Redrawing the Drawing Center: Soho Staple Stays Put Inside $8.6 Million Renovation

A decade ago, Soho watched as one by one its galleries and arts institutions left and were replaced by boutiques, bistros and condos. How ironic that the Drawing Center, one of the neighborhood’s oldest and most venerable institutions, should reverse the trend.

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In December 2010, the 35-year-old gallery paid $2.4 million for a loft on the second floor of its long-time home at 35 Wooster Street. The purchase provided the space necessary to facilitate a consolidation and reorganization of its facilities at 35 Wooster, ensuring the gallery’s future in Soho.

“We decided to stay, that we have this asset, let‘s build on what we have,” Brett
Littman, executive director of the Drawing Center said during a recent tour, referring not only to his building but the still thriving if somewhat stultified neighborhood surrounding it. “We settled on a gradual, incremental growth, one we can actually sustain.”

Mr. Littman said he hoped the project, known as ReDraw, could even serve as a model for other institutions, the recent demise of the American Folk Art Museum still fresh in so many nonprofits’ minds. He even said it was possible for the Drawing Center to slowly colonize the building, buying up condos as they become available.

For now, the 9,150 square feet of space the institution has on the ground floor, half of the second and in the basement will have to suffice. The center began the $8.6 million project last July and aims to reopen in September.

“Moving upstairs harkens back to our time as a Soho pioneer, when Martha Beck left MoMA and opened up here on the top floor of a fifth-floor walk-up,” Mr. Littman said.

The director added that Soho can offer a unique, inviting viewing experience, one attuned to the ebbs and flows of New Yorkers: maybe a little brunch, some shopping, an hour at the Drawing Center, then coffee or drinks, all within a few blocks. “I hate going to Chelsea,” he said, by way of explanation. He also shared fond recollections of gallivanting in the neighborhood as a teenager, when Soho was still wild.

Venturing inside the space now, hard hat firmly in place, one discovers barren bricks, rough rafters and floorboards, all of which appear to date to the building’s origins in the middle of the 19th century, one of the first on the block. The basement is nothing but mounds of dirt.

A new foundation, two feet deeper, is being laid. This will help accommodate the Lab, a hybrid gallery, educational space and a conference center where exhibitions can be held but also where students and artists can gather to study, debate and create art.

The main floor will look closer to the previous iteration of the Drawing Center, with a book store at the entrance and two galleries beyond. The one in back, where the old offices used to be, is called the Drawing Room. It will have an unusual skylight: a concave drop ceiling will hang a few feet below the glass, directing light against the wall. An inch-wide slit will filter light into the space, creating an effect halfway between Louis Kahn’s Kimmel Art Center and a James Turrell piece.

“You won’t be able to see the sky, but you will be able to sense the passage of time,” Claire Weisz, a principal at WXY, the firm undertaking the renovations, said during the tour. Light may well be the most important feature of the renovations. A brand new, state-of-the-art LED system will be installed, giving the greatest level of control, and providing access to fragile collections the Drawing Center might not previously have been able to borrow because of inferior environmental conditions (the heating and cooling systems have also been upgraded for this reason). “Those old light bulbs were incredibly expensive and difficult to deal with,” Mr. Littman said.

Still, the changes are meant more in the service of art than anything else. “It will be better in terms of loans, yes,” Mr. Littman said. “But ultimately, it’s about creating the perfect viewing experience, the perfect symmetry and balance for viewing drawings.”

And by drawings he does not necessarily mean drawings, either. “Drawing is no
longer practiced only on paper, it’s no longer just wall work,” Mr. Littman said. “A lot of what’s going to happen here is based on the space itself and how it’s configured.” Ms. Weisz said the space has been designed like that of a museum, with all the same
environmental controls in every space, and the ability to build it out however. If someone wants to combine galleries or put on a show in the office space, they easily can. There is also ample opportunity for digital work—the gallery no longer houses an archive onsite, though everything will be accessible on computers.

“We want to provide the maximum flexibility to the artists, and for the future of the center,” Ms. Weisz added. The hope is that, in the future, new architects will transform the space for various shows.

Even the simple fact that the center is consolidating its offices, which had been split between 35 Wooster and a leased space across the street at 40 Wooster, is seen as a boon for productivity and creativity. “We used to just hold meetings in the middle of the street sometimes because that was the only way you could get everyone together,” Mr. Littman said.

Once completed, ReDraw will bring a decade-long saga to a close. As most New Yorkers and even a good deal of Americans may well recall, the center was one of many early controversies at Ground Zero, when some thickheaded politicians and pundits felt the art it featured was un-American and thus unfit to be featured on holy ground. This led, in 2006, to a proposed move to South Street Seaport, a plan twice the size and many times the cost of the current one. The collapse of Lehman Brothers brought that idea to an end, though Mr. Littman and his board like to believe that their decision wound up being the most prudent one.

“We took a really long walk in the forest,” he said. “After 10 years, we wound up back where we started, and when we looked around, the trees were still there.”

mchaban [at] | @MC_NYC

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