Inside Avenues, the Exclusive Chelsea Private School With the World's Most Extravagant Art Curriculum
NEW YORK — If you were to take a walk on the High Line in Chelsea today, you might spot an imposing, tan building rising high above the elevated park on 26th Street, newly free of its scaffolding. On its roof, there is American flag flapping in the wind. This slightly abstracted version of the stars and stripes, however, is not your standard-issue flag, but rather an artwork by Frank Benson. This fall, the building will open, and those inside will have access to one of Chelsea's most exclusive private collections. The halls are lined with work by recognizable figures — a bright, cartoonish flower painting by Takashi Murakami, a text painting by Glenn Ligon, a dollar bill print by Tom Friedman. On the eighth floor, three large flatscreen monitors show rotating displays of cutting-edge digital artwork.
But this isn’t your typical private museum. Opposite the flatscreens is a hallway lined with lockers.
Welcome to Avenues: The World School, a new for-profit educational institution opening in Chelsea this fall. The $75 million school is building one of the world’s most expansive — and extravagant — visual arts curricula outside a university. At a time when many public schools are gutting arts education and even the most elite private schools eschew art history courses, Avenues believes that contemporary art should play a significant role in educating students to become pint-size citizens of the world. (Indeed, students enrolled at Avenues will likely see more art on their way to morning math class than most students see in a year.) The school promises bilingual art instructors, gallery apprenticeships, artist studio visits — even iPad applications specially designed for art instruction. “This is the kind of access that would typically only be available to high-level museum members,” Sheri Pasquarella, an art consultant who has advised Avenues on its collection, told ARTINFO.
The brainchild of education entrepreneur Chris Whittle (whose first for-profit education initiative, Edison Schools, was something of a flop) and former Yale University president Benno Schmidt, Avenues is every bit as ambitious as its art program. The institution plans to open 20 schools over the next decade in cities including London, Paris, Beijing, Moscow, Abu Dhabi, Syndey, and Johannesburg. Whittle and Schmidt, who built Avenues with a $75 million round of fundraising from two private equity firms, have enlisted former educators from Phillips Exeter Academy, the Hotchkiss School, Dalton, and the 92nd Street Y to lead the venture. In September, the flagship Manhattan campus will open in a renovated warehouse building originally designed by architect Cass Gilbert. Over 700 students are currently enrolled in grades K-9, and over the next three years the school will expand up through grade 12.
The idea behind Avenues is simple: It’s not just the art world that is globalizing. Why not build a school with campuses worldwide, so that when Bobby’s parents have to go to London for work, their son can move with them, picking up in math class overseas right where he left off in New York?
The business plan — at least as the founders see it — is equally straightforward. Run a for-profit private school more efficiently than its not-for-profit competitors, charge roughly equivalent tuition — around $39,750, or about $5,000 more than a semester at Harvard — and then pocket the difference. (Though the art program, like much of Avenues’s curriculum, seems to spare no expense, the school’s thrift in other areas has made it a target of the Carpenter's local, which protested outside the school this winter over its decision to avoid union labor.)
“I envision students’ art hung up next to work by major contemporary artists,” said Tara Misenheimer, Avenues’s art curriculum specialist, who with long brown hair and impractical shoes seems more like a bohemian art professor than a children's art teacher — until you hear how excited she gets when she talks about fourth graders learning printmaking. She was giving us a tour of the school’s 10-floor, 215,000-square-foot flagship that is still under construction on 11th Avenue, overlooking the High Line and smack in the middle of Chelsea’s gallery district. (Before it was Avenues, it was a prop warehouse for Disney.) An installation created in collaboration with one of the city’s public art foundations will appear on the façade facing the elevated park later this fall. Inside, Misenheimer motioned to an alcove: that Friedman dollar-bill print, which Avenues had just purchased for its collection, could hang there next to a student’s rendering of the same subject. "I see students writing the wall labels," she said.
