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Picture Mayor Muriel Bowser, pair of oversized novelty scissors in hand, perched on the front steps of the Franklin School. The mayor is inaugurating the Institute for Contemporary Expression, a new kind of art museum overlooking Franklin Square. Behind her is José Andrés—his latest restaurant occupies the first floor. Plus a pair of hot new ICE curators (TBD), developer Anthony Lanier, founder Dani Levinas, friends from across the Smithsonian Institution and other D.C. museums, and admirers who credit her for a big boost to the city’s culture.
Maybe that’s too hard to swallow after this week’s news that Bowser has scuppered the plans for a contemporary art museum at 13th and K streets NW. For examples of what a ribbon-cutting for a contemporary-art kunsthalle might look like, though, we don’t have to go very far. Think of the Power Plant in Toronto, MoMA PS1 in Queens, or the Armory in Manhattan. There’s the gorgeous Arsenale in Venice and the sprawling Baumwollspinnerei in Leipzig. The network of contemporary-art project centers that have revived dilapidated civic spaces is worldwide.
Bowser should be proud to bring D.C. into the ranks of this global fraternity with the Institute for Contemporary Expression. Instead, she stunned observers by overturning former Mayor Vincent Gray’s decision to award the Franklin School commission to ICE—without consulting or informing its founder, Levinas. The Bowser administration’s explanation for its hasty decision has invited scrutiny and scorn.
The mayor should reconsider. Not strictly because it’s the right thing to do as a good-faith business partner. Not merely because it would do wonders for the arts in D.C. ICE is simply the best decision the city could make for the Franklin School. In fact, it may be the only viable option. Here are six reasons why.
The Franklin School building is almost uniquely suited for a museum purpose.
Long before D.C. was Chocolate City, it was Red Brick City. In the decades following the Civil War, red brick was the favorite medium in Washington architecture, and Adolf Cluss was its maestro. The German-born architect built more than 90 churches, schools, museums, and civic centers in D.C. between 1862 and 1887, among them Eastern Market, the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, and the reconstructions of the Smithsonian Castle and the Patent Office Building (now the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum).
A building by Cluss is as close to sacred as any structure comes in the District. Zero chances will be taken with the exterior or interior of Cluss’ Franklin School, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark. The 1869 building is one of few in the city whose inside spaces are considered worth protecting: Its interior was included in the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites in 2003. The Franklin School’s got every protective charm that preservationists can cast.
The standards for rehabilitating an historic building call first and foremost for a compatible use. Many such buildings do undergo big conversions anyway: The old General Post Office building is now the Kimpton Hotel Monaco; the Old Post Office Pavilion will soon be a Trump Hotel. The Franklin School’s historic interiors status makes this work difficult (less so for a conversion to offices, much more so for a conversion to hotel or residences).
Plans for the Institute for Contemporary Expression require no such alterations. “We like the open ceilings. We don’t have to change the walls. We don’t need to add any walls,” says Levinas. “We only have to put in bathrooms, add elevators for access, fireproof the staircases, and that’s it. And paint.” While maintaining the building’s spatial and architectural features is the priority of preservationists, it should be one of the city’s goals, too. After all, this is not a vacant parcel. It’s a crucial part of D.C.’s material history and collective memory.
“This is the reason we were awarded,” Levinas says. “We were going to renovate the building exactly the same way that it was constructed 168 years ago.”
Any plan for rehabilitating the Franklin School would need to pass a series of historic preservation review hurdles, from the (mayorally appointed) state historic preservation officer to the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts.
“We would expect to review an actual proposal to rehabilitate the building when it is actually underway,” says CFA Secretary Thomas Luebke in an email. “More generally, the Commission is supportive of the arts in Washington, D.C., and I think would encourage that the redevelopment of the landmark Franklin School contributes to the public good, particularly for cultural uses.”
For what it’s worth, in 2011, Luebke suggested that the West Heating Plant in Georgetown be converted to a kunsthalle, the exact same use that Levinas has in mind for the Franklin School. Instead, the West Heating Plant is being converted into—what else?—condos.
