D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has killed a plan to redevelop the Franklin School as a center for arts and education. (Juana Arias/The Washington Post)
Art and architecture critic

They had already decided on a Saturday night in mid-September, and they had a tentative program: an evening of George Gershwin, Kurt Weill and Daniel Schnyder, a Swiss composer and saxophonist whose music crosses just about every definable stylistic boundary, from jazz to world music to opera. It was going to be a “hard-hat concert,” performed in the raw, crumbling space of the 1869 Franklin School. It would showcase the possibilities of the historic structure and generate support for the renovation of the historic building.

It is the kind of edgy, unorthodox artistic event that new generations of Washingtonians, who no longer accept the premise that the nation’s capital is a cultural backwater, crave. But it won’t happen unless the city reverses course on a decision made this week to end an agreement with the Institute for Contemporary Expression, which had partnered with one of the country’s most innovative music groups — the Post-Classical Ensemble — to present concerts at the long-vacant school at the corner of 13th and K streets NW.

Attracted by the large open spaces of the Franklin School, which would have also hosted art exhibitions, lectures and educational activities, the Post-Classical Ensemble signed on early as a resident ensemble at the proposed arts center. It was excited about finally having a proper home and increased presence in the District, where it hoped to build a new and more diverse audience than it might find at the Kennedy Center or other venues.

“D.C. doesn’t have a space that has the vibrancy, modernism, futurism, of a place like this,” said Chris Denby, board chair of the ensemble.

The decision to scuttle the city’s arrangement with ICE remains opaque. The deputy mayor’s office for planning and economic development first said that it doubted the ability of ICE’s visionary founder, Dani Levinas, to raise sufficient funds to cover the costs but then backtracked. It suggested that Levinas planned to charge exorbitant admission fees, even though none of those details had been set in stone. Although it claimed to have conducted a “top-to-
bottom” review of the agreement between ICE and the city, the economic development office never met with Levinas and never asked questions about his fundraising. When asked how long that review took and how many staffers participated in it, a spokesman offered this by e-mail: “We took this process seriously and took the time necessary to make a decision that we believe is in the long-term best interest of all District residents.”

Strangely, that decision was made almost simultaneously with the announcement of a new venture by the city’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities, a “Start Fresh” innovation grant for up $100,000. This is designed to aid organizations that are “creative, innovative and groundbreaking,” with “multi-disciplinary and multi-platform initiatives.” In other words, organizations that plan to do what ICE was already gearing up to do. The coincidence of these two decisions, one forward, the other several steps back, suggests that not only does the new administration lack a coherent cultural program, there isn’t even basic communication between its various offices.

This kind of fiasco is all too familiar to longtime observers of the city’s cultural scene, and to people who live near the Franklin School and who have watched the city try for years to develop a coherent plan for it. Local advisory neighborhood commissioner Kevin Deeley, whose district includes the Franklin School, wasn’t in office when Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration chose the proposal by ICE over three others (including a boutique hotel with rooftop restaurant, a technology center and a “live/work space for tech entrepreneurs”). But he likes the idea because the institute would be open to the public, increase foot traffic at night and weekends and offer cultural amenities in downtown Washington.

But it is the possibility of yet more years of delay, with the historic structure moldering yet further, that really frustrates him and his neighbors. There is no “continuity” between administrations, he says, and the result “is a wasted resource.”

“Another administration comes along and the whole process starts again, and now we’re looking at maybe two more years before they can break ground,” says Deeley. He is sending a letter on behalf of his constituents to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, asking her to reconsider her decision. Other letters have come from the American Alliance of Museums (“It is hard to imagine any better or higher use of this historic building than the one that Mr. Levinas has proposed,” said Ford Bell, the group’s president) and from civic groups. Dorothy Kosinski, who as head of the Phillips Collection knows a thing or too about the fundraising climate in Washington, said, “I was disappointed to hear of the project’s cancellation this week” and lamented the loss of an organization that would demonstrate how “contemporary art is a vital part of our economy and cultural ecosystem.”

