I’d like to be a Gallery: The Corcoran Falls Apart


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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47 Responses

  1. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Slot machines in churches are an innovation too, but not a good one.

    You’re too hasty by half, my good fellow! How much will a row of four crucifixes win me?

    This is a great post. I hadn’t heard about the Corcoran’s demise, and it’s a sad thing. It’s difficult to continue good management of any organization over the long term. All we can really hope for is that those who do a good job can put the organization in a position to survive the bouts of bad management. But long term poor management combined with a prolonged economic slump is a bad combination.

    Here in Michigan, Detroit’s bankruptcy threatened the existence of the Detroit Institute of Arts museu, because as a city asset its collections were at risk of being sold off to help pay off the city’s creditors. Fortunately some business leaders and foundations have put together a $300 million+ fund that looks to save it (some of the fund is to protect retiree pensions, too). There is much sighing of relief in the big D.

    I’m glad you mentioned the egalitarian mission behind the establishment of art museums. It was a condescending sort of egalitarianism to be sure, an expression of noblesse oblige, but whatever the color of the motivation, they’re a wonderful thing to have around.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to James Hanley says:

      Legally, most (if not all) museums are quasi-public entities that hold their collections in trust for the public and are controlled by the attorney general of the states (perhaps the US Attorney General in DC).

      The selling of Detroit’s art was rather controversial because of the above fact. Deaccessionsing by museums is also controversial because while understandable in a physical sense (Museums have finite space and you need to get rid of stuff to buy more paintings), who gives the museums the rights to say what to sell and what not to sell. What if a museum decides to sell a popular painting for something with more critical acclaim?

      Another interesting controversy is when museums seem to do all they can to limit access to their collections. The Barnes Collection in Philadelphia was infamous for this and it took decades of lawsuits and litigation for the state of Pennsylvania to wrest control over the Foundation and make the art more accessible to the public. There is a documentary about it called the Art of the Steal. The documentary is highly sympathetic to the Barnes Foundation and their desire to keep the art out of sight but I was sympathetic to the government in this case.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        In Europe this problem was solved by making all museums government owned and run. Many of them originate from the government rather than private initiative.

        American museums are in weird place because of how the are originated and run. The role of rich beneficiaries doesn’t really exist anywhere.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        The Met had an interesting battle over access in the 19th century. The Board of the Met was dominated by rich and devote Christians that wanted the Met closed on Sunday. Sunday was when most people could get the Met back then. There were fierce battles over this.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to NewDealer says:


        DIA is municipally owned. So it’s wholly public, as I would understand the term. I don’t know how municipal ownership affects the role of the state AG.

        Yes, selling the works off brought up those public trust questions, but as the issue evolved, it seemed to be trending toward an understanding that the art was a city asset, just as much as any city property was. Or at least that such a conclusion was likely enough that folks needed to stop talking and get to action tout suite.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to NewDealer says:

        In Europe this problem was solved by making all museums government owned and run.

        That sounds a bit heavy-handed, if it meant mandated conversion of private into private, and/or restrictions on private museums.

        Many of them originate from the government rather than private initiative.

        If it’s only about source of origination, then my first response here is irrelevant.

        American museums are in weird place because of how the are originated and run. The role of rich beneficiaries doesn’t really exist anywhere.

        Does that ultimate line refer to the U.S. or Europe? It reads as applying to the U.S., but that doesn’t seem to make sense in context (or substantively).Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        Attn James, its my understanding that many European museums were government projects to begin with. Many of the 19th century ones have some origin relating to the process of state building. Thats why so many of them have the words National or whatever equivalent in their title. American museums tended to originate as projects of the rich rather than the government with some exceptions like the Smithsonian. MOMA was the brainchild of the second Ms. Rockeller.

        There are certain advantages to having museums being purely governmental. A lot of European museums have a better track record of returning art stolen by the Axis during WWII to their rightful owners than their American equivalents.Report

      • Avatar Lyle in reply to NewDealer says:

        Re LeeEsq’s comment about museums in Europe. How many of the basic collections there were from princes and the like. (Examples the Louve, Alte Pinotek Munich, the various museums in Vienna etc.). Since it was the sovereigns collection, and in general outside the UK the sovereign and the government were not so distinct, when the monarchy was abolished the state inherited the art, since it was ruled a state asset,Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to NewDealer says:

        In terms of the Louvre, that was one source. I’m pretty sure another big one was the spoils of war- Napoleon eventually ran a sort of war economy.Report

      • Avatar Zane in reply to NewDealer says:

        @newdealer “Legally, most (if not all) museums are quasi-public entities that hold their collections in trust for the public and are controlled by the attorney general of the states (perhaps the US Attorney General in DC).”