Renovation costs for this museum will run much lower than for any other use.
The city has estimated that the renovation work for the 51,000-square-foot building will cost a developer between $20–24 million. ICE is predicting a significantly lower cost of $13.2 million. How does ICE account for the disparity?
Levinas says that he commissioned Sigal Construction to estimate a renovation figure. Sigal—a contractor that has overseen major renovations for Woodrow Wilson High School, the Jefferson Hotel, and other historic buildings—is a firm that’s in a position to know. Over the years, the contractor has been responsible for repairs and renovation work on the Franklin School’s exterior. An effort to restore the building’s windows and doors won a craftsmanship award in 1993 from the Washington Building Congress. Levinas says that ICE’s lower estimate even includes soft costs like architectural fees and financing.
The city’s estimate, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily wrong; but it probably anticipates a developer planning bigger changes. The final costs for building out a luxury hotel in the Franklin School could quickly surpass $24 million. And even in a heady real-estate market like D.C.’s, a price tag running upwards of $30 million for 33,000–38,000 square feet of usable floor space is a tall order. Using it as contemporary-art center could cost half as much.
“My estimate is a real estimate,” Levinas says. “That’s the number. We can do it with that number, no doubt.”
Bowser runs the risk of ruining the city’s reputation as a business partner—or worse.
In the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott writes with naked fury about the staggering implications of Bowser’s decision for the arts, for education, and for the public at large. He describes the mayor’s reversal on the deal “a dark day for nonprofit entities and arts organizations.”
He’s right, of course. But Bowser’s decision is even worse than that: It’s just as foreboding for doing business with the city as it is for bringing art here. How many D.C. mayors have ever overturned the results of a competitive RFP process after a final decision had been made?
“I’ve done business all my life. I’ve done a lot of business in Washington, D.C. Not with the city, always private,” Levinas says. “I’ve never had a situation like this. Even if you don’t agree, you sit down to discuss it.”
Gray announced the selection of ICE for the Franklin School in February 2014. The plan from Levinas and EastBanc head Lenier won out over formal proposals from CoStar Group and Douglas Development. Since then, Levinas has planned accordingly, hiring staff for fundraising and media, some of them permanent. He says that he’s met with prospective curators—one who would work locally, another “curator of curators” who would work internationally—to suss out interest in the museum. Then there are the consultants: architects, engineers, environmental and historical experts, and lawyers, all brought on to review the plans.
“We spent a lot of money on this,” Levinas says. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
A standoff over the Franklin School happened once before, and it didn’t go the city’s way. Back in 2005, then-mayor Anthony Williams signed a lease with a group led by Western Development’s Herbert S. Miller to turn the Franklin School into a luxe hotel. But a year later, the city reneged. In 2006, Miller, the developer who shaped Gallery Place, slapped the city with a $40 million lawsuit (over this project and two condo towers planned for National Ballpark that were also canceled). Two years later, the city settled with Miller for $2.5 million—one-fifth of which owed to the city’s reversal on the Franklin School.
Right now, Levinas continues to meet with his board to consider next steps. ICE spokesperson Kristin Guiter says that the organization has not discussed legal action.
ICE is nothing like the Corcoran, period, full stop.
Bowser administration officials hazarded a couple of reasons for canceling the city’s deal with ICE to renovate the Franklin School. One is ICE’s fundraising, which Bowser officials claimed was weak. As City Paper’s Aaron Wiener reports, Levinas protests that there is no way that the Bowser administration could know how much money the group has raised. (He told me the same thing, in no uncertain terms, in a phone call on Tuesday night, and while he wouldn’t elaborate on his total fundraising figures, he did reveal that the group raised $1 million between October and the end of 2014.)
On the other point—that ticketed museums do poorly in Washington, D.C., a city chock-a-block with free museums—the Bowser team is simply wrong. Look at the strong performance of the Phillips Collection, the beloved and ticketed museum just off Dupont Circle. The Kreeger Museum out in Foxhall is also doing just fine. And no other art museum off the Mall would benefit from as much foot traffic as a museum on Franklin Square.
