Washington is rich in art museums, but with one salient gap, the want of what is known as a kunsthalle. The German word means literally art gallery but the meaning is more specific: A space used not for a permanent art collection, but specifically for temporary exhibitions, often focused on the kind of large-scale, provocative or unorthodox art that can’t find a home in traditional museums.
Washington museums, of course, host traveling shows and organize their own special exhibitions. But the kunsthalle model is different, more attuned to the present, with a focus on living artists and experimental forms, and generally in pursuit of the cutting edge. Often they pursue diverse educational agendas, including architecture and multimedia.
Despite the German word, the idea isn’t exclusively German or European. In the United States, organizations such as MoMA PS1, in Long Island City, operate on a kunsthalle model, greatly enriching the artistic breadth of the city’s Museum of Modern Art, of which it is an affiliate. New York also has the Park Avenue Armory and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in a striking building on the Bowery, opened in 2007. Boston, Denver, Detroit and other cities all have similar institutions.
A prominent Washington-based art collector and businessman, Dani Levinas, has proposed opening what he calls the Institute for Contemporary Expression — in essence, a kunsthalle — in Washington. And he has his eye on a building, the Franklin School, a now empty and dilapidated public school built in 1869. The Franklin School sits in the heart of downtown, facing Franklin Square (a park slated for a major renovation), near public transportation and handy to the restaurants and galleries of 14th Street NW. The city owns the building and is about to decide between four competing proposals. Along with Levinas’s plan for an arts space (with restaurant, cafe, bookstore and performance space), the technology firm CoStar Group and Abdo Development proposes a technology research center, Douglas Development has plans for a roughly 40-room boutique hotel and penthouse restaurant, and another group would like to see it house a technology incubator.
An Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting on Dec. 4 will solicit input from residents who live near the 13th and K Street NW school site. City economic development officials say local input will be an important factor in their decision.
But Washingtonians at large have a stake in this decision, too. The Franklin School is a major historical and cultural asset. Designed by Adolf Cluss, who also designed the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, Eastern Market and the Charles Sumner School, the Franklin School was a model of progressive educational architecture. It also has a place in the history of telecommunications, as the site where Alexander Graham Bell first tested his light-based Photophone in 1880. The city’s brief to developers specifically mentions the importance of a use that “pays homage to its history.” The request for proposals, issued last summer, also stressed the importance of historic preservation, public access, and a usage that promotes downtown as “an internationally renowned cultural center.”
Levinas’s plans meets all those criteria, and an arts usage is probably best suited for a building that has a huge amount of volume, but a relatively circumscribed amount of space that could be reconfigured for hotel or office use. Wide hallways, high ceilings and cavernous open rooms are ideal for galleries, and conversion would have minimal impact on the building’s historic features. By contrast, the boutique hotel plan calls for only a few dozen guest rooms, and would necessarily be aimed at an elite clientele.
This isn’t the first time that plans have been broached for a D.C. kunsthalle. Last year, the ever-alert Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, noticed that the West Heating Plant building being auctioned off by the federal government would make an ideal contemporary art space, similar to London’s heavily trafficked Tate Modern, based in a old power plant on the Thames. The idea excited local cultural leaders, but the government sold the Georgetown plant for redevelopment as luxury condominiums.
Although ANC Commissioner Matt Connolly says he can’t speak for his constituents in the district that includes the Franklin School, he likes the ICE proposal. “In terms of preserving the historical character, finding a use that is long term and open to the community, in my mind the ICE gallery does that very well.”
It may be an uphill battle, though. At the moment, the ICE proposal may be the least attractive if looked at solely in economic terms. The city estimates the basic renovation of the building will cost at least $20-$24 million, and the city’s economic development office is interested in what any future use will bring to the city coffers.
“We do want to maximize the value for the District,” says project manager Reyna Alorro. “There are extensive rehab costs that make it difficult to find a strong, qualified team, to find a team that has the capital, and has a use that is a successful long term.” That doesn’t preclude an arts usage, but given the city’s seemingly relentless focus on tax base and revenue above all else, it may make the Levinas plan a dark horse.
Levinas says he has $2 million available now for pre-development costs and will start vigorous fundraising once the city greenlights his proposal. But he brings a lot more than cash to the table. He is a trustee of the Hirshhorn Museum and a major collector who is well attuned to the contemporary art world, wealthy and well connected. Although he hasn’t started shaking the trees for money yet, he has broad support from a surprisingly wide range of local arts leaders. He is assembling a board of directors and can cite support from established institutional leaders such as the Phillips Collection’s director, Dorothy Kosinski, and the Hirshhorn’s interim director, Kerry Brougher, who appeared in a video testimonial for the project.
In May, Kosinski sent Levinas a letter embracing the idea, calling it important for the city’s arts ecosystem, adding, “We can only benefit.” The space-constrained Phillips could mount special exhibitions at the Franklin School that would be impossible at its Dupont Circle home.
Tony Podesta, co-founder (with his brother John) of the lobbying and public affairs firm the Podesta Group, and a major art collector, is also behind the project.
“We have a multiplicity of museums, but no real contemporary space,” says Podesta. “So it seemed like a good idea, something that we could well absorb in the arts community, and Dani is the kind of person who gets things done.” Podesta, for example, sees a need for hosting performance art, which doesn’t fit comfortably into the more button-down institutional agenda of Washington’s government-supported museums.
Levinas envisions a component beyond just exhibiting art. Young people, he argues, respond first and most intuitively to contemporary art, even before they may have developed a taste for the longer arc of art history. He would like the ICE to fill an important role in arts education, supporting school efforts and offering after-school programs, teacher training and material, workshops and opportunities for students to meet directly with artists. And he would like the institution to cover a wide range of topics, including architecture, preservation, sound and video. Serving underserved schools is a primary goal.
“If I can accomplish that, and on top of that make Washington a center for contemporary art, which today it is not, that would be a dream fulfilled,” says Levinas.
The decision, expected in January, will test the city’s development reflexes and cultural instincts. Washington has reached a curious moment in its history, the dynamics of which are increasingly apparent to residents but may not yet have filtered into City Hall. One recurring motif of public comment at the hearings held recently about whether the city should raise the historic limit on building heights was a broad, and even angry, concern that the city has prioritized commercial development above all else. Quality of life and culture are increasingly important to residents who are tired of the urban monotony of the same developers pursuing the same bland mixed-use commercial buildings, filling the landscape with boxy faux-brick and dun-colored cement monoliths stuffed with too many chain retail stores. Now that the city is no longer desperate for money, that development is proceeding apace and with its own internal momentum, people want something better, and different.
The ICE is just that. It could also pick up a few of the pieces that fell apart when the Hirshhorn’s plans for a temporary seasonal structure, known as the “Bubble,” were canceled in June. It would offer the city more flexible space for arts events and give local audiences access to the broader arts conversation that can’t be experienced in museums constrained by government overlords.
“We should be at the front of this movement, not lagging behind,” says Levinas. “It has been successful in other cities that are not as big and successful as D.C.”