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Art Barn removal concerns local community

By Jieya Wen     3/11/14 5:45pm

The Art Barn is being removed from the Rice University campus, and some members of the Rice community are protesting the decision.

The Art Barn is being removed from the Rice University campus and may soon have a new home in the Fourth Ward. The Barn, which is also known as the Martel Center for Continuous Studies and the former Rice Museum, is going to be disassembled because of safety problems and the potential cost of renovation, according to Vice President for Administration Kevin Kirby.

“We have had many architects and engineers evaluate the building,” Kirby said. “There are substantial structural, electrical, mechanical, plumbing and safety problems that would have to be addressed for us to continue to use the building. In addition to remedying these problems, the building would have to be upgraded to meet today’s building codes, such as [those] for safety, structural shortcomings and access by people with disabilities.”



However, according to Winningham, the architect who built the Art Barn claims it is sound and says there are no safety issues related to the structure.

Kirby said, after the building is removed, the university will plant grass on the space.

“The famous tree planted by Andy Warhol in front of the building will remain where it is,” Kirby said. “Green fencing has been installed around the building in preparation for the removal of the building.”

Winningham said the building was built quickly in 1969 by the de Menil family to house a visiting machine show from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Originally, one quarter of the building was for painting and drawing studios of the Department of Fine Arts, which is now known as the department of Visual and Dramatic Arts.

“The building, for 12 or 15 years, was Mrs. de Menil’s site for bringing a series of extremely important art exhibitions from around the world to Houston,” Winningham said. “When the Menil Collection building was finished, they moved out of the building, and the Continuous Studies Department of Rice moved in.” 

According to Rice alumni Lisa Hardaway (Brown ’81), the Art Barn is important to the history of both Rice University and Houston.

“[The Art Barn] is not just a building, but a historical marker of importance for the city of Houston, a hallowed site [that] represents a turning point of great significance,” Hardaway said. “It represents a time which will, very shortly, only exist in the memory of those of us who knew Mrs. De Menil and experienced a profound excitement in the cultural life of the city.”

According to Kirby, however, the building’s function and its historical value have changed over the years.

“This structure has been very significantly altered during the 27 years (and probably more) that it has not had a function related to the arts, and that too has impacted its historic value,” Kirby said.

A farewell party, Brainstorming: The Last Show, was held on Feb. 23, and demolition fences were set up on Feb. 28. 

Jessica Fuquay, a Duncan College senior majoring in Visual and Dramatic Arts, said the department of Visual and Dramatic Arts is still facing the problem of lack of centrality and size. The department is spread out in the Rice Media Center, Hamman Hall and Sewall Hall, and, according to Fuquay, the repurposing of the Art Barn as a space for the VADA department could have helped solve the problem. 

“Had the university chosen to preserve and restore the Art Barn for VADA instruction, this issue could be abated, in part because it would place the focus of the activity in the area around the Rice Media Center,” Fuquay said. “Because the Moody Arts Center is nearby as well, that could have been the hub that would have allowed for the interdepartmental collaboration we cannot currently practice.”

In response to VADA’s request to use the Art Barn as a space for studios for the department, Kirby said the university has already made effort to expand the arts at Rice.

“Rice has made a substantial commitment to expanding the arts at Rice over the past six years,” Kirby said. “We’ve forged very productive academic relationships with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Menil Collection. The Rice Public Art program has become one of the finest university programs in the country in a very short period of time, with works from artists such as James Turrell. The Moody Center for the Arts, now in design, will integrate the arts into all schools at the university and provide substantial arts-making and exhibition space for students and others.”

Winningham said the way that the university is paying attention to the arts does not help classroom learning of the arts, which needs more focus.

“If emphasizing arts [at] Rice means putting sculptures around or [constructing] a building that has galleries and public interface to the arts, they are doing a lot of that,” Winningham said. “But neither of those has to do with classroom learning and educational experience at Rice. That’s where it looks a little weak. If they wanted that, they will bring our department together and give us strength.”

Kirby, however, said the cost of renovating the old building could dip into the university’s investment in other areas.

“After Continuing Studies moved out of [the] Martel Center, we evaluated many reuse possibilities — the arts, student entrepreneurial activities, office space, among them,” Kirby said. “We are a community of many disciplines, interests and programs, and that means choices have to be made about the allocation of resources. The cost to put any program in the old Continuing Studies building is significant and would come at the expense of some other investment.”

Fuquay said the demolition of the Art Barn is not because of the cost of renovating it, but because the administration is unwilling to keep the building. 

“They’re tearing it down and putting grass over it when that expense could go toward installing studio space and other facilities that would benefit both VADA students and other departments, as it could free up some space in Sewall Hall,” Fuquay said. “It’s an issue of priority, not of cost.”

Hardaway said tearing down the Art Barn demonstrates the university’s lack of interest in art education.

“It is not surprising to me that the university would choose to demolish the Art Barn instead of honoring its presence with renovation,” Hardaway said. “This decision mirrors their epic lack of interest and support of art at the university in favor of more financially useful departments.”

Lydia Smith, a Duncan junior majoring in Visual and Dramatic Arts, said the Art Barn is a relic from when Rice attracted high-profile artists. 

“I believe that Rice has the potential to be an important destination for contemporary artists once more,” Smith said. “It is just sad that the mode of demolition of the art barn signifies that this must be done from scratch, rather than building on the programs and history that already exist.”

This story has been updated. Previously, it incorrectly stated that the Brown Foundation has guaranteed money to move the Art Barn to the Fourth Ward in Houston. The Brown Foundation is doing a feasibility study on moving the structure, but has not made any commitments.



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