Latest: In the Elite World of Private Schools, a James Turrell Skyspace Gets an A.

Even in the buffet of amenities that New York City private schools offer — state-of-the-art gyms and science labs, black box theaters and greenhouses, bespoke college guidance and dream teacher-to-student ratios — having a museum-caliber James Turrell Skyspace on your rooftop is in a class of its own.

On the sixth floor of Friends Seminary, a Quaker school in Manhattan, Turrell, the internationally acclaimed artist who uses light to shape space, has created one of his perception-altering meeting rooms whose roof opens to the sky. Bathed in a spectrum of shifting radiant color, that slice of sky appears to float inside the installation, titled “Leading,” the only one of more than 85 Skyspaces by Turrell around the world attached to an active K-12 school. And it’s the first of his bold experiments in Manhattan that is accessible to the public, beginning March 1 on select Fridays.

Sam Lane, a sophomore, was already a Turrell fan from family visits to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which has nine of the artist’s installations. Since the fall, when students and parents have been welcome to experience “Leading,” Lane has dropped in for weekly meditation sessions each Wednesday, led by Denman Tuzo, the academic center director at Friends.

“When the door is closed, you smell the wood — it’s really cool,” said Lane, recalling that when the Skyspace was presented as a concept to the students in 2022, reactions were mixed. “Some people were excited, some people were a little weirded out by it — like what does it means to have an art installation at our school this significant?”

It was Robert Lauder, the head of the school, who invited Turrell, a practicing Quaker, to make a work for Friends and Lauder raised approximately $3.9 million for its construction. (Turrell donated his design and consultation time, and one of his holograms, which the school sold at Christie’s for $187,500, to help offset costs.)

The high-profile art installation could help distinguish Friends, in an on-brand way, among the city’s competitive private schools, which are continually engaged in an arms race to enhance facilities and attract the offspring of illustrious and well-heeled New Yorkers vying for limited seats. (Sticker price for tuition at Friends this school year is $60,500, slightly less than at some peer schools.)

“The Skyspace is an extension of who we are as a Quaker school, a physical manifestation of our mission,” said Lauder. He added that perhaps families “who might not have considered Friends would think, This school values creativity — at a time when some schools are cutting back on those kinds of programs.”

Friends is committed to sharing the Skyspace with other schools and art organizations interested in visiting, as well as the public, and Lauder has encouraged his faculty to incorporate it into their teaching.

The artist Rashid Johnson, whose son Julius attends 6th grade, sees the Skyspace as an incredible resource.

“I never had exposure to anything like this kind of project or way of working as a young person and I can only imagine how it would have opened my eyes,” Johnson said. “It’s an opportunity to expose kids to how art functions in space and in real time outside of textbooks and talking heads.”

This month, a troupe of third graders, armed with sketchbooks and led by their art teacher, Andrea Aimi, entered the jewel-box space. The intimate 20-foot-by-22-foot room has a tall teak bench ringing the perimeter with LED lights hidden behind the bench, projecting color washes around a rectangular aperture cut into the 20-foot-tall ceiling. When a retractable dome is opened at dawn or dusk, the interaction of diffuse natural light with artificial color makes the sky appear in the room as a tangible presence, as it does at New York’s only other public Turrell Skyspace, at MoMA PS1 in Queens.

At Friends, which also needed daytime use, Turrell created a closed dome lighting program with a second set of lights to inspire a similar spectral effect.

Aimi presented the excursion as a “field trip” (and indeed it was a bit of a hike to the 6th floor for students, who are not allowed to use the elevator).

“You can lie down, Stella, if you want — it’s really nice to feel comfortable in here on the wood benches,” Aimi said, giving permission to a little girl already starting to recline.

“That is dramatic, it’s so pretty,” Stella cooed, gazing up at a pale blue rectangle hovering inside the deeper blue atmosphere immersing the space.

“Check it out!” said a boy as the colors began to change, with the hue of the central shape turning mint green in a field of tangerine, then purple against hot pink, shifting to pale pink on deep green. “It’s kind of going like it’s a rainbow,” another girl commented.