Indeed, Avenues is perhaps the first primary school with its own art collection. At the moment, that collection includes works — both prints and original paintings and drawings — by Ligon, Friedman, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Shepard Fairey, and others. The school plans to add more than 100 works, all post-1960, over the next few years. While the administration has declined to reveal its budget, outside experts estimate such holdings cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. “It will be on view 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Misenheimer. “Nothing will be in storage.”
The idea for the art collection originated with New York collector and real estate mogul Douglas Oliver, who owns Avenues’s warehouse building and is financing the majority of the collection — as well as contributing some of his own pieces — through his company 1026 Investors. (Pasquarella, Misenheimer, and Oliver’s wife Sherry toured Chelsea galleries over the summer to scout early acquisitions.)
The collection emulates similar initiatives already in place at top-tier business schools across the country. (Harvard Business School boasts a collection that includes works by Marina Abramovic and David Wojnarowicz.) But Avenues believes cutting-edge artists can encourage creative thinking in Disney Channel-obsessed second graders as well. “This exposure to art encourages intellectual capacity that is not necessarily linear,” explained Pasquarella. “That experience on a daily basis — beginning in Pre-K — can be enormously formative, and activates the campus as a part of the curriculum.”
All instructors will be encouraged to incorporate the collection into their own lessons. High school students can use Shepard Fairey's work, for example, to study the impact of political posters throughout history. Down the road, Misenheimer hopes to invite a handful of students onto the acquisitions committee. “I want kids to anticipate new acquisitions,” she said. “Creating a visual culture in the school is something that is at the forefront at my mind, and I can't imagine a better component [to create a visual culture] than a collection.”
For a school concerned with profit, there are other benefits, too. Internal planning documents note that the art collection is also a material asset that will appreciate over time.
At the many information sessions held at swanky venues around the city, Avenues marketed itself as a “school for the 21st century.” In contrast to the stuck-in-its-ways elite of the private school old guard, the founders have said, Avenues isn’t afraid to break down the walls between disciplines. “We want students to be project-based problem solvers,” explained Misenheimer. That means upper-level students will be able to take a course in video game design, a field that, Misenheimer notes, combines art, math, and science.
Imagine entering your first-grade art class and learning to identify primary colors in Mandarin. At Avenues, students will take art class in either Mandarin or Spanish through fourth grade in accordance with the school’s half-day language immersion program. “I hired two art teachers at the lower level, and one had to be fluent in Mandarin, the other in Spanish, and be able to teach elementary art in a number of mediums,” Misenheimer said. (Most members of the art faculty are working artists, as is Misenheimer herself.) “Art is a really third language, a visual language, and I want that to sync with the Chinese and Spanish.”
In the future, Avenues’s boundary-breaking attitude will also extend to the relationship among the school’s many campuses. Misenheimer envisions students in different countries connecting through conversations about contemporary art. “My focus has been to identify galleries that have multiple locations and a contemporary way of thinking,” she explained. “Galleries like Pace, Gagosian, [and other] galleries that are established and have a global program... I feel like we are mimicking that in a lot of ways as a school.”
Misenheimer envisions high school students in Beijing chatting over Skype with students from New York about a new Pace Gallery show, and then writing reviews on a shared blog. To be sure, Skype will be an easy way for students to connect: every child will have his or her own personal iPad and MacBook Air by middle school. Meanwhile, children as young as four will be introduced to the joys of the iPad by the staff's "dedicated technology integrator." "IPads will play a great role in how we teach art and visually communicate ideas and solutions," said Misenheimer.
Of course, Avenues will offer an abundance of traditional technical courses as well. Students will be required to take lessons in painting, printmaking, photography, digital art, sculpture, and film. Later on, middle and high school students will also be able to take electives such as fashion design. “I’d love to have students put on a fashion show on the High Line,” Misenheimer mused. Many art classes will also have a service component; students will create prints about pressing social issues, for example, and then auction them off for charity.
It’s clear that Avenues takes itself, and its ability to mold future art worlders, quite seriously. “I would hope that a student, when they enter a classroom, is considered an artist,” Misenheimer said in an introductory video posted to Avenues’s Web site. “They would be considered an artist arriving at a studio.”
