Updated, May 2, 11:18 a.m
Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoon, 15 West Harlem high school students gather in the Columbia-owned Prentis Hall to paint. They're working on a public art project which depicts Low Library, construction cranes, and the nearby public housing complex Manhattanville Houses, among others.
The students are part of the Manhattanville Community Arts and Employment Initiative, a program launched on March 17 by Lulu Mickelson, BC '14, with the nonprofit Creative Art Works and with a Community Impact George Van Amson Fellowship. The project, first envisioned in the fall of 2012 by Mickelson and a team of students from Design for America, is intended to beautify the fences of the Manhattanville construction site.
“There is about 33,500 square feet of fencing around the site,” Mickelson said. “We began to understand this ugly, divisive fence as an opportunity to bring people together.”
Recently, however, with the artwork near completion, Mickelson discovered that the art likely would not be displayed on the construction fences—for reasons that no one quite knows.
“The fence added a critical, public component to the project. It was a symbolic, highly visible impact on the neighborhood.” Mickelson said. “It is disappointing that this core component of the original vision may not come to fruition.”
Marcia Sells, associate vice president for program development and initiatives at Columbia's Office of Government and Community Affairs, which worked with Mickelson on the project, said she did not know why the art could not be installed on the fence.
“I can only speculate,” Sells said. “We have to work within the constraints of powers above my pay grade. I can only speculate.”
A University spokesperson did not offer comment as to why the art couldn't be installed on the fences after multiple requests.
The fact that the art won't end up on the construction fencing, however, is only the latest problem with the project. When Mickelson and CAW were looking to secure funding for the project, they turned to Columbia's Office of Government and Community Affairs to cover half of the $50,000 cost. CAW had already received other grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the West Harlem Development Corporation.
Karen Jolicoeur, CAW's director of development, said it was initially discussed that Columbia would cover half the program cost.
“We hoped that Columbia would make a concerted effort to find or raise the funds,” Jolicoeur said. “But it was never promised.”
In January, the program was derailed when Columbia announced that it would not be able to come up with the funding
“It looked as if the whole idea was going to be placed indefinitely on hold,” Mickelson said. “There is a wide chasm between a compelling idea and feasible implementation, especially in a slow-move, risk-averse institution like Columbia.”
Sells said the lack of funding was not a comment on the program itself, but a result of budget constraints.
“This is a great project, but there are lots of things we want to do,” Sells said. “It's a balancing act.”
But Brian Ricklin, executive director of CAW, said he's not convinced.
“I believe that Columbia does have the funds,” Ricklin said. “But it's a large ship to turn when you're dealing with a bureaucracy.”
CAW then had to scramble to find the rest of the funding in order to launch the program on schedule.
“The lion's share of the money we are now raising as a result of the shortfall,” Ricklin said. “At the end of the day, my mission is to serve the kids.”
For Ricklin, the program is as much about civic engagement as painting. Twelve of the 15 students involved in the program are residents of Manhattanville Houses.
“These are people who have seen the buildings going up,” Sells said. “They have felt some of the contentions with the development.”
In addition to teaching art techniques, the program aims to give students a greater understanding of the neighborhood and Columbia's campus expansion.
“We want students to have a greater sense of ownership and control over the development,” Ricklin said. “The public has a voice and that includes them.”
As part of the program, Mickelson gave a presentation to the students about the Manhattanville expansion.
Audrey Bonnet, one of the program participants and a resident of Manhattanville Houses, said it was the first time she heard about the specifics of the expansion.
“I've seen the cranes and the building going up,” Bonnet said. “But I didn't really know what was happening.”
Students also visited Columbia's Morningside Heights campus. For Edgar Maldonado, also a resident of Manhattanville Houses, it was the first time he had ever been to the University's central hub.
“I feel like there's a big divide between Columbia and West Harlem,” Maldonado said.
Sells said that combatting this divide is one of the points of the program.
“Now they have a greater sense of what Columbia is and what the buildings going up are,” Sells said. “They'll take that back with them to their families and friends. It will be less of a mystery.”
Ricklin, however, said he still wants to get the art out in public.
“The more the art is seen by the public, the more transformative it is not only for the community but for the young artists themselves,” he said. “Our goal is to get the art out there, and if it's not on the side of Manhattanville that's okay.”
According to Ricklin, CAW is exploring other options for where to place the art, including Manhattanville Houses and the office of a local City Council member.
If not on the fences, Mickelson said that it's important for the art to be displayed somewhere in Manhattanville.
“It physically exemplifies values of inclusivity, transparency and dialogue—priorities that promote a Manhattanville campus welcoming to local flavor and diverse audiences,” she said.
While Mickelson said she's disappointed her original vision is not being realized, she is relieved that the project is happening at all.
“The project quickly got tangled in the red tape and half-truths of the Columbia University administrative bureaucracy,” Mickelson said. “But right now, we have to celebrate getting the pilot program off the ground, even in its abridged and imperfect form.”
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Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story said the students asked the University to cover the entire $50,000 cost. They instead asked the University to cover half that amount. Spectator regrets the error.