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University Commits $50 Million for CFA

New spaces for theater and production, makeover of 855 Comm Ave

Over the next few years, BU’s Charles River Campus will see some invigorating changes along the stretch of Commonwealth Avenue that houses the College of Fine Arts. The University is bringing the theater arts program back to Comm Ave after a 33-year residence at the Boston University Theatre on Huntington Avenue, and to that end, a new studio theater and a production facility will be built on the 808 block and a makeover of 855 will replace its forbidding street-level concrete façade with arched windows.

President Robert A. Brown has announced that the University has committed $50 million to these three projects. That amount will include the funds from the sale of the BU Theatre and more than $20 million of new funding. “The programs of the College of Fine Arts are critical assets to the University,” says Brown. “Relocating our theater program for the majority of students’ education and for production will help us bring the arts to the entire Boston University community.”

“The arts are an essential component of the BU experience, and it is critical that we offer modern, dynamic settings in which our students can learn, create, and perform—settings that are in keeping with our standing as a global research university,” says Jean Morrison, University provost, who last year convened a CFA task force that is due to report in June on its vision for the college’s future. “We are extremely excited about the opportunities for new exploration and expression afforded by the changes set to take place on Commonwealth Avenue and in our theater program in the months ahead. This is an important institutional investment in the arts.”

The brick-and-mortar aspect of CFA’s new vision for the 21st century began in 2008 with the $15 million construction of state-the-art practice rooms for the School of Music. The next phase will  start with the renovation of the first floor and the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery and restoration of the façade and windows at 855. This will allow those passing by to see inside, bringing vitality to the street while promoting an openness for CFA’s artists to better engage with the community. A second project, still in planning and design but scheduled to be completed before fall 2016, will accommodate the flourishing graduate graphic design program by developing new space on the fourth floor at 808, in closer proximity to graduate painting and printmaking. Design work for those projects is being handled by Wilson Butler Architects of Boston. The last components will relocate the theater production center and create a new 250-seat studio theater in the 820-846 area of Commonwealth Avenue, west of 808. Elkus Manfredi Architects has been engaged, and the project is still in the early planning and design phase. The studio theater is scheduled to open in fall 2017; CFA will continue to use the Huntington Avenue theater through the end of the spring 2017 semester.

Lynne Allen, CFA dean ad interim, says the makeover of 855 “refurbishes the grandeur of the building,” and uses windows to create “an open dialogue with the community, showcasing what goes on inside.” An example of that is the School of Visual Arts graphic design program’s temporary pop-up studio, opened at the former Cecilia’s Pizza across from 855. “It’s reflective of a national trend of arts organizations to create pop-up artistic displays that become interesting surprises for those walking by and extend the value of art beyond a formal gallery space,” Allen says, adding that opening up the ground floor of 855 with windows will let passersby glimpse the creative activities going on inside.

CFA College of Fine Arts at Boston University

With glass windows replacing the forbidding concrete, CFA’s Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery and its theater classes will generate vitality and interest among passersby. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

The projects are intended to energize the stretch of Comm Ave where CFA is situated in a disjointed arrangement that occasionally hinders collaboration among the three schools. The changes reflect what Jim Petosa, School of Theatre director, calls a “strategic configuration of having the arts matter in a current university environment.

“The University has made certain commitments that will make us capable of fulfilling our work in appropriate laboratories and make the arts relevant,” says Petosa. “Putting a new theater in what is the center of campus makes a huge difference in terms of the University’s optics—right now it’s way off the beaten path. It will help create a sense of vitality.”

The new studio theater will not replace the BU Theatre’s proscenium stage, which is now used for CFA operas and other larger-scale productions. But the University recognizes the need for a large proscenium space and has underscored its commitment to lease major venues throughout the city, Petosa says, and this also points to a positive change. “In two years you’ll see that change, as we reach out into the city to lease spaces we haven’t performed in before. We’re reaching in, and we’re reaching out.”

Richard Cornell, School of Music director ad interim, says the CFA Opera Institute will also benefit from the new construction. Now tucked away in the back of 808, the Opera Institute will “have more welcoming access,” enabling an easier flow between it and the School of Theatre. Cornell is looking forward to “a new flexibility, with more flexible programming,” both in the schools and among them.

Through the BU Arts Initiative, based at the Office of the Provost, CFA will also continue to extend its reach throughout the Charles River and the Medical Campuses. “Since the creation of the BU Arts Initiative, we have been able to provide or support programming that has engaged students from every undergraduate and graduate school and college at BU,” says Ty Furman, the initiative’s managing director. “We have provided arts programming support or partnered on programming with more than 30 faculty and staff from 8 different schools and programs.” The initiative’s Arts Insiders Program has provided free tickets to Boston-area events for more than 150 students, with more than half going to first year and international students. In addition, the initiative has supported the creation and programming of three new student groups: the BU Visual Arts Club, Articulate, a student group focused on public art, and BU STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics).

“All of these developments,” says Allen, “benefit the entire University community.”

