The Franklin School: An Interview with Dani Levinas

Exterior of the Franklin School(Gerald Martineau/ The Washington Post )
Exterior of the Franklin School (Gerald Martineau/ The Washington Post )

For once, the long shot, and the best idea, has prevailed. The city announced today that it will award the opportunity to redevelop the historic Franklin School to the Institute of Contemporary Expression and EastBanc, a team that has proposed converting the empty and decaying building into an arts space. The 1869 brick school house is located on 13th Street, NW, facing Franklin Square, prime real estate that had also attracted attention from teams that proposed redevelopment as a hotel, a research center and technology incubator. The other proposals no doubt promised more in terms of immediate economic benefits, but the ICE proposal looks to the long term, and to the more difficult to quantify cultural value of adding heft to the city’s arts infrastructure.
The idea came from Dani Levinas, a prominent local businessman, arts leader, collector and patron. He plans to use the school, designed by Adolf Cluss, as a space for temporary exhibitions, modeled after the Park Avenue Armory in New York, and MoMA P.S. 1 in Long Island City. Rather than house a collection, the Franklin School will host temporary exhibitions. It will also have a restaurant, café, bookstore and performance space. Its proximity to Franklin Square Park, which is also slated for redevelopment, means downtown could be significantly enlivened with new cultural opportunities.

It’s an enlightened decision by a city, and if Levinas and his team can assemble the money necessary to go forward, Washington will finally have a serious “kunsthalle,” a space for art that is devoted to curating the current cultural moment. Other institutions have expressed interest in using the space as well, so  ICE could emerge as an important collaborative player in the local arts scene. That means museums, such as the Phillips Collection, could put their imprimatur on larger exhibitions than aren’t feasible in their existing spaces.

I spoke with Dani Levinas this afternoon about the decision (transcript edited):

When did you learn that your team was given the nod?

I just found out this afternoon, they called me around 3 o’clock. I am very excited and thrilled.

And what is the next step in the process?

We have to get together with the city in the next few weeks to come up with a plan. We have to get an agreement on the terms they are going to give us the building. The time, the cost and also, the timing of the different stages, that is a negotiation that has to take place.

 And what is the next thing your team will do?

For us, we are going to start the fund raising, and getting as many people as we can to help us to [bankroll] the project, from small to big donations, even naming possibilities. Now that we have the building, this is real.

I am going to be working on more detailed plans for the space. We need to be more precise about the spaces for the exhibitions, and the space for the restaurant. We are going to spend more time on the design of the building.

I am also going to start looking for people to help me run the place, a director, a curator, and someone to do the education. Education will be a very important part of this project, and we need somebody who has experience on how to bring people into the building, not only as visitors, but for the learning experience.

 Have you thought about an architect yet?

The architect is going to be my brother, Salo Levinas, from Shinberg Levinas. He is an arts person too and he has visited a lot of museums. But to tell you the truth, this isn’t going to be a Frank Gehry thing. It’s more about just opening up the space as much as we can, and respecting the historic building. We want to bring it as close back to its original form [as possible].

 How confident are you that you can raise the money?

I am very confident. The more I talk to people about it the more I can see that there is a lot of support from the city, and from art lovers. In December, before the city made a decision, they got a lot of letters of support for ICE.  The PostClassical Ensemble [a local experimental music group], wants to share the space, so they sent a letter of support. I find that a lot of people love this idea and people are going to help.

 It is a big responsibility for me, but this is an incredible building, an historic building. It is an honor. I think this is going to be a big opportunity for the city as well, it is going to attract a lot of people. I think the city is going to be proud of ICE.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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