Columbia Planning Six-Story Arts Center with $30M Gift

By Jeff Mays on November 18, 2011 9:25pm 

Philanthropists H.F. and Marguerite Lenfest have pledged $30 million to build the Lenfest Arts Center on West 125th Street in West Harlem.
Philanthropists H.F. and Marguerite Lenfest have pledged $30 million to build the Lenfest Arts Center on West 125th Street in West Harlem.
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Columbia University

HARLEM — Columbia University is planning a six-story, 53,000 square-foot arts center on West 125th Street as part of its $6.4 billion campus expansion into West Harlem.

The university is using a $30 million pledge from Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. Lenfest, after whom the building will be named, to partially fund the facility.

One of the goals of the Lenfest Arts Center, to be located on a plaza between Broadway and 12th Avenue, will be to connect with Harlem's vibrant arts and cultural scene. The Lenfest gift is the university's largest ever donation associated with the arts. 

The structure will be designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop and will contain a performance space and presentation space for readings and seminars, and a state-of-the-art film screening room. It will also serve as a facility for Columbia's School of the Arts, according to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger.

The building will be located west of the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, which will house the University’s Mind Brain Behavior neuroscience facility.

“As Columbia develops a new campus, it is great to think that the arts will play a central role, and that a beautiful new building by Renzo Piano will welcome audiences across New York City, and make new partnerships possible," Lenfest said in a statement.

Lenfest announced the gift Thursday night when he was honored at Columbia College's Alexander Hamilton Dinner.

"This latest gift not only reflects the extraordinary leadership in the arts that he and Marguerite have long demonstrated in their home city of Philadelphia, it ensures that our thriving School of the Arts will finally have a facility that matches its astonishing creativity and the university will have a vital new space for engagement in the robust cultural life of Harlem," Bollinger said in a statement.

Marcia Sells, Associate Dean of Community Outreach at Columbia's School of the Arts, said the arts center will "enhance arts and culture in our community" by strengthening the bond the school has made with Harlem arts organizations.

A rendering of Columbia University's Manhattanville expansion on West 131st Street and Broadway looking West.
A rendering of Columbia University's Manhattanville expansion on West 131st Street and Broadway looking West.
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Columbia University

"The Lenfest Arts Center will also give the School of the Arts new opportunities to engage with our neighbors through arts and humanities," said Sells.

It is not Lenfest's first gift to the university. A 1958 graduate of Columbia University's Law School, Lenfest and his wife Marguerite have pledged more than $100 million to endow professorships, build a residence hall for the law school and a professorship for the Earth Institute.

The most recent $30 million pledge places the Lenfests among Columbia's most generous donors. The Lenfests have pledged to give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes.

News of the arts center was welcomed in Harlem.

Barbara Askins, president and CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, said the center would fill a gaping hole for the arts on the west side of Harlem.

"One of our goals is to use culture as an economic driver across 125th Street but right now the west side is disconnected. You have the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Apollo Theater but nothing to lead people to continue walking through the district," said Askins. "This will be a destination."

Kim George, associate director of the Harlem Arts Alliance, agreed.

"With the redevelopment of the waterfront, a facility like this will be a healthy addition," she said. "This state-of-the art venue will help local arts and culture which is Harlem's lifeblood."

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