Lenfest Center for the Arts Media Preview Event

April 26, 2017

We are here this morning to preview the new Lenfest Center for the Arts. A stunning gem of a building designed by Renzo Piano that will serve and showcase the extraordinary creativity of our faculty and students in the school of the arts and the outstanding curatorship of the Wallach Gallery lead by Deborah Cullen.

It will also provide an artistic link to surrounding communities, to the city, and to far beyond to our more integrated world in which art is the one and only truly universal language.

Everything about the emerging Manhattanville campus is improbable. For who would have wagered some 15 years ago when I first announced the idea of a new columbia campus in Harlem that the city and state approvals would be forthcoming in a mere 5 or 6 years that the three dozen parcels of property would be assembled into one. That funds would be raised to embark on this venture and that the genius of Renzo Piano and his colleagues would be engaged in this time to envision this very doubtful and very long term effort.

Who would have bet that we would stand here today just as we stood here in October of last year in the Greene building next door…where we’ll stand one year from now in the Forum across the street or we’ll in 4 years stand in the business school buildings just north of here. Straddling a new campus square. Or we’ll stand in a not too distant future in a building just to the West here, that will be the home of many global schools and programs at Columbia.

Who would have predicted with confidence that this would happen? Virtually no one. Because the idea seemed to big to succeed or too dumb to succeed. But perhaps the most improbable part of the whole puzzle of the new Manhattanville campus is represented by the fact that the very building we stand in this morning which is at the entrance of the new campus, is devoted to the arts.

I know of no other campus where this is true. By its physical existence, this small building speaks the loudest, bravely proclaiming the centrality of the arts to all that we value; to knowledge, to creativity, to scholarship and the unending search for meaning in life. How did this happen? Some think this is due to the fact that I’m married to an artist, namely Jean Magnano Bollinger, who is also at the center of my own life. In that theory they would not be entirely wrong. But at least equally important was the simple fact that we at Columbia have a truly exceptional School of the Arts, which I actually believe is pound for pound the very best school of the arts in the nation and the world. And to our absolute dedicated, indefatigable, and brilliant Dean and artist, Carol Becker. When everything seemed not just improbable, but really impossible, it was Carol and the school that stepped forward in the true character of a daring artist to set forth and make this a reality. For that, for what we open today, I and we owe them everything.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, the benefactors of this project but more importantly our friends and spiritually colleagues. Gerry and Marguerite have done so much for so many, here at Columbia and elsewhere and we can never thank them sufficiently.

It is now my pleasure to introduce my friend and colleague, Renzo Piano. Everybody knows and everyone admires Renzo. He brings together everything we care about. Light, color, intellect, creativity community and a sense of a good and proper life into his structures. And all those vague and overused words actually achieve meaning in Renzo’s works. From the outset we wanted a campus that would match the greatest architectural achievements of previous but would match the sensibilities of our time. Something equal to the Morningside campus of McKim, Mead and White in character but very different from the architecture and design in its tone. In the sense of engagement with but not separation from the communities rippling outward near to war. We believe we have achieved this at least at this stage. For this we are grateful to Renzo Piano and his colleagues. Renzo Piano....