Gotham Gazette

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A Vanishing Culture?

the original cultural center
Image by Snohetta, (c) LMDC

Cultural institutions figured heavily in early plans for development of the World Trade Center site. The blueprint called for four independent cultural institutions that would complement the Memorial Museum, which will be dedicated to the 9-11 attacks.

But then an array of complications arose, including a heated debate over what kind of art would be “appropriate" on the ground where the Twin Towers fell. Now, as the seventh anniversary of 9-11 approaches, only one of the originally slated cultural institutions -- the Joyce Theater -- still hopes to locate at the site and even those plans are in jeopardy. Along the way, the saga eliminated one arts institution before it ever existed and left another without a home in Lower Manhattan.

Under Scrutiny

After officials made it clear that art would be an integral part of the plan to rebuild lower Manhattan, 113 cultural institutions applied to occupy the new buildings on Ground Zero. Four were selected in 2004.

The International Freedom Center, an institution imagined specifically for the site, and the Drawing Center, an established art museum, were to occupy a new Cultural Building next to the 9-11 Memorial Museum.

Now, neither arts venue will play a part in the site, nor will the Freedom Center ever exist. Their would-be home, a building designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta, has been entirely scrapped. Instead, the firm has designed the entryway to the Memorial Museum.

"Originally there was a building that was going to house them and that was removed," Michelle Breslauer, a spokesman for the Memorial Museum, said.

The space that would have been devoted to that building will now be integrated into the memorial park as extra public space, according to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.

The other arts building at the site -- a performance space designed by Frank Gehry -- sits in limbo, with funding in doubt and plans delayed for years, if not forever.

What happened?

Politically Incorrect?

The controversy over the arts institutions began with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Debra Burlingame, whose brother had been the pilot of the plane hijacked and flown into the Pentagon on 9/11. She came out strongly against the International Freedom Center, which she saw as inappropriate for the site. In particular, Burlingame objected to the center's plan to present an exhibition on the struggles of freedom throughout history.

"The public will have come to see 9/11 but will be given a high-tech, multimedia tutorial about man's inhumanity to man, from Native American genocide to the lynchings and cross-burnings of the Jim Crow South, from the Third Reich's Final Solution to the Soviet gulags and beyond," she wrote. "This is a history all should know and learn, but dispensing it over the ashes of Ground Zero is like creating a Museum of Tolerance over the sunken graves of the USS Arizona."

What followed was a public debate on what art is appropriate for Ground Zero. A group called Take Back the Memorial -- with Burlingame on the board -- was formed to pressure then Gov. George Pataki to revise the plans. The Post and the Daily News weighed in against the Freedom Center as well.

In response, Pataki demanded an "absolute guarantee" that the Drawing Center and the Freedom Center would have "total respect for the sanctity of the site." At that point, the Drawing Center withdrew from the project.

"We really just decided it wasn't the right site for us," said Lisa Gold, the public relations and marketing director for the Drawing Center. "It got to be very complicated and we saw that we're better off in an autonomous location. There were a lot of different parties weighing in on what should and shouldn't be shown there, and we're independent we're just better off in our own space, programming our own content."

Then, in 2005, as the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation was still deliberating on how to proceed, Pataki unilaterally eliminated the Freedom Center from the plans.

While his choice mollified those offended by the Freedom Center's proposed content, Pataki faced heated criticism for his action. Two World Trade Center Memorial Foundation board members resigned in protest. Some critics charged he was curbing public debate and setting back the rebuilding process.

Since it was designed specifically for the site, plans for the Freedom Center will never be realized. Its planners expressed "deep disappointment" after the decision, calling it a "setback to one of the most ambitious and promising service and civic engagement programs in this country."

The High Cost of Art

The plans also called for a performing arts center designed by Frank Gehry's company. Initially, the Joyce Theater, a dance venue, and the Signature Theater Company, which features plays, were slated to share that building. Both are located elsewhere in the city and wanted to expand into Lower Manhattan.

Last year, the Signature left. In this case, the problem was logistics. According to the Times, the Bloomberg administration determined that having two institutions share the space was driving up costs and creating logistical problems. When the city offered to move the Signature into another location in the area, the company accepted without hard feelings.

The prospect for any performing arts center, though, remains somewhat vague. Discussing the Gehry building, the World Trade Center Web site, run by developer Larry Silverstein's company, said, "Funding details for the project have yet to be worked out, and construction cannot start until 2010 or 2011 because the site will be occupied until then by a temporary exit from the PATH train."

The city had said it would raise money for the center -- but not until the memorial and museum managed to amass $350 million needed for that project. Now that goal has been met, but as Downtown Express reported in April, there is no indication the city government is seeking support for the performing arts building. "

Meanwhile, Avi Schick, chief executive of the Empire State Development Corporation, has proposed -- in what he said was just an " idea or a concept" -- moving the performing arts center from the trade center site to the land above the subway station now being built at Fulton Street and Broadway.

Kate Levin, commissioner of the city Department of Cultural Affairs, has said the city and Lower Manhattan Development Corp. are working on a feasibility study for the theater, but there is no indication of when it will be completed.

"The performing arts center continues to be put on the back burner, and that's a huge mistake," Julie Menin, chairperson of Community Board 1 told Downtown Express.

The revised plans for the entire site, due to be presented to Gov. David Paterson later this month, could provide further indication of whether rebuilding officials think arts still have a place at Ground Zero.

Searching for a Space in Lower Manhattan

When the Drawing Center withdrew from the project amid concerns over content control, it was left without a home in Lower Manhattan. But administrators still feel they made the right decision.

"We're still looking for a space in Lower Manhattan," said Gold. "We looked at additional sites down by the seaport, and we're continuing to look. New York is a very complicated real estate market. It's hard."

According to Gold and others in the arts world, space has been a major problem for cultural institutions in Manhattan. Many have the means to grow but can't find a place to do it. And arts advocates said that because of the economy, many cultural groups are facing greater fiscal pressures in recent days, making it hard even for successful institutions to afford Manhattan real estate.

The Drawing Center wanted to be at the trade center site not because of some specific link to 9/11, but because they valued the location. Its decision to withdraw is looking even wiser as the rebuilding process remains complicated and slow.

"We weren't specifically wed to that site because of what its holds," Gold said. "It was a wonderful opportunity that turned out not to be such a great opportunity. I don't think we're giving up anything by not being there."

As for Signature, the city proposed that it move to a space planned for the site of Fiterman Hall, the Borough of Manhattan Community College building currently undergoing decontamination. That sites future, like so much near ground zero, also remains in doubt.

Signature, though, thinks the move away from the trade center site still makes sense.

"The city said it was going to be too costly to do it, and I think they're right," said James Houghton, artistic director of the Signature, told the Times last year. "Frankly, it's refreshing to get this straight talk about it. I don't think anyone wants to build a $700 million performing arts center."


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