Creative space is sacred to an artist. So, it’s not surprising that passions have flared on West 57th Street in New York at the prospect of change adjacent to—and cantilevered over—the site of the famed Art Students League. The 140-year-old nonprofit art school “that counts Winslow Homer, Norman Rockwell, Georgia O’Keeffe and Mark Rothko among its alumni” is, according to The New York Times, the scene of a “battle being fought between the school’s leadership and a faction of its 3,945 voting members” over the granting of air rights to build, in part, above the school.
On paper, the deal looks good for the Art Students League, which has negotiated to be paid close to $32 million in return for granting air rights—the right to build in the empty space above a piece of property—to Extell Development Company, which intends to build “one of the tallest residential towers in the world” next door.
The League administration’s plan, according to the petition that was circulated earlier this year to gain support for the decision, is to allow Extell to “build a cantilever some 30 stories above the League and 6,000 square feet of air rights.” Then, they’ll use that money in the arts building to add floors, additional studios, unveil skylights that have been covered up, and to restoring “gallery space and the library.” Their board also sees this as a way to provide the League “a strong foundation for a capital fundraising campaign to pay for the expansion.” Further, they want to have money to use to “keep tuition low, and augment the League’s endowment to serve future generations of students.”
The dissenting group, which is called ASL 2025, has also expressed dissatisfaction with the school’s president, Salvatore Barbieri, claiming that he has “ruled by fiat, making up the rules as he goes along.” Led by Marne Rizika, a painter and printmaker, and Richard Caraballo, a graphic designer, ASL 2025 claims there have also been “efforts to intimidate and stifle any dissent.”
In return, according to the Times, President Barbieri, has called the attacks a “classic pattern of amateurish slanderous writing” filled with “false and distorted allegations without supporting facts.” And the institution’s lawyers have said, “Under Mr. Barbieri’s tenure, the league is in better financial shape than it has ever been…. Its prospects for longevity and the ability to educate artists for generations to come have never been brighter.”
But that’s not the way Rizika and Caraballo see it. “The sense of collegiality that formerly existed between art students, instructors and administrators, in an ‘open-door’ policy, has disappeared,” said Ms. Rizika, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Barbieri for the presidency several weeks ago, “and been replaced with autocratic rule, which has included hiring armed guards for members’ meetings.
“The opponents agree that overturning the sale itself is impossible. The purpose of the suit, Mr. Caraballo said, is to challenge the way the 2014 vote approving the deal was conducted.”
Today, the League remains an institution run by artists for artists. They follow in the footsteps of the many famous artists who have “shaped the vocabulary of art worldwide, [and] have been instructors, lecturers and students at the League. They include, among many others, Thomas Hart Benton, Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaler, Man Ray, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, Red Grooms, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, Ben Shahn and Cy Twombly.” Hopefully, the two sides can reach a comfortable agreement soon. Perhaps it can help to recall what Paul Klee once said about his art space: “All is well with me. The rain doesn’t reach me, my room is well heated, what more can one ask for?”
[This article first appeared in Non-Profit Quarterly]