Studio art students call for renovation in Barney building

Nicole Brown and Komal Patel

Artists expect their studios to be havens for creativity. But for students in Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development’s Studio Art program, the Barney building has become a contentious topic instead.

First acquired by the university in 1939, the Barney Building is located on Stuyvesant Street between Ninth and 10th Streets. The building houses the majority of Steinhardt’s studio art classrooms.

In recent years, multiple students have complained of heavy toxic fumes due to a lack of proper ventilation, fallen plaster embedded in the carpet, and lack of space for students to create and display their work.

Over the past two years, the university has tried to address these concerns through patchwork renovations, but students are still voicing the same concerns.

“The building overall is old and completely uncared for and obviously neglected by the university,” junior Renel Sun said.

There are approximately 220 undergraduate students in the Studio Art Program. Additionally, there are about 20 graduate students and 200 students pursuing an art minor — all of whom use the Barney Building.

Junior studio art student Rebekah Birkan also expressed concern for students’ health because of exposure to fumes from carcinogenic chemicals and low aeration.

“We have little ventilation in the painting rooms where harsh paints are used and little ventilation in the basement where wood pressed with formaldehyde is being cut and welding fumes are common,” Birkan said.

Sophomore Emma Strebel hears students coughing and complaining about the fumes.

“The plaster room is also not fully ventilated,” Strebel said. “There are windows and a fan, but plaster particles can be very toxic, so better ventilation is needed.”

Studio Art Program chair David Darts agrees with students and admitted that the ventilation in the plaster room could be improved.

“The ventilation in here isn’t as great, to be honest,” Darts said.

As a result, students like Sun have left the program because of the problems within the building.

“I certainly didn’t feel like I was at NYU when I walked into the art building every day as a freshman and [I] constantly thought of dropping out,” Sun said, who transferred from the Studio Art Program to the Gallatin School of Individualized Study to pursue a concentration in art.

NYU spokesperson Philip Lentz stated that comparing the Barney Building and the single art studio in the Gallatin building is an unfair comparison.

“In fact, Gallatin does not have a studio art program,” he said. “Gallatin has only one art studio, and Gallatin students pursuing this discipline attend Steinhardt’s studio art classes and use Steinhardt’s facilities.”

Nevertheless, students like Sun notice the stark contrast between the two facilities.

“The [Gallatin building] itself is beautiful and very well maintained. The walls are painted colorfully,” Sun said. “We’ve got full length windows, great ventilation, it’s clean, and appears to really want to foster students’ growth and creativity.”

The NYU Environmental Health and Safety office told WSN that they received three indoor air quality complaints over the past two years, according to Beth Morningstar, director of Strategic Assessment and Communications in the Office of the Executive Vice President. However, the three complaints were not a threat to student health. Furthermore, based on EHS records, ventilation concerns were never reported.

Lentz said the university has worked on the building in the past.

“The Steinhardt Studio Art Program has made major efforts over the last two years to invest in and upgrade its facilities, including a $6 million renovation of the Barney Building over the past summer,” he said.

Some of these renovations included new heating in the basement, a new spray-painting booth, new flooring in one gallery space and more ventilation.

Darts said ventilation in the fourth floor painting rooms, new ventilation systems for each woodcutting machine in the basement sculpture room and new arms on the welding stations were parts of renovations over the past two years.

“I’m sure the ventilation arms do something, [but] after a few minutes of welding [I] immediately get a headache,” Birkan said.

Students are also frustrated with the lack of communication between the university and the students, commenting that the attempts to fix the building’s problems are done without fully understanding the needs of an art program.

WSN reached out to multiple studio arts professors, but most deferred comment to students and Darts. Part-time professor Ian Cooper, however, claimed that renovations are essential but imminent.

“The building has been undergoing major, and much needed, renovations recently, and as a result the studios, facilities and work spaces are being greatly improved,” he said.

The department has a space committee that works with renovations and space use, but only one undergraduate student is a part of the committee comprising of roughly 12 to 20 people. Students hope more efforts to improve the building will be made.

In the meantime, students remain mired in the deficiencies of the Barney building.

“All of these problems profoundly affect the attitude the students have about their art,” Strebel said. “I find that when we are constrained by the installation, we don’t take our work seriously, and we don’t try as hard.”

While no concrete plans for future renovations are in place, Darts encourages students to voice their concerns so that the school may improve in the future.

A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 28 print edition. Komal Patel in a contributing writer. Nicole Brown is investigative editor. Email them at [email protected].