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At New York’s LGBT Center, a Renovation Pushes Art to the Fore

What remains of George Whitman's mural "Adam and Eve" in the LGBT Center's Kaplan Assembly Hall
What remains of George Whitman’s mural “Adam and Eve” (1989) in the LGBT Center’s Kaplan Assembly Hall (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

On Tuesday the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center (LGBT Center) in New York’s Greenwich Village offered a sneak peek at its nearly complete $9.2 million renovation, which, among other things, aims to showcase the exceptional art sprinkled throughout the building.

Since its construction in 1844, the former school on West 13th Street has gone through countless piecemeal modifications. RSVP Architecture Studio’s Brian Ripel and N-Plus Architecture and Design’s Nicola Mongelli masterminded the current renovation, which will be complete by late January and will leave the LGBT Center utterly transformed.

A partially concealed Kenny Scharf mural, "Love" (1989) in the LGBT Center's lobby
A partially concealed Kenny Scharf mural, “Love Life” (1989), in the LGBT Center’s lobby (click to enlarge)

“We’ve gone to great lengths to maintain the history of the center,” Executive Director Glennda Testone said during Tuesday’s preview. “It’s meant to be a place that welcomes.”

The architects have brought more light and space into the building, reopening formerly concealed windows and removing superfluous walls and columns to make the place feel infinitely brighter and more inviting. This is immediately evident just past the lobby in the art-lined Kaplan Assembly Hall, which is where ACT UP was founded and still meets. Ripel and Mongelli took out extra columns, unblocked old windows and added new ones, and sheathed the walls in acoustic panels that frame murals by Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, George Whitman, and Barbara Sandler, all dating to 1989’s The Center Show.

Other works from the landmark exhibition, when curators Rick Barnett and Barbara Sahlman invited 41 artists to create site-specific works, are showcased throughout the building. Keith Haring’s well-known “Once Upon a Time,” a bathroom mural on the second floor, is the star attraction, but there are gems elsewhere. Kenny Scharf’s “Love Life” mural is still awkwardly truncated by a doorway at the rear of the lobby, but the surrounding white walls at least call attention to the buoyant painting. Up on the third floor, tucked quietly at the end of a corridor, Stephen Lack’s “Boy on Wall” makes for a startling discovery.

In addition to all the newly prominent artworks are wonderfully revamped and expanded resources like the Pat Parker/Vito Russo Center Library and the LGBT Center’s archive, both of which now share a light-filled space on the fourth floor, as well as the overhauled Lerner Auditorium, a soaring event and performance space on the third floor. Zines, books, art, and merchandise on offer in the Bureau of General Services – Queer Division on the second floor offer a nice contemporary complement to the historic fare two levels up.

The renovation’s design aims to draw visitors through the LGBT Center’s formerly stuffy lobby and toward the services, resources, and artworks beyond. Though it remains to be seen, come late January, how successful the project is, Tuesday’s preview offered a very promising glimpse of things to come.

Detail of George Whitman's mural "Adam and Eve" (1989) in the LGBT Center's Kaplan Assembly Hall
Detail of George Whitman’s mural “Adam and Eve” (1989) in the LGBT Center’s Kaplan Assembly Hall
Works by Leon Golub and Nancy Spero in the LGBT Center's Kaplan Assembly Hall
Works by Leon Golub and Nancy Spero in the LGBT Center’s Kaplan Assembly Hall
Leon Golub, "Heretic's Fork" (1989), in the LGBT Center's Kaplan Assembly Hall
Leon Golub, “Heretic’s Fork” (1989), in the LGBT Center’s Kaplan Assembly Hall
Works by Nancy Spero in the LGBT Center's Kaplan Assembly Hall
What remains of Nancy Spero’s “Elegy” (1989) in the LGBT Center’s Kaplan Assembly Hall
Detail of Barbara Sandler's mural "Nijinsky" (1989) in the LGBT Center's Kaplan Assembly Hall
Detail of Barbara Sandler’s mural “Nijinsky” (1989) in the LGBT Center’s Kaplan Assembly Hall
Detail of Keith Haring's "Once Upon a Time" (1989) at the LGBT Center
Detail of Keith Haring’s “Once Upon a Time” (1989) at the LGBT Center
Detail of Keith Haring's "Once Upon a Time" (1989) at the LGBT Center
Detail of Keith Haring’s “Once Upon a Time” (1989) at the LGBT Center
A photo mural on the second floor of the LGBT Center
A photo mural on the second floor of the LGBT Center
Stephen Lack, "Boy on Wall" (1989), at the LGBT Center
Stephen Lack, “Boy on Wall” (1989), at the LGBT Center
The Pat Parker/Vito Russo Center Library and The Center’s National History Archive on the LGBT's fourth floor
The Pat Parker/Vito Russo Center Library and the center’s National History Archive on the fourth floor
The Pat Parker/Vito Russo Center Library and The Center’s National History Archive on the LGBT's fourth floor
The Pat Parker/Vito Russo Center Library and the center’s National History Archive on the fourth floor
A mural in one of the all-gender bathrooms on the LGBT Center's second floor
A mural by Fierce Pussy, “Art You a Boy or a Girl” (2009), in one of the all-gender bathrooms on the second floor
The Bureau for General Services – Queer Division bookstore at the LGBT Center
The Bureau for General Services – Queer Division bookstore
Renovations in the lobby of the LGBT Center (photo by Travis Mark)
Renovations in the lobby of the LGBT Center (photo by Travis Mark)

The LGBT Center is located at 208 West 13th Street (Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York).

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