Trustees give thumbs up to Janet Wallace construction

By Diego Ruiz

After unanimous ayes and a round of applause, construction of the first phase of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center was approved by Macalester’s Board of Trustees last Friday. The Board voted to allocate $32.8 million for renovating and expanding the music building and art gallery, and $7 million for redoing the basement facilities office. It also voted to take on $16 million in debt to cover some of the cost of the building.

“So ends a 20 year journey,” said David Deno, chair of the Board of Trustees, when the votes were tallied.

Provost Kathy Murray, who has been one of the main advocates for the project since she started working at Macalester in 2008, said she had an emotional reaction after the vote.

“I got a little choked up,” Murray said. “A lot of people have worked a long time before I even got to Macalester on this project.”

The project is scheduled to be done by July 2012, after this year’s juniors graduate. After changing plans and architects last year, and many delays caused by fundraising difficulties, construction will start during winter break.

“[Janet Wallace] is not as energy-efficient as it should be, and we need more space,” said David Wheaton, vice president for administration and finance, summing up the reasons the college’s administration had decided a renovation was essential.

Less of the building will be enclosed in glass to save on heating and cooling costs. The music building will have a renovated concert hall, expanded practice rooms for both the orchestra and choir and insulated practice rooms. The new art gallery space, called the “Arts Commons,” will have two floors and space for art history classes.

Murray noted that Janet Wallace was the oldest academic building on campus from the 1960s that had not been renovated.

“Buildings that were beautiful in 1965 and highly functional simply aren’t so functional in 2010,” Murray said. “The departments have done a magnificent job working within the limitations of those facilities but they deserve better.”

“I fully believe that the two spaces we are building will be spectacularly beautiful,” she added.

The new facilities come with a hefty price tag, however. The $39.8 million project will be paid for with $16 million in borrowed money and $24 million in donations.

$16.5 million has been raised for the project according to Tommy Bonner, the Vice President of Advancement. Last semester, both Bonner and Wheaton had said that construction would not be approved until $18 million was pledged for the project. Now construction is starting with $1.5 million less than that.

The decision to start construction creates “a little urgency,” Bonner said. “We have fifteen months to raise $7.5 million.” He acknowledged that there is currently a bad (but slowly improving) fundraising climate, and that the last part of a fundraising campaign was the most difficult.

“You’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit,” Bonner said. “What’s left is the stuff that’s hard to reach.”

However, Bonner pointed to several bright spots; over $12 million is not just pledged to the project, but has already been given to Macalester, which Bonner said is an unusually high amount of cash with which to start an 18-month project.

Wheaton, the Vice President of Finance, said the Finance Committee of the board decided to go ahead with $1.5 million less because they wanted to take advantage of current low interest rates and construction costs caused by a sputtering economy.

Wheaton said that even if fundraising were to precipitously drop, the building would still get finished on time.

“Once we start the building we’ll finish the building,” he said.

During the 18 months of construction, the Music department’s faculty offices and some practice rooms will be at 46 N. Snelling Ave., the former medical clinic kitty-corner from Super America at Portland Avenue. Music classes will take place at different locations on and off-campus, none more than a few blocks away. Concerts will mostly take place at other nearby colleges.

The Facilities department and art gallery will move to separate college-owned duplexes on the west edge of campus that are typically rented to new staff and faculty.

There is no timeline yet for the second phase of the Janet Wallace project, which will renovate and expand the Theater and Art buildings. (Both will be accessible during the first phase of construction.) Murray said that she hopes it is spurred on by the completion of the music building and art gallery.

“I hope it will be so beautiful, that people will look at the other two facilities and say ‘That won’t do,’ and dig deep and make it happen,” she said.