers, and staffers link these ailments to the $47.5 million building overhaul—loud and sometimes noxious work that is happening even as students attend lectures, print lithographs, or work the ceramics wheel. 

One student testified that the construction effort has affected her fertility. Two students said that the Corcoran gave them fleas. 

“In terms of this being an environmentally safe place to be, it is, and if it were not, I would shut it down,” said Darell Darnell, senior associate vice president for safety and security at the George Washington University, before the end of the proceedings.

The university’s Division of Safety and Security—the body with ultimate oversight authority over the Corcoran renovation—is abiding by standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Darnell said.

By the end of the hour-long townhall, the discussion had devolved into a shouting match.

“There’s no information being circulated throughout the student body from GW at all about the actual concerns at hand in that building when you’re working there,” says Yacine Fall, a junior fine arts major.

On the same day as the town hall, Maeve McCool, a senior studying fine arts and art history, posted a video to Facebook. A black oil drum had been left sitting in a basement hallway since the summer. Nobody knew what was inside, but it had begun to reek of sewage. So McCool and some other students cracked it open. The drum was filled to the brim, a vat of inky water and floating sludge. The video shows curious onlookers fleeing the hallway with their shirts pulled up over their noses. 

“The next day it was gone,” McCool says. “None of us found out what it was. They never contacted us about it again.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

The renovation is the latest chapter in a Corcoran saga that stretches back years. Perhaps as far back as 1989, when the museum, under pressure from then-Senator Jesse Helms, a culture warrior from a pre-Trump era, canceled an exhibition of photography by the artist Robert Mapplethorpe and earned the ire of the art world.

This latest impasse dates back to a pivotal moment in 2014, when a D.C. Superior Court judge approved an order dissolving the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design. The move followed a slow-burning identity crisis at one of D.C.’s premiere cultural institutions. 

At its conclusion, the court agreement handed the 17,000-plus artworks from the museum’s encyclopedic collection to the National Gallery of Art, while the college fell under the purview of GW. Seniors today at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design are called the Corcoran’s “legacy” class—the last to enroll at the Corcoran before it became part of a private university known better for its soaring tuition and poli-sci pedigree.

The court order made national news. It determined the fate of the Flagg Building, a Beaux Arts landmark that opened in 1897. GW took responsibility for the building and, per the order, financed a badly needed renovation with the proceeds of a controversial 2013 auction of fine rugs, which the Corcoran sold for $40 million just before it failed. GW also sold Corcoran classroom facilities in Georgetown and put that money toward restoring the Flagg Building.

Major renovations began in 2015 to address core problems in a beloved but neglected architectural gem. Some of this work happened before the Corcoran institution folded: In 2009, the Flagg Building closed for two months for a restoration of its signature bronze, copper, and glass roof. Today’s ongoing work is far less sexy, involving the installation or replacement of systems for sprinklers, air handling, electrical wiring, and other mechanicals. 

“One sad irony is that the vast majority of the renovations being done are not transforming the interior architecture of the building in a way that is going to get the Flagg Building into an architectural magazine,” says a GW administrator who declined to be named. “It’s not like the building is going to be packed full of state-of-the-art classrooms with all of the bells and whistles.”

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Press accounts from 2014 show that the university intended from the start to keep the school open during the building renovation. Spokespersons for GW declined to say exactly who made this decision and when, or make any principals available for an interview. (Much of this reporting fell over the holidays.)

“The decision to continue to use the Flagg Building for classes during the renovation was made by the university after careful consideration of the needs of the program and in consultation with stakeholders across the university and the construction company,” reads a December 29 statement from the university.

Faculty and students alike say that the art school has been subject to chaotic conditions as the renovation push has moved through the building, and the university concedes that this work makes for difficult learning conditions at times. Teachers were sometimes forced to cancel classes, while critical workshop facilities were unavailable for long stretches. But as tempers flared at the townhall, several students said that working in the Flagg Building is simply dangerous.

Sarah Craft, a senior in fine arts—one of the Corcoran “legacy” students who enrolled before its demise as an independent art school—says that she spends between 8 and 12 hours per day working in the ceramics studio (where she is also a lab tech). Craft says that she started experiencing unusual symptoms in the spring semester of 2017: sinus-pressure headaches, nosebleeds, and phlegm colored gray and black. “Which is usual if you’re a charcoal draftsman or something,” Craft says, “but I’m not. My snot should not look like that.”

Administrators from GW, including Adam Aaronson, director of campus development management, and Ben Vinson, dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, were on hand at the November townhall to explain the school’s ongoing efforts to address these concerns, from monitoring air quality to installing air scrubbers throughout the building.

At the townhall, Darnell elaborated on GW’s testing methodology, noting, for example, an uptick in respirable dust and crystalline silica measured in September on the first and second floors due to construction activity. The levels returned to normal in October, but by then administrators discovered an increase in silica dust in the sub-basement levels, where the Corcoran’s wood and metals shops are located. At all times, these levels fell within acceptable thresholds, according to Darnell.

