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Danforth museum eyes new home Museum eyes new location

Negotiations underway with Framingham officials for Maynard building

The Danforth Museum and School of Art’s Union Avenue home needs $4.5 million in repairs to fix code violations. The Danforth Museum and School of Art’s Union Avenue home needs $4.5 million in repairs to fix code violations. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff/File 2008)
By Jaclyn Reiss
Globe Correspondent / August 12, 2012
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As the Danforth Museum and School of Art in Framingham celebrates substantial growth in gallery and class attendance, museum officials are hoping to change the organization’s home soon due to the building’s deteriorating condition and costly renovation estimates.

Museum leaders are negotiating terms with a town committee to move from its outdated facility at 123 Union Ave. to the Jonathan Maynard Building at 14 Vernon St., both of which are owned by Framingham.

Danforth director Katherine French said the Vernon Street property, a former school that the town renovated in 2010, would prove a perfect place for the museum because of its central location, proximity to Route 9 and the Massachusetts Turnpike, and a layout that is conducive to exhibitions and art classes.

Town Meeting will have the final say over the lease terms, expected to be on the warrant in October’s session.

Town architect Douglas Goddard, who has been renovating the Maynard building, met with French in May to tour the site, and said the space would prove beneficial to a small museum like Danforth.

“I think it could work well. I think it’s a good marriage,” Goddard said.

Town Manager Robert Halpin said the town committee is negotiating either a leasing or purchasing arrangement with the museum.

“We view the museum as a tremendous cultural asset in Framingham, and the Maynard building has a perfect location,” Halpin said. “On the other hand, we’re still negotiating the terms of the lease, because it is a pretty valuable building and has a variety of potential uses.

“We want to determine a fair market value to negotiate a lease or purchase the museum can afford, but we also want to put together a good deal for the taxpayers,’’ he said.

The museum’s Union Avenue building, built in 1934, served as the town’s high school before becoming home to the Danforth in the mid-1970s. However, the site has suffered a plethora of problems over the years, including a leaky roof, a fickle boiler, and limited handicap accessibility.

“We have long been struggling with facility issues,” French said. “It has big, beautiful high ceilings and architectural elements, but it’s not configured in an optimum way for a museum.”

When the museum received a state grant in 2009 to perform a building feasibility study, architects found the structure needed $4.5 million in repairs to correct code violations alone, and assessed general building renovations at between $20 million and $30 million.

“We have a building worth only about $3 million or $5 million,” French said. “We were stuck.”

The town put out a request for proposals on the Maynard building in December, shortly after the museum received the high renovation estimates.

The former elementary school, which opened in 1918 next to the Framingham Centre Common, underwent exterior renovations in 2010 that included installing a slate roof, redoing the walls, and repairing the windows, Goddard told the Board of Selectmen in May.

The town plans to lease second-floor space in the building to Framingham State University for three years starting next month, leaving the first floor open for the Danforth.

“We think its an elegant solution to a longstanding problem and will really enable us to create a venue for our collection, and also to have a much stronger integration of our programs,” French said. “This would give us the opportunity to configure space to merge the school and museum, and we would be able to bring them all together in an environment most pleasing for the viewers as well.”

French said an initial investigation projects the museum would only have to spend about $6 million to move to the building and perform necessary renovations. If all goes well, the museum hopes to move in next fall.

Currently, the Danforth does not pay the town rent, but covers the utility bills for the Union Avenue building, which also houses town space and the Performing Arts Center of MetroWest. Museum leaders declined to comment on the lease terms for the new building, since negotiations are still underway.

However, French said the organization not only wants to negotiate a lease for the first floor, but also hopes to take over the whole building by fall 2015 — after Framingham State moves out — and eventually buy the location from the town after sufficient funds are raised.

“It’s a more adaptable space, and is really able to fit to our needs,” French said. “Right now the school and museum are located on two separate floors, but teachers need to use the museum as a teaching tool.”

Goddard said he spoke with museum leaders about building an addition with controlled lighting and humidity, , while the first floor has more classroom space and the third floor offers large windows and natural light.

Goddard said while the Union Avenue space is bigger, the Vernon Street space could offer a more intimate gallery experience. than the current location.

“They’re not these large rooms, which Danforth might need to add on, but it might give you a different perspective looking at paintings from a closer distance,” he said. “It could be a nice museum, and it has a lot of parking behind it, which is huge.”

Goddard said university officials are excited that the museum is considering the move.

“Framingham State has mentioned they’d really like to be a big brother to the museum as well,” Goddard said, adding that there is a footbridge connecting the university’s campus to the area surrounding the Framingham Centre Common. “The museum would have good synergy with Framingham State, but their location now doesn’t lend itself to that.”

The proximity to Framingham State would improve the Danforth art school’s relationship with the academic community there, French said.

“We envision being able to provide more services to students, and to work more closely with the music and art department,” French said, adding that Framingham State is just one of three accredited art schools that Danforth partners with to offer courses.

French said the new location would also improve partnerships with the Framingham History Center, which is next to the Maynard building, and the foot traffic from the farmers market and Friday night concerts on the common would improve museum attendance.

Not that the museum necessarily needs improvement in that area: Danforth sees about 50,000 visitors per year, plus 5,000 people annually enrolling in approximately 500 classes that the museum offers, French said.

And, despite economic uncertainty, the Danforth has grown its operations 8 percent since 2007, and increased membership more than five-fold, from 700 individuals in 2005 — when French took the reins as director — to 3,700 this year.

French said she thinks the museum’s success is due in part to the integration of the art school and exhibitions, as well as the distinctive feel of the gallery.

“We’re not the MFA; we’re not the ICA,” she said, citing two of Boston’s famous art institutions. “But we’re a more intimate space. The kind of experience visitors have are more intimate and immediate to the art-making experience, which is unusual to the community.”

Danforth’s members hail from throughout New England, and include a large number of working artists, whom the museum helps connect with galleries and potential buyers.

“We are representatives for the New England arts community, and we are big on participating artists,” French said. “We also just sold 15 pieces to a corporate supporter.”

Additionally, French said, the Danforth has proven to be a valuable community asset.

The museum, which is funded by grants, donations, memberships and admission fees, donates about $85,000 annually to educate Framingham third-graders on Native American artifacts and works by a Harlem Renaissance sculptor, Meta Warrick Fuller, who lived in town, as well as to cover busing and art supply costs.

The museum also donates $15,000 in scholarships every year to provide studio art classes to area residents who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

“We’re a community-based museum,” French said. “We feel very strongly that we should support the community, and that we’re the reflection of the community we’re in.”

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com.

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