21 Comments

21 Comments on University Commits $50 Million for CFA

  • Tom on 01.20.2016 at 7:45 am

    The opening of the 855 CHA ground floor windows was first announced in 2007 but was put on hold due to the Great Recession. Glad BU is finally reviving this project.

  • Jeffrey on 01.20.2016 at 9:19 am

    Proud to BU!

  • Just another BU parent on 01.20.2016 at 9:26 am

    This talk is all sight but no sound!
    Please tell me how the acoustics of the main floor of 808 Com Ave will change!
    When all is said and done, will students be able to hear previously recorded music without iPods, MP3 files and ear buds?
    Will the main place to listen to the library’s music collection still be with headphones in Mugar?
    If we can’t say much about these things, then can we at least have a pedestrian bridge over Comm Ave so students don’t have to take out their earbuds while crossing the great Ave?

  • Jonathan Krivine on 01.20.2016 at 10:13 am

    All positive. The next move should be to convert the parking lot behind CAS into a grassy mall. 50,000 prospective students visit campus every year according to data released by the university. They await their tour in the new admissions center directly opposite the parking lot.Remember the adage”you get one chance to make a first impression” Additionally, our alumni center is now in the Castle, also opposite the parking lot,clearly a splendid locale for outdoor alumni events once it becomes green.. Current revenue from the lot equals 150K, the equivalent of 3 tuitions. Master Plan encourages such a transformation.

    • BU Employee on 01.21.2016 at 8:39 am

      I’m for that, if you can find a different area for BU employees to park. CAS, SSW, and the people who work in the Admissions building do still need to be able to get to work (as well as the large population of instructors who teach in the area buildings), meanwhile other parking options are full and/or being removed for buildings.

      • Former BU Employee on 01.28.2016 at 10:18 am

        I agree as well. Perhaps in an effort to maximize space, you could create a grassy mall, and have a multi-level parking garage underneath. This way you get both!

  • LarryO on 01.20.2016 at 10:17 am

    It will be nice to see street level windows at 855 Comm Ave., like there used to be way back when the building was a Buick dealership. Here is BU Today’s own picture that shows the today vs. yesterday contrast: http://www.bu.edu/today/files/2011/10/h2-855-cfa-buick-today.jpg The concept drawings show a long overdue and much-needed improvement!

  • Tom on 01.20.2016 at 11:18 am

    “can we at least have a pedestrian bridge over Comm Ave so students don’t have to take out their earbuds while crossing the great Ave?”

    With the ADA there is no such thing as a pedestrian bridge. It would have to have ramps. I know that it is such a tragedy that you have to take your earbuds out and experience the real world for a couple of minutes while crossing the street.

  • rmurali on 01.20.2016 at 11:30 am

    It doesn’t look like the orchestra or other music programs are going to get much of the money. The practice rooms have been in dire need for years, and the ability to properly record performances leaves alot to be desired. It requires a technology upgrade, not rotating ceiling tiles. If there isn’t an investment in the music program, it won’t be able to compete.

    • Beth on 01.21.2016 at 8:39 am

      The practice rooms received a major overhaul, and state-of-the-art tech upgrades, a few years ago and are coveted by music students from around the city. The article mentions this.

  • Ty Furman on 01.20.2016 at 11:38 am

    Kudos to Dr. Brown, Dr. Morrison, and the University leadership. These are much needed improvements and new facilities, and they will go a long way to reinvigorating that section of Comm ave. There are of course a multitude of other needs around arts facilities and resources, as there are on many campuses, and university leadership is aware of those needs, but this is a huge step in the right direction!

  • Former Student on 01.20.2016 at 12:07 pm

    I in no way believe that BU will come up with the funding to rent out proscenium theaters with any kind of regularity, regardless of their commitment to improve CFA/SOT. Current production budgets are stretched enough as it is, and with the Huntington out of the equation D&P will start having to pay for a massive amount of stuff that was previously covered by the Hunt. Screws, tools, lamps, rigging, all of this stuff that the Hunt currently provides will have to be purchased and maintained. Where is the plan where they explain where tens of thousands of dollars worth of expendables will be funded every year? Production budgets will need to be spent on buying basic support equipment instead of the set. Lighting Designers will need to work with color that’s already been purchased because their budget will be eaten up by buying lamps and replacement parts for their equipment.

    I would also be terribly surprised if more people actually show up to CFA productions. Currently it’s all but limited to people in the program or their friends. Is Petosa going to start putting on productions of shows that your average student will want to see? Or will it continue to be obscure pieces produced because of “ars gratia artis”? Your typical BU student will pick going to Shitfaced Shakespeare or some other comedy show 9 times out of 10 before they want to go see another CFA production of gloom and doom.

    If BU truly wants to reinvigorate the School of Theatre they need to put forward a mission statement that clearly defines what they want out of it. Do they want to be a well respected technical and performance conservatory that produces skilled graduates who can go out into the real world where they’ll have to swing a wrench or serve coffee just as much as they’ll design? Or do they want to become just another fine arts program that their university can point to as proof they support the arts and then promptly be forgotten?

    • CFA Supporter on 01.20.2016 at 9:54 pm

      I’m not sure I agree with your point about the expendables, but I do agree with the choice of productions. This wasn’t always the case, I remember seeing School of Theatre productions of Noises Off and Into the Woods.

