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Art Students Drill Educational Alliance CEO on Renovation Plans

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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.

Tonight’s meeting at the Educational Alliance.

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.



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  1. It’s hard to believe anything Robin Bernstein says.  As you reported, Ms. Bernstein agreed at the meeting “to meet with a small group to discuss possible creative solutions.” Now she has reneged at that promise, instead only agreeing to meet individually with 3 students whom she handpicked.  That is hardly a meeting, yet she claims that she never agreed to anything else. 
    If the EDAL can not even be honest about facts that are clearly reported, how can we believe anything that they say about the new “improved” art school.  It’s like they have blinders are and they are determined to destroy the 100 year old art school and its legacy, no matter what. They refuse to stop to consider any alternatives, yet even as I write this I get messages from EDAL telling me about all the latest happenings at the art school.  I guess when the painting and drawing students are struggling in the diminished rooms 2 years from now, when the darkroom, welding and sculpture students are permanently displaced, the EDAL and Ms Bernstein will be still saying how wonderful the new art school is–once you find it down in the gloomy cellar.

  2. I don’t get it. It sounds like there will be seniors eating lunch, performances taking place, and some vague “neighborhood gatherings.” Isn’t there a theatre on the first floor, a pretty historic one actually? Seniors can’t eat somewhere else? There is something fishy about all this. Those “activities” don’t seem at all dependent on being on the fifth floor. What is the Educational Alliance hiding?

  3. It’s interesting that Bernstein says the institution was forced to balance the needs of many constituencies. Why weren’t students and teachers consulted for the new building plans? How can the Educational Alliance claim to be trying to balance the needs of their constituencies without actually reaching out to them? It sounds like decisions were made behind closed doors without any real intention of preserving the Art School’s legacy.

  4. Gutting a historical building and forcing its 110-year-old art
    school into a basement sounds like a great way to serve the community! No
    wonder Robin Bernstein didn’t bother anyone with the blah-blahs of the decision-making
    process or the yadda-yaddas of being informed before the last possible minute. Enjoy
    your new darkroom, everyone! Except photographers; it’s not *that* kind of

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