“If hazardous work is being performed in an area of the building, all District of Columbia and OSHA rules and regulations are followed to ensure that these areas are under full containment and cannot be accessed by unauthorized students, faculty, and staff,” reads a statement from GW.

The university has responded in real time to some egregious claims. After Yacine Fall presented a note from the GW Colonial Health Center saying that she had a rash consistent with insect bites—which she says she got in the building, when she was practicing a performance piece—the school called pest control twice. (No evidence of fleas was ever found.) Rats in the hallways is another issue. The university is quick to point out that rats are on the rise everywhere in D.C. (One administrator said that it’s always been that way at the Corcoran.)

But it’s harder to dismiss claims of mounting respiratory ailments since the fall of 2016, when construction crews began active work inside classrooms. The university has since hired an outside environmental testing firm and issued hundreds of dust masks to students and faculty. If the problem is in students’ heads, then it’s in their sinus cavities.

Students have two broader questions: Why were they not told about the problems, such as the reported spikes in dust, as they were discovered? And moreover: Why did GW decide to keep the Corcoran building open during such an intensive construction dive in the first place?

“We’ve heard student complaints, we’ve sent them to Safety and Security,” says one GW staffer, who is familiar with the matter but not authorized to speak on it. “Either we’ve brought them directly ourselves or we’ve connected students to their email, their call desk, and said, bring these breathing concerns to them. For months, there was just no response at all.”

Laura Schiavo, program head and assistant professor of museum studies at the Corcoran School, came to the town hall prepared with three written pages of testimony from students and instructors about conditions in the building. She read one comment that she attributed to a guest lecturer, Nancy Bechtol, who is the director of the Office of Facilities Engineering and Operations for the Smithsonian Institution and came in to teach a class session. “[Bechtol] commented to the class about how the Smithsonian would not be allowed to be in occupancy during a construction project similar to this one,” Schiavo said. “The space, facilities, and quality was, in her words, ‘uninhabitable.’” 

(Bechtol confirms the broad strokes of those remarks. “I made a comment to the class about it being difficult to teach with all the work going on,” she said in an email. “I do not remember exactly what I said, so I cannot confirm this exact statement, but I would be willing to say it was difficult to teach with construction going on.”)

The university’s disclosure to the student body about its hard-hat status has taken the form of monthly air quality test reports posted to the school website since the spring. These forms include reports on mold, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, and other grody categories—though it might take an environmental scientist to make sense of the information. (“Samples were collected with an airflow of 15 liters/minute verified by a pre-calibrated rotameter for 5 minutes,” reads one passage.)

It’s less clear what steps GW has taken to spare women at the Corcoran lewd or uncomfortable remarks from construction workers. Several students described an atmosphere of street harassment inside the building where they spend their work days. Fall recalls how construction workers came into her studio and remarked on images from her performance work, in which parts of her body were visible.

“The number of the student population is dwindling,” Fall says. “The bulk of the people who are in the Corcoran at all times—50 percent of them are construction workers, if not 60 or 70 percent. I used to watch construction workers blow kisses, whistle, clap, and yell at the female students who go by.”

One GW report, dated November 20, detailed a plain red flag on air quality. “Based on these findings for respirable dust and silica, it appears that construction dust is being generated and impacting air quality in the occupied areas of the building,” reads the report from ECS Mid-Atlantic, a facilities engineering and consulting firm. “Due to the fact that the silica dust levels were so high, ECS recommends sharing this data immediately with the general contractor.”

To the university’s credit, Darnell opened with a discussion of this alert, as well as the university’s immediate measures to fix the problem, during the town hall—but to little avail. 

“Yelling and screaming about it is not going to solve the problem,” Darnell said over objections.

“At a certain point, some of the students were using intentionally aggressive behavior or language, and it kind of did what you might expect in a tense situation—it escalated everything,” Saad says. “At that point, I think, the townhall became a lot less productive.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

The building renovation had just begun when Sanjit Sethi started as the director of the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design in October 2015. Since then, he has been leading the university’s other rebuilding job: absorbing a scrappy art school into a major research university while maintaining its prestigious reputation and independent streak.

The first big step came in May 2016, a bloodletting in which the university laid off more than half of the Corcoran’s faculty. Among the heads that rolled were widely loved professors and department chairs, including Muriel Hasbun, Andy Grundberg, and Dennis O’Neil. GW has since mashed its own fine-art and performing-arts offerings with those of the Corcoran into a single academic unit—a “mega-department,” as one professor describes it.

Currently, the school employs 54 full-time faculty. It has five open positions (in interaction design, exhibition design, visual-art foundations, theater, and music). An influx of performing arts students has buoyed the Corcoran’s enrollment numbers (232 undergraduates and 288 graduate students as of this fall). But those figures were in freefall before: Attendance at the Corcoran fell from 200 undergrads and 193 grads in fall 2014 to 136 undergrads and 89 grads by fall 2016.