      I hope this will move the School of Theatre to have an approach similar to the School of Music has in the past few years. Yes, you can go to a concert of the BU Percussion Ensemble doing an all John Cage concert, which, while awesome not many people attend. But concerts at Symphony Hall in recent years have included pieces like Carmina Burana and Beethoven’s 9th. It’s possible to do both pieces that are popular as well as pieces that may not be well attended, but should be done anyway.

    • Recent Grad on 01.21.2016 at 3:04 pm

      As much as it pains me to say, I have to agree with several of your points. I too am a graduate of the design and production program, and while I concede that increasing the accessibility of the shows location (combined with the recently opened avenue of advertising for performances) is promising, I feel strongly that losing regular access to a large professional theatre space is a loss. If the university can truly commit to 2 large (appropriately funded) productions a year housed at proscenium stages as in years past, then most is resolved. If not, then they are truly doing their students a disservice.

      I also wonder where they intend to build sets and house the costume shop once the BU Theatre is sold. As a student, I know I benefited enormously from studying within a working theatre and learning what everyday professionalism looked like. And I share your concerns regarding losing interpersonal connections and access to equipment the Huntington has time and again loaned students out of kindness that will no longer be available to us. The Huntington Theatre Company has in the past been incredibly generous with loans of props, costumes, lighting and sound equipment because of the close personal relationships that develop with students and the ease of tracking objects housed in the same building. The cost of building and renting these items would have often be more than the entire budget given to a student designer.

      I hope this decision works out well. But I fear for the future of the program.

  • Current Music Student on 01.20.2016 at 3:23 pm

    This all sound great- but how about a concert hall that CFA musicians can A- actually use and B- be proud of and C- where it’s ceiling doesn’t rattle every single time the train passes by. A new concert hall for this school has been loooong overdue. And while I understand the need for an inviting look on the outside, how about you fix it from the inside out, because no one will come to concerts, despite the amazing musicians and faculty that attend BU, when the concert hall is deteriorating as much as it is. Currently the CFA music program has this concert hall, which is literally barely used if ensembles can avoid it, and Tsai Center, which is an acoustic nightmare and does not house orchestras well (you should see the chaos that is the basement before a concert at Tsai, we literally have to line the hallways with our cases or stow them in the stairwells because there are only three tiny dressing rooms to serve as green rooms- the Fire Marshall would have a field day.) We deserve better. The theater program is only one part of CFA. It would be nice if the other aspects of what needs to be renovated were considered as well. Sooner rather than later.

  • music student parent on 01.20.2016 at 3:32 pm

    Very sad to see the Music School getting seriously short-changed. They too need better performing spaces. I’ve attended many events in classrooms, and the primary performance space At 855 is grim. Now that you have new leadership for the orchestra, you have a great opportunity to upgrade the music school. It’s sad to see BU miss this opportunity, and continue on the road to mediocrity.

  • Jessie on 01.20.2016 at 7:25 pm

    Once again, the music program is overlooked. The concert hall is terrible, Tsai is not meant for music-no natural acoustic and students have to transport their instruments in all sorts of weather many block away for rehearsals, not enough performance spaces for recitals and not nearly enough teaching studios. So now both the orchestra/chorus will have to rent out Symphony Hall for concerts and the theatre productions opera productions will have to rent out theatres. I am glad to see that money is being put into some programs but I would like to see a plan to upgrade the facilities for all of the CFA programs.

  • CFA Supporter on 01.20.2016 at 9:59 pm

    Having been a support of CFA for years, I applaud BU on this effort. I’m still sad that BU is selling the BU Theatre and ending its relationship with The Huntington. I think this has been mutually beneficial for years, and it would be a crime if The Hunt lost its space. That being said, it will be great to see additional performance venues on campus and hopefully this will spur better programming as well.

    This is a step in the right direction, but I fear it doesn’t go far enough. While the School of Music has been benefiting from new practice rooms for years, they have also been putting up with a horrible concert hall in CFA. It would have been wonderful to have that space renovated and made into a good concert hall that BU an its students truly deserve.

    I hope that these proposed changes will spur further improvements in such a conservatory.

  • SFA Alum on 01.21.2016 at 3:51 pm

    The concert hall, which needed renovating in the 80’s, is once again overlooked. More money spent on the superficial. SMH.

  • Jay on 01.23.2016 at 9:26 pm

    Given all the programs within the CFA, $50 million isn’t that much especially when a good portion of it is coming from the sale of Huntington theater performing space. The CFA needs so many upgrades that someone is guaranteed to feel overlooked and undervalued. Music complains about the practice and performance space, the theater program, the step cousin renting out space wherever for performances. Parking for the CFA is also abysmal. This is a good start but BU really needs to put up significantly more resources similar to its other schools.

  • jennifer on 01.25.2016 at 12:24 pm

    what’s happening to the Photographic Resource Center http://www.bu.edu/prc/ at 832 Commonwealth Avenue? is the building going to be replaced, kicking out tenants, or will the new 820-846 Commonwealth Avenue be an addition to the existing building?

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