Parsons Students Find Their Own Way Around Space Constraints; Strand Labor Contract Negotiations Carry On; Lang Namesake Donates Big to College
With Studio Space at a Premium, Fine Arts Students Get Creative
Parsons fine arts major and rising senior Thomas Snowden was in disbelief when he first heard about the possibility of not receiving his own senior studio space. “I didn’t think there was any way that it could be true,” he recalled.
Snowden, who came to Parsons from Santa Monica, California, began his freshman year intending to major in fashion. But after taking a painting class last year, he decided to pursue the fine arts instead. Snowden’s newfound passion led him to study in Florence this academic year — half a world away from New York, from Parsons, and from an issue that has proven contentious within the design school’s fine arts department. So contentious that Snowden said he had little choice but to change his major.
“I will not be returning to fine arts next semester,” he said.
There are roughly 30 seniors in the fine arts department at Parsons each year. On the fourth floor of 25 E. 13th St., or Parsons East, 31 private studio spaces are reserved for these students who work within a field that looks upon personal artistic space with a particular reverence. But in Fall 2012, the Parsons fine arts department will sustain a larger class of seniors — 52 students.
When sophomores registered for their junior year last April, Parsons administrators realized that there would eventually not be enough individual studios to accommodate each senior. Even so, the administration did not address the situation until last December, when students grew impatient and requested a meeting with Parsons Dean Joel Towers and department faculty.
“They put off our questions until we became infuriated with the uncertainty of our senior year,” said fine arts student and rising senior Tara Long, who helped organize the meeting.
Bettina Banayan, another fine arts rising senior who called for the meeting with Parsons administrators, echoed Long’s sentiment. “The situation was dismissed multiple times as something that was too early to be handled,” she said. “An answer was not yet clear — even to our advisors.”
At the December meeting, Towers confirmed that the department lacked sufficient studio space to accommodate all seniors, adding that no steps had yet been taken to resolve the issue.
“The rising class of seniors are a much larger group than we’ve had in the past in that program,” Towers told the Free Press. “We have the challenge of managing just in what way we get the most appropriate space for those students to do their work. It took a little while to figure out how to do that.”
The fine arts students, though, devised their own solution — forming a committee that met with Parsons administrators to find a constructive way around the issue of limited space. Eventually, the committee designed their own floor plan for Parsons East, one that would keep the 31 individual student studios while creating three distinct communal spaces for the remaining 21 students. The three “neighborhoods,” as they are called, would be devoted to film-related projects, sculpture work, and performance activities, respectively.
On March 26, the rising seniors and several of their professors squeezed into a small room in Parsons East to determine which students would inhabit the new communal studio spaces next semester. Interestingly, exactly 21 students volunteered to work in the new studios, leaving no one with an undesired space.
Tara Long, who led the meeting, said that it was “not easy to introduce the idea of shared studio space” to students who expected an individual studio upon entering their final year of the fine arts program. She added, however, that increased interaction between students working in the “neighborhoods” may hold benefits for some.
“I guess we will see how it works out in the end, but this process was enlightening and really brought us all together as a class,” Long said.
- Amanda Aschettino
Impasse Over Labor Deal at Strand Books
In an age when online retail has killed the storefront marketplace, the city’s literary-inclined still find refuge inside the Strand Book Store’s vast collection of new and used volumes. On a recent afternoon inside the landmark at 12th Street and Broadway, Fred Bass was standing in a corner of the ground floor, dressed in his trademark suspenders, a solid green shirt, and a smart navy blue tie. While most patrons might only know him as a friendly clerk and address him by his first name — as printed in simple white letters on a large red plastic nametag — Bass is also the owner of the Strand.
In recent days, the 55,000-square-foot store has become a battleground of labor discontent. On April 5, a majority of the store’s 140 unionized employees rejected a contract aimed at freezing wages and slicing benefits. Fearing that the landmark’s storied bond with its employees could soon disappear, workers continue to negotiate with supervisors.
But Bass, 83, believes that his store faces a larger financial challenge. With the rise of e-readers and paperless literature, the book industry has reached a crossroads, and Bass yearns to keep the Strand an entrenched part of the cityscape.
“Anyone can just stop on by, buy physical copies of hard-to-find readings, and talk to people who share their interest in books,” he said. “This is truly a one-of-a-kind place.”
