Art Students Drill Educational Alliance CEO on Renovation Plans
Since the summer, we have been following developments at the Educational Alliance art school, where students are up-in-arms about the historic Lower East Side institution’s renovation plans. Tonight, some of those students gathered in the rain for a brief protest in front of the Educational Alliance’s headquarters, at 197 East Broadway. They then proceeded up to the 5th floor studios, where the organization’s CEO, Robin Bernstein, fielded questions from 50-60 angry students.
A similar meeting was held in August, before the Educational Alliance board had actually signed off on a nearly $50 million proposal to “gut-renovate” the 122 year-old building. During her opening remarks, Bernstein said she took seriously the concerns expressed at that initial session about a decision to shut down the school entirely during the renovation period. As a result, Bernstein explained, some classes (including ceramics, painting and drawing) would be temporarily offered at other Educational Alliance facilities above Houston Street.
The architect hired to oversee the renovation project outlined the art school plan, which includes moving the studios to the lower level, eliminating the darkroom and welding studio, and shrinking the school’s space by 825 square feet. The new facility will be comprised of three “versatile” studios. Windows will extend from the ceiling to about five feet above the ground. The current 5th floor space is destined to become a mixed use community room, where seniors will be served lunch, performances will be held and neighborhood gatherings will take place.
Supporters of the art school vented their frustration throughout tonight’s meeting and peppered Bernstein with many questions. They criticized the suggestion that there might be no room for sculpture and stone carving classes after the renovation. They argued that the move from the airy, sun-splashed 5th floor would deprive artists of a truly special creative environment, and “decimate” the school. They chided the organization for neglecting to consult students and teachers about changes in advance.
Bernstein repeated many of the points she made during an interview with The Lo-Down last month. In a tough economy, she said, the institution was forced to balance the needs of many constituencies. While the art school is important, she explained, many other programs (including early childhood classes) are also vital to the organization’s “core mission.” Bernstein said hundreds of low-income families are turned away every year due to space constraints.
Some students said they resented the suggestion that choices needed to be made between art and children. One particularly vocal student asked pointedly whether the Educational Alliance was pushing the art school from its 5th floor perch for financial reasons.
In response, Bernstein was quite candid about the financial pressures her organization faces. She emphasized a commitment to serving the entire community — the traditional immigrant and low income population, as well as more affluent newcomers. Referring to expanded “wellness” programs the renovation will accommodate, she said “God willing people who can pay for services will be able to subsidize programs that don’t pay for themselves.” Last year alone, Bernstein pointed out, the organization lost $1.5 million in government funding. In the years ahead, she warned, non-profit organizations must face the reality that public funds are quickly drying up.
As the questioning continued, Bernstein finally told students, “we’re going to have to respectfully disagree.” Some of the participants tonight offered specific suggestions to make the art school more profitable. Bernstein agreed to meet with a small group to discuss possible creative solutions.
The renovation project is expected to get underway before the end of the year and to last for about two years.