“We’re in a stage where the reincarnation of the Corcoran is about pivoting,” Sethi says. “How do we see assets within being part of a larger research community, and how can those assets pay out for the benefit of students who come through our doors?”  

Sethi says that positive changes are at hand. The biggest will be when the renovation ends and the National Gallery of Art takes over the second floor for museum exhibits. The school’s proximity to a working museum was always one of its selling points. Beyond that, the Corcoran School is launching several programs afforded by its relationship with GW. Undergraduates pursuing a fine arts bachelor’s degree can now minor in German, for example. The school is also launching a dual-degree program, so a student could, in five years, receive degrees in both political science and photojournalism.

Both the former Corcoran and GW art programs were underinvested in design, Sethi says, and the school is launching an interaction design program to help fix that. The Corcoran is doubling down on its exhibition design program, one of the only such programs in the country. Finally, in conjunction with the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy & Public Administration, the Corcoran is putting the finishing touches on a master’s degree for social practice—a thorny category of conceptual art that involves social discourse and community engagement.

“I believe that the do-it-yourself movement is over,” Sethi says. “I believe in the do-it-together movement.”

One faculty member says that the merger and the renovation together make too much change for everyone to endure all at once. Departments that once operated independently within GW’s Columbian College of Arts & Sciences are now a step removed from the dean. Students who entered the Corcoran in fall 2014 or 2015 pay the old (lower) college rate, plus a 3 percent hike every year, for instruction from GW faculty. Students who started at GW and found themselves at the Corcoran School must suffer a building renovation they never asked for.

University administrators are forthcoming about the fact that the renovation has had unintended consequences. Still, this is a cold comfort for students who claim they can sometimes see the air inside the building. 

“When you talk about the things that come up over the course of construction, and they’re sort of unanticipated, and you deal with them as they occur—it seems to me that that’s why you don’t have people in a construction zone 48 hours a week,” Schiavo said during the townhall. 

Sethi deferred questions about the building to GW’s Division of Safety and Security (who did not return requests for comment). But one GW staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity says that Sethi asked the university to relocate classes and studios from the Flagg Building to other facilities during construction. “The message came back, from a few different people, no, there’s no way we’re going to do that. You just have to get through this,” the staff member says.

Relocating a school is not entirely out of the question. In 2008, after a catastrophic Iowa River flood damaged the arts buildings at the University of Iowa, the university moved its studio art facilities to a former big-box department store on the outskirts of Iowa City. Last winter, after eight years away, the program and all its printers, presses, and kilns finally returned to campus.

The Flagg Building was never destroyed, of course. And if the costs for renting a temporary  70,000-square-foot building were high in Iowa City—$81,000 a month, per the Iowa City Press-Citizen—then finding a substitute space in D.C. might be next to impossible. Still, it’s unclear whether deep-pocketed GW considered any alternative. Before the university’s plan to absorb the Corcoran was even public, GW had already decided to muddle through, allowing some 75 classes a week to proceed in the deep construction of the Flagg Building.

The university’s decision has not come at no cost. To the extent that Corcoran students, faculty, and staff are suffering personally and physically—from cancelled classes to sexual jeers to asthma attacks—then the university has merely shifted the costs of its decision onto the Corcoran community.

“We’ve struggled through and we’ve become very close,” says Helen Jackson, a senior at the school. “We don’t let anything get us down now. I almost think we’re desensitized to it.” 

The university says that the work at the Corcoran is now rounding third base. GW aims to complete construction inside the Flagg Building atrium in February, in time to host the “NEXT” thesis exhibit in the spring, one of the highlights of any student’s time at the Corcoran. The first phase of construction should be completed by summer 2018. The university is still seeking another $32.5 million in donations to finish the full $80 million job—maybe the most comprehensive renovation in the Beaux-Arts building’s long history.

Dampened morale comes at a difficult time for the school. Sethi is trying to right the ship at the Corcoran after it suffered a catastrophic blow in the form of the dissolution of the college and museum, following years of neglect from absentee trustees. The college has enjoyed a particularly wild ride. A decade ago, the Corcoran College harbored dreams of opening a second campus in Southwest D.C. and boosting enrollment to 800 degree-seeking students.

For the current classes in particular, the university’s call for patience is a bitter pill to swallow. While construction in the Flagg Building will be finished soon enough, so will their time in art school. 

For Corcoran staffers, their office place has turned into a worksite. Faculty can’t expect to teach four-hour classes wearing dust masks. 

“It doesn’t seem like there’s any way to hold the university accountable for what they’ve done,” says one Corcoran faculty member, who declined to be named, referring to the decision to keep the building open during construction. “I find it deplorable.”

A testy school merger on top of a total renovation is a tough trick to pull off. But so is college. School is hard enough in the best of times—which don’t include an oil drum that everyone jokes is hiding a body.

“The graduating body of students, instead of thinking that their university years are the glory years of their lives, are going to think, it sucked, but I got through it,” Jackson said at the town hall. She was answered by applause.