The school has been empty for seven years. In 2010, when Adrian Fenty was mayor, the city held a hearing to determine whether the school should be declared “surplus” and thus open for private development. A transcript of that meeting is telling. While there wasn’t an agreement about exactly what the school should become, there was overwhelming sentiment that as a historic building with a long history of public service to the citizens of Washington, it most certainly should not be given up for commercial development.

One resident at that meeting more than four years ago said she “believes it can be used as a facility for children or education.” Another speaker suggested “the property could be used as a low-rent space for artist[s] and not a hotel.” “The District has enough hotels,” said yet another. One after another, through the evening, residents proposed public uses for this public property, as a homeless shelter, a job-training facility, or office space for nonprofit groups.

The city went ahead with the “surplus” designation anyway. But a strange, and almost unprecedented thing happened: When Gray’s administration made its decision, it chose a nonprofit development plan, which proposed a public use with a strong educational component for children.

For once, it seemed, the city had listened to its citizens, the kind of people who show up at dinnertime on a school night to be heard by the bean counters and technocrats and ambitious climbers angling their way up the bureaucratic ladder. But powerful development companies and commercial interests were also cut out of the process. Douglas Development, which controls more than 9 million square feet of local real estate, lost out, as did CoStar, a Washington-based real-estate information and tech company with more than a half-billion dollars of annual revenue.

Both companies donated generously to Bowser’s inaugural committee, according to the city’s database of political contributions, maxing out at the $10,000 price point to support an event that has become a rite of passage for mayors and the businesses leaders who will help them get reelected. Although individuals and corporations are ordinarily limited to $2,000 per mayoral candidate during the election season, the inaugural bash opens the spigots for business leaders who want one last chance to ensure extra mayoral love after the people have spoken.

Anthony Lanier, president of EastBanc (which partnered with Levinas on the Franklin School project) also personally gave $10,000 to the inaugural committee. But Levinas didn’t.

In American politics, it’s seen as impertinent to even suggest that a politician might be beholden to his or her donors, or that specific decisions can be tied to campaign or other contributions. But it’s a bit like the connection between global warming and a big snowstorm: Exact causality can never be established for any one event, but only fanatics and flat-earthers doubt the general premise.

Developers lose out on deals and opportunities all the time, of course. But they operate in a different economy than small arts organizations such as ICE. What is for a developer merely a rounding error — or an inaugural donation — can mean the difference between hiring part-time staffers or developing innovative new programs at an arts group. Successful developers move quickly and have multiple opportunities to expand their businesses. But a group like ICE gets an opportunity like developing the Franklin School perhaps once in a generation. What would be a small setback for a wealthy developer is, for a group like ICE, a death blow — with profound consequences for all the people, especially children, it might have served.

The arts suffer throughout this country because no one has a metric to measure their impact and importance. Developers can chart their success with dollar signs. For arts groups, simply surviving another year is a brilliant success. But that doesn’t mean they are frail. People will skip dinner on a November evening all the time to show up and insist on the importance of the public realm, on art, education and other things that are invisible to people who see the world only in dollar signs. And all the developers in the world, aided by their minions in the political class, will never do the real and genuine good that small arts groups do every day.

The mayor seemed to know that, or at least her campaign literature — in which she touted the importance of the creative economy and arts education — suggested that she did. But her first major arts decision, and perhaps the one that will most profoundly affect culture in the District for years to come — is bizarre and unaccountable. It may seem a small thing, especially in a city where new buildings rise every day, but it portends yet another city administration that will prioritize money over quality of life, developers over children, boutique hotels with rooftop restaurants over cultural amenities. The only way to measure the loss is to imagine all the concerts that won’t happen, the exhibitions that won’t find a home, the students who will continue their schooling without the cultural leavening of art. Next September will be more silent, and sad for it.