Issue Project Room, a cutting-edge performing arts center, will leave its Gowanus Canal-zone and create a theater inside the former Board of Education offices at 110 Livingston St.
The good news is that Issue Project Room will get the space from developer David Walentas for 20 years, rent-free.
The bad news is that the struggling arts group will have to raise $2 million to transform the former grand meeting hall on the ground floor of the now-residential building into a 200-seat venue, plus a recording studio, archive, lounge, retail alcove and gallery.
“It’s a big cost, but it’s a small price to pay for the cultural vitality of Brooklyn,” said Suzanne Fiol, founder and artistic director of the five-year-old organization, whose annual operating budget has been about $250,000.
“Yes, it’s a big step for us, but our board is working hard to make it happen,” she added, ticking off a list of supporters that include actor Steve Buscemi and artist Robert Longo.
Fiol said the renovations would create a world-class art center in the “gorgeous” columned and marble-floored hall — sound-proofed, of course, so Walentas’s high-priced residents “get to enjoy their space and our space.”
Issue Project Room’s offerings are decidely not mainstream, but that’s in keeping with the organization’s mission to be “a vital meeting place for the most disparate forms of creativity whose sole criteria embodies the integrity and spirit of artistic expression and exploration.”
Recent performances include a theremin concert, a “noise rock” performance by Totem, and a “silent music” concert featuring “chamber music that hovers on the edge of audibility.”
Issue Project Room has already sought a City Council grant to cover part of the renovation, a move that drew some criticism from the local Councilman David Yassky (D–Brooklyn Heights).
“Nothing against the Issue Project Room, but this is a classic example of how a promised amenity in a private development — in this case, the performance space that Walentas promised — ends up needing public money to realize,” he said.
“Walentas has said there would be a theater in that building, but the fine print is that there’ll be a theater there if the public is willing to fund it,” Yassky said.
That was always the arrangement, of course. In 2006, his Two Trees Management put out a request for proposals “for the development” of the theater.
As a sweetener, Walentas promised 20 years of free rent.
There’s a backstory to Yassky’s pique. The councilman staunchly opposes Walentas’s plan for a 18-story residential building on Dock Street in nearby DUMBO. Walentas is seeking approval for that project with a promise to give the Department of Education space in the building for a middle school.
But just as at 110 Livingston St., the free space comes with a catch: Walentas would create the space, but the Department of Education would have to spend millions to build the school within it.
“In this budget environment, where the mayor is telling us to cut everything 20 percent, my priority is to fight to maintain funding for existing programs, not find new dollars for something in a privately owned building like 110 Livingston St.,” Yassky said.
Fiol did not share Yassky’s view.
“We’re just so happy to have gotten the space,” she said, adding that she hoped the renovations would be completed by next winter.