Originally Published in Crains New York
Written by Daniel Geiger
The Italian American Museum has struck a deal to sell three buildings it owns on Grand Street to a development group that will build a bigger museum in the base of a residential condo the group plans to erect on the site.
The museum, founded by Joseph Scelsa, a retired sociology professor at Queens College who specialized in Italian American history and research, will use the larger space to expand exhibitions and hold events.
"This space will be all about the Italian-American experience," Scelsa said. "We want to show the contributions to society and the art that Italian-Americans have made. We'll have more room for galleries in this new facility, along with areas for classes, lectures and performances."
Scelsa said the museum has reached an agreement to sell three 3-story buildings, at 185, 187 and 189 Grand St., to a partnership between Nexus Building Development Group and Oved Group, which plan to build a 25,000-square-foot, 12-unit residential building.
The Italian American Museum will own and occupy a condo space in the base of the development. In addition to that deal, the developers will pay the museum nearly $14 million for the properties, money that Scelsa said would be used to pay off its mortgage, repay board members who had provided personal loans to the museum and fund interior construction work on the space.
The museum purchased the three properties for about $9.4 million in 2008.
The museum will occupy space on the building's ground and second floors and on two belowground levels, expanding the roughly 1,000 square feet it currently occupies to about 6,500 square feet. The lower of the two basement levels will have a 50-seat auditorium that Scelsa said would be used for performances and presentations.
"I can see us now hosting Italian classes and lectures and seminars and book readings and plays and movies," Scelsa said. "We have a lot of artifacts from the immigrant experience that we envision now being able to show in the expanded exhibit areas."
Scelsa said the deal will leave the museum with more than $2 million to fund future programming and added that he is already envisioning exhibits on the famed opera singer Nicco Caruso and the House of Savoy.
Even though the Little Italy neighborhood where the museum is located has drastically shrunk in recent decades, Scelsa said, it is important to have a cultural anchor that would help memorialize it.
"It's getting smaller and smaller. It's now three blocks and was once 30 blocks," Scelsa said. "But Little Italy is still on the map, and we get lots of tourists that are looking for information about the Italian American experience, and they don't have anywhere else to get that."
Construction is set to begin by the summer and be completed next year.