Emerson College’s little corner of Boston Common is about to get brighter. On Friday, the school will unveil a public art installation to transform the white tarp currently covering a building under reconstruction into a massive public canvas — the latest in a series of changes the school is making to boost its image locally and around the world.
Emerson officials, who also recently opened another dormitory and dining hall, want the corridor along the south side of the Common to become a destination that attracts people with shopping, food, theater, and art.
“Great cities have great art. Extraordinary cities have great, extraordinary public art,” said Emerson president Lee Pelton. “It’s kind of a testament to Emerson’s investment in the city.”
The challenge Emerson officials are wrestling with is how to turn an urban college without much of a real “campus” feel to it into something more inviting, both for its own students and for the public. Located in a smattering of downtown buildings that surround the busy intersection of Boylston and Tremont streets, it serves about 4,500 students and is known for its programs in communications and performing arts.
The first step of the public transformation will be the art, which will be projected onto the tarp covering the facade of the Little Building, a dormitory at the corner of Tremont and Boylston.
The work of eight local artists will be rotated every evening from dusk until midnight for at least 18 months. Pelton said he conceived of the project as he was walking down Avery Street, which runs up to the Common between several campus buildings.
“I thought to myself: This is the largest art canvas I’ve ever seen,” said Pelton, who has been president since 2011.
Emerson is also seeking approval from the city to widen its front sidewalk along Boylston Street by taking over a parking lane. The school believes this will make its urban “front lawn” more inviting, with a row of trees and benches.
An official from the city confirmed on Monday that it is interested in Emerson’s idea and in discussing specifics.
That would bring the Common even closer to the school’s front doors. Would Pelton eventually like to take over that small section of Boylston to make a seamless connection with the park? That would be “unrealistic,” he said in an interview Monday. But, he said, he would like to get permission to shut down that section of street from time to time for festivals.
In addition, the school wants to attract a row of the “coolest, hippest” businesses to the first floor of the Little Building when it reopens in 2019. Pelton said the ideal tenants would be an Apple store and perhaps some restaurants or clothing stores. The Colonial Theater, in the same row of buildings along Boylston Street, has been closed since 2015 but is set to reopen next June.
“The big idea will continue to make this a hub of the downtown corridor,” Pelton said.
In addition, the school recently completed construction of a dormitory and cafeteria on Boylston Place, the alley that bisects the campus.
The construction project behind the art projection will replace the facade of the Little Building and much of its interior. A flaw in the original 1917 construction allowed water to seep behind the facade, according to the project’s architects.
That $100 million project is expected to take about 18 months to complete, Pelton said. It will also add about 280 beds, which, along with the new dormitory on Boylston Place, will increase the school’s overall housing by 30 percent. Mayor Martin J. Walsh has called on colleges to build more dorms to free up off-campus apartments for families and workers.
As the wrapper starts to come off the facade of the Little Building, the art will be projected directly onto the building, with a level of specificity that will allow them to even highlight certain pipes or joists, according to Jeff Grantz of the firm DCL, which has worked on the art project. The school said it is in the process of searching for underwriters for the art installation.
It will also offer a class in the spring in which 20 students will learn how to use the massive projectors and create art that can be projected on the wall next summer.
Pelton said the art installation will also help Emerson’s brand, thanks to the global power of social media. He hopes people will take photos of the art that will be seen around the world.
The work has been overseen by the school’s curator-in-residence, Joseph Ketner. He said the college deserves to also be known for its art.
He wants passersby “ to encounter something they’ve never seen before and to have that transport them somewhat from whatever it is they happen to be doing,” Ketner said.
Emerson has about 4,500 students and a $144 million endowment. Like many other schools with relatively small endowments, it depends almost entirely on student tuition for its operating revenue.
Emerson is also extremely highly leveraged, according to Moody’s Investors Service, and has a weak fund-raising track record.
On the other hand, it also has a niche, in communications and performing arts, something that many small schools lack. Pelton said the number of applications continues to grow.Laura Krantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.