Dani Levinas was taken by surprise when the city pulled the plug on his museum project.
Dani Levinas was taken by surprise when the city pulled the plug on his museum project.

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The conflict over Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s decision to pull the plug on a planned downtown museum continued to escalate today, with the museum’s leader accusing Bowser of inventing his project’s alleged financial hardship as an excuse to scrap it and open the site to more lucrative proposals.

Bowser’s predecessor, Vince Gray, selected the Institute for Contemporary Expression a year ago over three competing bids to take over the vacant former Franklin School on 13th Street NW. But Bowser, as part of a review of major contracts awarded by Gray, announced this week that her administration had vacated that contract and issued a new solicitation for development proposals for the site. Administration officials cited concerns about the museum’s fundraising and long-term financial stability. One official said that the museum’s fundraisers were “nowhere near their goal, and there’s no reason to think that would change.”

Art collector Dani Levinas, ICE’s executive director, is flabbergasted that the Bowser administration has used poor fundraising as the reason to revoke the contract, given that the administration has no idea how much he’s raised. Asked why Bowser’s team would think he was struggling to raise money, Levinas responds, “I don’t think they think. I think they’re using that as an excuse. I don’t know where they get it.”

Administration spokesman Joaquin McPeek declined yesterday to reveal whether the administration had any knowledge of ICE’s fundraising thus far.

“They don’t give you any information because they don’t have it,” says Levinas. “I might have $10 million in the bank, or 20. They don’t know.” Levinas’ earlier agreement with the city had set a fundraising target for one year after the D.C. Council approves the plan, something that has yet to happen.

Levinas also wouldn’t publicly disclose his fundraising haul. Still, he says he would gladly have provided those numbers to administration officials had they asked. Instead, they vacated the award without so much as a meeting to inform him.

McPeek implied yesterday that handing the building over to ICE before the museum had established its financial stability would be a risky move. Levinas says that gets it backwards: A museum can’t raise substantial funds before it’s gotten final approval from the city. Because grants can take many months to hammer out, foundations and other donors are reluctant to undertake the process until the museum’s opening is guaranteed. “Foundations said, ‘We’ll help you when you have a signed agreement with the city,'” Levinas says.

Levinas also questioned another line of criticism over the museum: the idea that it would charge hefty entrance fees that would limit access for low-income residents and make it difficult to compete with the free Smithsonian museums. Levinas says he’s talked to the directors and financial officers of 14 similarly sized museums in the United States and Canada, and they all told him that entrance fees weren’t an important source of revenue, which came mostly from grants, donations, and membership.

“We said that we were not even sure that we were going to charge an entrance fee,” Levinas says of his conversations with the District government. “If there was going to be an entrance fee, it was only going to be $10, but free for students and free for senior citizens. We wanted to make it as accessible to the public as possible.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery