By: Sruli Fruchter  | 

YU Begins Construction to Repurpose Art Department Space for Katz School Amidst Student Protest

Yeshiva University Facilities Services officially began renovations to repurpose space on the eighth floor of 215 Lexington Ave. — historically used by the Stern College for Women (SCW) Art Department — for the Katz School of Science and Health’s new cybersecurity master’s program, The Commentator learned.

The last known plan, according to SCW Art Department Chair Prof. Traci Tullius, devoted nearly a third of the art floor — including the multimedia classroom, the video lab and Tullius’ office — to the cybersecurity program for a conference room, computer lab, lounge and pantry. Despite undergraduate student protests and a petition of over 1,000 signatures that opposed the removal of Art Department space, the renovations are moving forward and should be “ready for students in the fall,” according to Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Selma Botman.

According to the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), there are no issued work permits for the eighth floor of 215 Lexington Ave as of Sunday, July 12. However, if the work is classified as “regular maintenance,” it would not require a DOB work permit, according to a DOB spokesman. As of publication, YU Chief Facilities and Administrative Officer Randy Apfelbaum did not respond to The Commentator’s inquiries regarding the nature of the active construction.

While President Ari Berman previously declared a freeze on all capital projects in light of the coronavirus pandemic, since the art floor construction was “specifically funded by donors, prior to the coronavirus outbreak,” it is separate from YU’s annual capital project budget and not subject to the capital project freeze, according to Botman.

“I’ve consistently and strongly voiced my opposition to this plan since it was originally proposed, but COVID makes the compression of the art studios absolutely unacceptable," Tullius said. “In my opinion, it’s outrageous to tackle this in the midst of the pandemic, when the focus should be on health and safety.”

On Wednesday, July 1, Tullius was first informed by Facilities Services of their plan to begin construction “right away” over the summer and subsequently notified her art students of the update. Additionally, she said, while they were given a Facilities Services contact for students to schedule a time to collect their work or supplies from the eighth floor, no specific protocol was given to art students; no student has successfully accessed the floor over the summer, according to Tullius. 

Botman told The Commentator that the construction will feature various upgrades for the Art Department. In response, Tullius asserted that the listed upgrades are misleading; she explained that the “enhanced audio visual capabilities” is a projector in a classroom, the “expanded graphic design lab” would be the maintenance of the current graphic lab’s space and the “new multi-disciplinary studio for media studies, photography and video” are displaced equipment housed in another classroom. Tullius added that there may be added blackout screens, but no new equipment.

Art Department faculty members first learned about these then-potential changes to the art floor in Nov. 2019. Among various exchanges between Tullius, her colleague Prof. Mary Creede and Facilities Services members, the Art Department was able to negotiate to reclaim the graphics lab, which was supposed to be allocated for the cybersecurity program. Between this time, art students and faculty members took action to prevent any space reallocation, covering displayed, student artwork with signs saying, “No art floor? No art.” 

Dean of Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences Karen Bacon previously said that “This issue [of the art floor construction] is on the back burner until we deal with the more immediate concerns.” Aside from the email Tullius received on July 1, there has not been further communication with the Art Department regarding the current construction.

Some art majors feel shunned by YU’s decision. “The video lab is my second home, so if they really take that away… I won’t have that space anymore to edit, watch, and create films with the already scarce resources they did have to offer,” said Tamar Ciment (SCW ‘20), a film major who often used the eighth floor. “And on top of that, there would be basically no future film majors at Stern because of how discouraging the art department will appear to prospective students… I hope everyone comes to their senses and starts showing us that they care about the arts.”

Aside from their initial disappointment with the project’s original announcement, some art students are also concerned about the whereabouts and safety of their artwork. “In previous renovations, they did work on some rooms without telling anyone, and a lot of the artwork and supplies were damaged, thrown out, or went missing completely,” said Rocky Pincus (SCW ‘20), a former art student who also led the student protests. “I personally have things on the art floor, and I left my things there thinking we’d come back to school at some point ... I heard construction began, and I’m very nervous.”

“It’s also quite disappointing to me that the concerns of students, voiced strongly and eloquently through their activism this spring, is being completely ignored,” Tullius told The Commentator. “They at least deserve the courtesy of a response from the administration, an explanation, or some sign that their opinion and experience matters. I worry that this lack of acknowledgment sends a very troubling message to our students.”

As of publication, Katz School Dean Paul Russo did not respond to The Commentator’s request for comment.

Photo Caption: Students covered displayed student artwork to protest the art floor space removal.
Photo Credit: The Commentator