“I want you to think about the color that really resonates with you and draw an object in reality that is the same color,” Aimi said, warning students that the light “keeps switching, so it’s a nice practice to make a quick drawing.”

A few minutes later, the class shared the results, many based on food — a snap pea for green, a grapefruit for the reddish-pinkish color, butter and pancakes for yellow (which drew giggles). “Sounds like maybe we’re thinking about lunch,” Aimi said, corralling the children to return to the classroom.

For another art teacher, Jared Fortunato, the Skyspace was an easy tie-in with his upper school graphic design class. “We came up here to explore how color combinations really impact how we perceive color.”

A parent of two former students recalled that before it was finished last year, “a lot of kids and parents thought it was extravagant and a symptom of New York City private schools run amok.” So how did this museum-caliber artwork end up at Friends?

Turrell, now based in Los Angeles, used to live nearby on Gramercy Park and worshiped on Sundays at the 15th Street Meetinghouse, part of the Friends campus, where every grade gathers weekly to reflect in silence. In 2007, Turrell spoke about environmental justice in the Meetinghouse during the school’s Peace Week at the invitation of Lauder, who asked the artist back in 2014 to consider making a work for the school, then in the midst of a campuswide redevelopment led by Kliment Halsband Architects.

When Turrell saw the unobstructed view from the school’s townhouse rooftop in the historical landmark neighborhood, he proposed a Skyspace — a more ambitious project than Lauder had anticipated but a thrilling proposition. Lauder set about raising the funds from a targeted group of 70 donors, including Turrell enthusiasts outside the school and some parents and staff members. “The board’s concern was that we not nibble away at the annual fund or other capital campaign objectives to build this,” Lauder said.

It was the job of the architect Frances Halsband — who was then overseeing the integration of Friends’ original 1964 schoolhouse with three adjacent 19th-century townhouses — to execute Turrell’s design atop two new floors added to the townhouses during a renovation, completed in 2019. The enhanced space has helped the school increase enrollment by about 25 students, to 801 this year.

When Halsband met Turrell in 2016, “I was expecting a very kind of conceptual, ethereal guy,” she said. “He walked in, took out a pen and started making little engineering drawings with angles all over them.”

Plans for the Skyspace, which exceeded zoning restrictions by a couple of feet, were submitted for approval to the city’s Department of Buildings as a “house of worship” tower, Halsband said. “Like a church steeple, this could extend beyond the zoning limits.” She has upgraded facilities at other private schools, including Spence, Allen-Stevenson and Ethical Culture, but sees the Skyspace as different, “tied more to purpose” at Friends. “At best, it really is an important experience for the kids in the school.”

If demand for “Meeting” at MoMA PS1 is any indication, administrators may have a lot to juggle when Friends’ free online reservation system goes live this weekend. It is first-come, first-served, allowing 22 viewers in 15-minute increments, starting at 5 p.m. At sunset the roof will be opened to the sky for a 40 minute viewing.

The Skyspace at MoMA PS1, open to the public since 1986 except for a three-year renovation completed in 2016, is the “most beloved and visited thing in the museum on an ongoing basis,” said Connie Butler, the museum’s director. Indeed, on a recent Saturday, a constant stream of people were cozying up on the communal bench and reclining across the floor during the twilight hour, with a line waiting outside the door.

“I’m sure they will have challenges as a school,” Butler said of Friends, “but it makes so much sense because of the Quaker context.”

Speaking about his Quaker faith, Turrell, now 80, has often recounted how his grandmother told him as a young boy “to go inside to greet the light,” something he’s spent his life and career figuring out.

Referring to “Leading,” he wrote in an email that “Art connects us with both the sacred and profane in all of us, and that this can be before young students is of great interest to me.”

As for its potential in the school setting, “I can only guess,” Turrell wrote. “Because artists are at some distance from those who interact with our work, we are often the last to know.”

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