Corcoran waits on $32.5 million in donations to complete renovations

Media Credit: Ethan Stoler | Hatchet Photographer

The basement of the Flagg building – where the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design is housed – is under renovation to bring it up to safety code. The school will rely on donations to complete another $30 million of renovations.

Leaders of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design say they need $32.5 million to finish renovations on the school’s flagship building – all from donors.

Nearly three years after University President Steven Knapp said the University would spend about $80 million on renovations to the 120-year-old Flagg building on 17th Street, about $47.5 million has been spent or budgeted to bring the basement, sub-basement and first floor up to safety code. Now administrators say GW will rely solely on donations to fund the incomplete renovations throughout the rest of the building, leaving the remaining work in limbo.

Sanjit Sethi, the director of the Corcoran School of Arts and Design, said at a Faculty Senate meeting Friday that the first phase of renovations should be completed by this December, including structural changes to make the second floor ready for classes and other academic activities. The National Gallery of Art will also lease 13,000 square feet of gallery space there.

The mission of the Corcoran, and part of my job, is to extract the core DNA that existed before this merge or collision and see how that can meld itself into GW.

Sethi said at the meeting that the timing and scope of future renovations to complete the building depends on the availability of additional funds.

“The mission of the Corcoran, and part of my job, is to extract the core DNA that existed before this merge or collision and see how that can meld itself into GW,” Sethi said.

Dubious about donors
Sethi said part of the renovation costs were covered by the $40 million transfer from the Corcoran to the University, when the two entities formally merged in 2014. He added that another $7.5 million was secured for the initial renovation budget after the Fillmore building – the school’s former off-site studio space – was sold, which brought the renovation budget up to $47.5 million.

Still, this leaves GW needing more than $30 million to complete the project.

This isn’t the first time GW leaders have said they were depending on fundraising to complete capital projects on campus. Philanthropy was initially supposed to fund Science and Engineering Hall’s construction, but after few donors committed to the project, officials turned to revenue from GW’s properties like The Avenue to complete the building.

Harald Griesshammer, an associate professor of physics and a member of the Faculty Senate, said at the meeting that he has reservations about relying on outside donations to complete a renovation.

I’m worried that we might end up penny wise and pound foolish in the sense that we have a real jewel here, and we can make it shine.

“I’m worried that we might end up penny wise and pound foolish in the sense that we have a real jewel here, and we can make it shine,” Griesshammer said. “It could be something that really increases GW’s reputation.”

Griesshammer said that although phase one was necessary for the structural functionality of the Flagg building, the Corcoran’s power to draw students and lift GW’s reputation in the arts depends on the investment and funding for phase two.

“Phase one has patched up and made things work for the moment. It’s phase two where we really invest into the future of the Corcoran as a long term excellent art school,” he said. “We need to bring the Corcoran up to the level that they cannot only sustain themselves, but they are actually a picture, a poster child for GW and GW’s reputation.”

Charles Garris, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, said that though the Corcoran has a lot to offer, the age and historical status of the building may lead to financial uncertainty.

“It’s a very old building and you never know what you’re going to get into,” Garris said. “Sometimes you have to make major repairs in order to keep the building from future damage or degeneration.”

Garris said the Corcoran has had reliable donors in the past who may be willing to provide funding in the future, but that there is uncertainty about where future gifts could come from.

The Corcoran offered us a wonderful opportunity to hopefully put ourselves on the map as a fine institution in promoting the arts.

“The Corcoran offered us a wonderful opportunity to hopefully put ourselves on the map as a fine institution in promoting the arts,” Garris said. “The only problem is the financial uncertainty.”

Financial issues plagued the original Corcoran College of the Arts and Design for the four decades before its merger with GW in 2014, and trustees were nearly ready to shutter the college when the University agreed to absorb the school in February 2014.

Maria DiMento, a staff writer for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, said it is reasonable for the University to pursue donations for the building’s renovations but the Corcoran’s rocky history may make it difficult to attract donors.

An advocacy group called Save the Corcoran tried to block the merger when it was announced, claiming that there were alternative solutions to the college’s financial woes and that the absorption of the school would destroy its spirit. A D.C. Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the merger in August 2014.

DiMento said many people felt passionately for and against the Corcoran’s merger and that these feelings can affect donors’ willingness to contribute funds to current renovations. The coverage of the legal dispute may cause some donors to stay away, but fundraisers may point out the school’s contentious past to encourage donors to be part of a brighter future, she said.

“I think where it’s going to get tricky for GW is the controversy surrounding the merger of the Corcoran and everything that went into that over the last few years,” DiMento said. “That’s not going to be impossible but I think it presents unique challenges.”

Ongoing renovations
Sethi said that the Corcoran originally only had classroom space in the lower level and basement but that now he hopes to invert that model with more space for classes on the top two floors.

He added that professors have already begun teaching in the basement and first floor and have plans to eventually move to the second floor.

“It’s not just space for classrooms, it’s about transforming gallery spaces, in some cases, into phenomenal teaching environments,” Sethi said. “What we are doing is reframing the DNA of Corcoran and reincarnating it with a primary focus as a pedagogical institution.”

Sethi said renovations have addressed issues with life safety, fire suppression, disability access, air quality, emergency access and studio upgrades. He added that the building’s historical status means more red tape before renovations can take place.

Justin Plakas, an assistant professor of fine arts, said in an email that faculty and students have had to be “flexible” due to ongoing renovations to the Flagg building but said professors have been able to move between buildings to avoid the construction. He added that studio support staff have been crucial in easing the transition from building to building.

I think when this process is done this facility will be a really amazing mix of historical architecture and cutting edge technology.

Because his research involves technology and digital media, Plakas said he is looking forward to completing design labs and fabrication areas in the next few years. In the meantime, the Flagg building needs architectural upgrades, he said.

“The Flagg building is a historical building that needs some structural attention. There is a lot of potential and we are seeing some of that in the upgrades that were completed this past summer,” Plakas said. “I think when this process is done this facility will be a really amazing mix of historical architecture and cutting edge technology.”

Georgia Deal, a professor of printmaking who teaches in the Flagg building, said the ongoing renovations have run into unanticipated issues because of the building’s age, but said she is hopeful the changes will restore the building’s former beauty.

“There’s this very old building and they keep running into things as they try to open up walls and try to bring it up to 21st century standards,” Deal said. “We are a construction space right now but I have been here long enough to know what it is at it’s best so hopefully we’ll see it like that again.”

Andrew Goudsward contributed reporting.

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