Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Special: BET Co-Founder Funds New Building

Janet Hitchens
Sheila Johnson at Market Salamander, her award winning food market.

By Linh Tran

Four years ago, Sheila Johnson walked through the old Parsons building on 13th Street and 5th Avenue on a guided tour. Immediately, Johnson noticed a long line of students in the small lobby, waiting for one of two cramped elevators.

"One little line to get into one skinny little elevator,” Johnson recalled. That, to her, was a “glaring problem.”

Recently, Johnson, who joined the Board of Trustees of The New School in September 2003, donated $7 million to rebuild the outdated Parsons building. The building has been renamed the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center in her honor.

She commissioned Lyn Rice Architects to design the new building. Several plans were proposed and Johnson chose the most innovative design.

"There were some wacky designs that came out first,” she said. Most of the focus was on finding a design that paid attention to physical details. “We wanted to design a space where students can start interacting with each other.”

The building, which is currently under construction and slated to open sometime in 2008, features new updated galleries and “smart” lecture halls, meaning they will have audio-visual capabilities. The new building will also include an indoor urban quad, a new take on traditional outdoor quads that are common on college campuses.

“I think what I’m doing is a catalyst for other buildings on campus,” Johnson said, in reference to the planned reconstruction of 65 5th Ave. “We really need to pay attention to the physical elements of the university.”

The new building won the American Institute of Architects award for design this year. Ms. Johnson also recently won a design award for her food market, Market Salamander. The market is part of Ms. Johnson’s hospitality company, Salamander Hospitality. The company also includes a luxury resort and spa. It is located in Middleburg, Virginia where Johnson currently lives on the 200-acre Salamander Farm.

Ms. Johnson became the first female African American billionaire in the country, hitting that milestone even before Oprah Winfrey, in 2003. She gained her fortune by co-founding Black Entertainment Television (BET) with her former husband in 1980.

In addition to her farm, she owns a home in Arlington, Virginia, a home in Palm Beach, Florida, and an apartment at the St. Regis in New York City. She did not tell Inprint what kind of money she had in the bank.

She is currently on the board of the Whitney Museum, American for the Arts, the VH1 Board, the board of the University of Virginia, and the board of the University of Illinois.

Ms. Johnson has a lifelong interest in education. She taught music for 18 years at the junior high school level. She was also a youth symphony composer and conductor. After selling BET to Viacom for $2.3 billion in 1997, Ms. Johnson had the financial means to further education in other ways.

“[The sale] gave me the financial status and means to switch roles so that I could make a bigger impact,” she said. “What I can do financially helps me play an even bigger role in affecting the lives of young people.”

Ms. Johnson’s interest in The New School reflects her interest in supporting arts education. Her donation to Parsons is going towards providing a more modern and functional space for students and professors.

“I felt like I could provide something that could not only help the students, but the faculty as well," she said.

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