With store sales down seven percent since 2009, however, Bass admits that his business is struggling and he must cut costs in order to remain viable. “Our expenses have skyrocketed,” he said, “and there is economic pressure that we just can’t avoid.”
Since 1927, when Bass’s father, Benjamin, opened the Strand, the store’s reputation with labor activists has been positive. Bass claims that he has never laid off a single employee. And while other retailers do not allow unionization, United Auto Workers Local 2179 has supported much of the store’s non-management staff for over 35 years.
“Strand has such a strong bond with the community,” said Chris McCallion, who began working at the bookstore in September 2010. “But for many of the people in this city, debt is not payable. We are struggling just to pay our rent every month.”
McCallion, 22, spent a year at The New School for Jazz before dropping out in 2008. Upon working at Strand, his starting wage was $9. Every six months, he and his fellow workers got raises that ranged from 25 to 50 cents an hour. But last September without explanation, the pay increases stopped.
“When you work 40 hours a week, you don’t have time to read, write or express yourself,” McCallion added. “You’re just poor and exploited. Unless people gather at the workplaces where they spend most of their time, there is no way out.”
Strand employees’ wages have been stagnant since their most recent union contract expired last August. The recently rejected three-year deal would have frozen employee wages for 18 additional months, while raising health insurance premiums from $10 per week to $15. It would have also cut the yearly personal and sick day limit from nine days to five during its first two years.
In addition, workers hired during or after September 2011 would have been subject to a different, less inclusive contract from those hired beforehand. Employees argue that such an agreement would have developed tensions between newer hires and veteran staff.
“I have never seen such a hard-lined proposal,” said Will Bobrowski, 31, who has worked at the bookstore for nearly a decade. “The simple fact that management wants to freeze our wages shows that Strand is facing difficult times, and this is our wake-up call to keep negotiating.”
Although employees hope to reach a solution without resorting to a strike, McCallion believes that picket lines and demonstrations are never beyond consideration.
“We can take a stand by staying together,” he added. “Workers have power when they self-organize.”
Bass insists that the Strand will continue its normal operations while both sides seek a compromise. He will fly to London next week, hoping to add more used and rare books to the store’s world-famous collection.
“Employees have handled the situation professionally so far,” Bass said. ”I just wish circumstances were different and we could do more to compensate them.”
– Harrison Golden
Lang College Receives $5 Million from Namesake
For those who make a living in the world of higher education as deans and administrators, fundraising is an integral part of the job. Some make journeys across the country hoping to win over wealthy donors and friends of their respective universities. Others make direct pleas with alumni associations and the families of students. It is a daunting task, but a necessary one — particularly at a time when institutions are feeling the squeeze of an uncertain economic climate.
But for Stephanie Browner, the dean of Eugene Lang College, that job just got considerably easier thanks to a particularly generous gift given by a familiar friend of The New School. On March 23, President David Van Zandt announced that 93-year-old philanthropist Eugene Lang had given the university’s liberal arts school a $5 million donation “in honor of Dean Stephanie Browner’s leadership and her vision for the college.”
The New School appointed Browner to her position last summer, when she left her job at Berea College in Kentucky to succeed interim dean Stefania De Kenessey. Since arriving in New York, Browner has made an effort to connect with Mr. Lang — frequently visiting his Midtown office every few weeks for informal discussions about the state of the small college that has beared Lang’s name since 1985. Lang has been on The New School’s board of trustees since 1978 and donates annually to the school, but rarely to the extent of the substantial gift announced last month. Interestingly, the $5 million figure is the exact amount Lang gave to The New School in 1985 – allowing The Seminar College, as it was then known, to become Eugene Lang College.
“It is a little overwhelming, but I feel very energized by it,” Browner told the Free Press. “He has come to know me for seven months and has gained confidence in my ability to enact a vision and to do it well.”
It is unclear exactly how Lang’s contribution will be used. Browner said allocation of the funds could potentially go one of two ways — it could be spent at once to renovate facilities or purchase new equipment, or it could be invested in order to build up the school’s endowment. Lang’s gift comes at a time when The New School faces a budget deficit that has resulted in financial austerity and budget cuts.
- Stephany Chung, with additional reporting by Jack Brooks