OUT AND ABOUT
If students are considered artists inside the studio, they are considered critics outside of it. Avenues students will take frequent visits to Chelsea galleries — from which most of the school's collection will be purchased — as well as to local artists’ studios. “We want to collect artists who are available and live in New York,” said Pasquarella. “This won’t start in high school,” added Misenheimer. “If an artist comes to visit, a first-grade class will meet that artist.”
Indeed, the neighborhood will permeate Avenues’s curriculum. Aspiring art writers can join Misenheimer's “Young Critics” group to review gallery shows in Chelsea year-round, and students will study the art of printmaking at Pace Prints across the street. “Having a school like Avenues in the neighborhood, where printmaking will be taught as part of the curriculum, only helps us in fostering more understanding of the printmaking process,” said Pace Prints communications director Jeremy Dine.
This focus on interactivity isn’t new to Misenheimer. As an art instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where she has worked for 10 years, she invited painter Will Cotton, famous for his confectionery paintings of women and candy, to meet her high school students. “I rented cotton candy machines so the kids could smell what was in the work,” she said, “and he gave us a slideshow of his work when he was their age. It's important to me for the kids to see that every artist was young once."
Cotton will reunite with Misenheimer as a visiting artist in her ninth grade art course, “Art Now,” which focuses entirely on the rhythms of the Chelsea neighborhood. (She dreams of discussing Cotton's work with students on a visit to Dylan's Candy Bar.) “That course will be driven by what shows are on view and what's in the Avenues collection, and which artists visit the school,” she said. In addition to Cotton, Ryan McGinness, Chuck Close, and Dave Muller have also signed on to participate.
“I was really impressed with the level of engagement among Tara's students when I visited Exeter Academy,” Cotton told ARTINFO in an e-mail, noting that his own experience meeting a working painter as a high school student was a “pivotal moment for me.” “I also have a personal interest in watching how people who might be new to looking at art find a way into the experience.”
Of course, face time with artists doesn’t come cheap. Though Avenues is loathe to discuss budgetary details on or off the record, noting that the particulars have yet to be ironed out, sources at local galleries say artists of the caliber in Avenues’s collection tend to charge between $3,000 and $10,000 for an appearance, plus travel and accommodations.
WILL IT WORK?
Some parents sending their children to Avenues doubt the utility of exposing their children to the Chelsea gallery scene. One admitted that it was “hard to imagine a six-year-old being fascinated by what’s going on at Marianne Boesky.”
But older students see Avenues’s art program as a selling point. “A lot of schools don’t teach art history,” said Kate McGorry, an incoming freshman at Avenues who selected the school almost entirely based on its art program after considering other institutions like St. Ann’s and Brooklyn Friends School. “I don’t know what I would have done if this school hadn’t come out.” (Asked to name the artist she would most like to meet, she said she thought Chuck Close was "one of the most interesting people in the world." She has no idea she'll actually be meeting him in person next year.)
Like the art program, the school itself provokes skepticism — or, in some cases, guarded hope — among the many families who weather the pressure of the ultra-competitive New York City school system. Avenues itself is certainly confident: “This is going to be the most important new school ever opened,” wrote the school’s president Alan Greenberg in an instantly notorious letter to the family of a student who was admitted but declined to enroll. Of course, only time will tell whether Avenues is building culturally aware, altruistic global citizens, entitled art speculators, or cultural tycoons in the mold of Larry Gagosian.
“I’m torn between [wondering] is this a school for rich, obnoxious families that couldn’t get into the established schools, or is it a fresh chance to build a dynamic and outstanding student body while the old New York schools are stuck having to admit siblings and legacies and the occasional billionaire and celebrity?” one father of three, who was trying to decide whether to apply, told the New York Times last year. “Maybe they can start over again and build a more normal, striving New York community.”
One thing is for sure: If Avenues students are destined for an influential future, they’ll take a keen understanding of contemporary art into it.