To be sure, the Corcoran Gallery of Art failed big time, over many long years, for many hard reasons. Any venture for the Franklin School could fail, too, including ICE. But the museum planned for the Franklin School would be unlike any museum in the Mid-Atlantic, and its potential can’t be judged on the Corcoran’s failure.
The fact that the administration suggests that ticketed art museums in D.C. can’t succeed (when they can and do!) only underscores the city’s need for a better way of relating to its creative economy. That’s why Arts Action DC and its biggest D.C. Council supporter, at-large councilmember David Grosso, are pressing for the mayor to appoint a director of arts, culture, and the creative economy, like the one they’ve got in Minneapolis.
“I am disappointed that this project has been pulled back by the mayor,” says Grosso in an email. “It was a smart project that would have incorporated an arts institution into an area of the city that lacks such a location. Individuals artists and arts groups make our city dynamic and interesting, but they are also a billion-dollar economic industry that goes almost entirely untapped.”
Not any museum makes sense for Franklin Square, but this one does.
This one’s simple: Thousands of people hit up Franklin Square in the afternoon, mostly for its food trucks and empty benches. Levinas thinks he can capture a chunk of this crowd on a daily basis, luring visitors with lectures, music, debate, book talks—and an ongoing, ever-changing schedule of contemporary-art exhibitions, installations, interventions, and performances. (Not to mention whatever chef Andrés is cooking up.)
The centerpiece of the building will be the assembly room, a roughly 30-by-65-foot room whose 30-foot-tall ceiling will be suitable for all kinds of projects and provocations. That’s a space for big ideas, and Levinas means to bring them. He’s looking beyond the Mall: He means for ICE to stand shoulder to shoulder with the major contemporary-art project spaces from around the world. D.C. hasn’t seen an idea this large since the Hirshhorn Bubble (which the Smithsonian popped).
Like any museum, ICE would depend on the steady support of weekend visitors, tourists, foundations, donors, and members. Unlike more traditional art museums, ICE wouldn’t devote whole galleries or entire seasons to permanent collection shows (it wouldn’t have a collection at all). And the convenience and programming of ICE would draw young professionals with 45 minutes to spare over lunchtime like no other institution in D.C., Levinas says.
“This is the third space,” Levinas says. “Home, work, and then a third one. This would be the third one.”
Bowser is missing out on an opportunity to shore up her legacy.
For a mayor whose election was shadowed by questions regarding her involvement in a housing development scandal, Bowser appears unafraid of the scrutiny that her reversal on the ICE deal has augured. The administration has yet to provide a concrete justification for scuppering the deal approved by Gray. And the six-week window it has opened for developers to submit a formal proposal for an alternative vision is almost suspiciously narrow.
Bowser could instead consider the Franklin School in a new light—especially if Levinas and Lenier resubmit the plan for an Institute for Contemporary Expression, which they may yet do. Bowser administration officials could meet with ICE backers (for the first time ever, according to Levinas) to run over fundraising numbers and other concerns. She could, potentially, claim a Gray victory as her own, however unlikely that seems now.
What ICE would mean to the city is plain: continuity. A building that is core to the fabric of D.C. would continue to belong to D.C. It would continue to speak to the enlightenment of the public, accessible for people from every ward. The Franklin School should be a part of D.C.—not a tony extension of CityCenterDC. Unlike a tech hub geared toward high-flying enterprise or a boutique hotel for elite guests, a contemporary-art project space would give back to the people who live here—in potentially breathtaking, fascinating, funky ways.
Make no mistake: If Bowser picks a new development team with strong ties to her election, she will be living up to her lowest expectations. In that case, the Franklin School reversal will be more than a missed opportunity. It will be another development scandal.
Going forward, if a new plan for the Franklin School isn’t revealed to be shameless patrimony, it will nevertheless be the result of sheer capriciousness on the mayor’s part. At best, the likely alternatives look to be more of what D.C. doesn’t need: public handouts for the powerful.
“This [museum] could be doable and it still can be doable,” Levinas says, adamant. “One way or another, we’re going to do it.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery; rendering from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development