        Is this actually true? I’d like to know more about museum ownership. I only recently learned about the difference between collecting and non-collecting art museums, which kind of blew my mind.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to James Hanley says:

      I’d only say art museums (or any museums) are egalitarian if they’re free, enabling anyone to enjoy them. The United States (via the Smithsonian) and Britain are very good at this; Canada, unfortunately, is not – all of our national museums have paid entry. I consider it a strong indication of a country or region’s values – Québec’s provincial art museums are free-entry, because that’s something they value.

      A private, paid-entry art museum isn’t an egalitarian venture at all.Report

      • Avatar Zane in reply to KatherineMW says:

        Egalitarianism is a spectrum.

        A private, paid-entry art museum is more egalitarian than the art within that museum otherwise not being accessible to the public.

        That said, I really prefer museums to be free, and I’m the lucky beneficiary of great free art museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Butler Institute of American Art (in Youngstown–well worth the drive if you’re anywhere near!). Both are private non-profits, however.Report

      • Avatar Zane in reply to KatherineMW says:

        Oh, darn, I forgot to include the other half of my point. Even though I get to go to great free art museums, my life would have been a little less rich if I could not have gone to the Neue Gallerie in New York City or the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, both of which have entrance fees.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to KatherineMW says:

        I would agree with the ‘egalitarianism is a spectrum’ comment although I am still startled that I have to pay in Canada to go to a museum, having grown up not far from the fantastic Smithsonian archipelago.Report

      • Don’t most museums have a Free Day? I know that’s a small step, but it is, kind of, egalitarian.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to KatherineMW says:

        I like what the Met does with pay what you can entry.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to KatherineMW says:

        But I’m sure they charge full price when they’re playing the Yankees.Report

      • Many museums in the US outside the Smithsonian do charge, or they do that “suggested donation” thing where people least likely to be able to pay the suggested donation are probably also those most intimidated by the set up that seems to say, “you must pay” regardless of the policy.

        I’m not sure how many “many” is. Maybe it’s a majority, or maybe not. But my point is that US museums are not necessarily better than the Canadian ones on that score.Report

  2. Avatar Kolohe says:

    The Corcoran should have entered a partnership with the NGA or the Smithsonian (or both) years ago. You can’t compete with free.Report

    • Avatar trizzlor in reply to Kolohe says:

      You can’t compete with free.

      I wonder how well this holds for museums. The Met is free (for all intents and purposes) and its collection is unparalleled, but plenty people still walk 10 blocks up to pay $20 at the Guggenheim. Seems like knowing your audience is just as important: The Guggenheim struck gold with modernist work from the WW1-WW2 era (which The Met lacks and the MOMA is bored with) and has been going back to that well for years. Of course, knowing how your collection can fit into the local museum culture is something that comes from having an experienced and aggressive staff, not a sexy building (though The Guggenheim seems to have both).

      I find it pretty surprising though that Bollerer – the guy with no museum experience – seems to have made the biggest steps towards turning a corner, by moving into contemporary art and focusing on culture. Though at that point it already seemed like that stage in Monopoly when you start mortgaging your own property back to the bank just to pay someone else’s rent.Report

  3. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Great article.

    “The pop artist Lowell Blair Nesbitt revealed he had a $1.5 bequest in his will to the Corcoran and, due to the Mapplethorpe cancellation, was leaving the money to the Philips Collection instead. Artists began boycotting the Corcoran, leading to exhibition cancellations.”

    Is there a missing million here or is 1.5 all he could afford? 😉 Starving artists and all.

    There are controversies in the theatre world. I haven’t heard of a veritable non-profit theatre closing down but there seems to be a large fight between admins and theatre artists over how theatres should act. The theatre artists (especially younger ones) seem to think admis focus too much on buildings and capital campaigns and plays that make the blue-haired matinee set happy and not enough on fostering younger audiences, affordable tickets, money to give artists living wages, etc.
    The admin vs. artist divide is an interesting one.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Isn’t government funding from the public because it’s paid out of tax revenues?

    When my parents were young, the museums in NYC were free because they received enough government funding in order to be open to the public. It was a good service.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Of course. I’m just trying to distinguish between money a museum gets from the government that people can’t opt out of paying into through taxes and what they choose to pay by buying a ticket or a mug in the gift shop.Report

  5. Avatar zic says:

    Having served on some non-profit boards — I think boards, themselves, are a problem. It’s incredibly difficult to keep a focus and a mission. This kills businesses, too.

    But I’m also one of those Flaming Liberals™ who thinks we should spend as much Tax Payer Money on art and museums and education and what not as we pay for guns and ammo and developing strategic expertise. (And I might add: by eliminating ear marks, aka pork, from congressional debate, we not only removed the grease that made compromise possible, but we removed a major source of investment in public art and infrastructure projects.)Report

  6. Avatar notme says:

    Meh, if the museum can’t manage its affairs why should I be upset?Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to notme says:

      To be honest, I don’t know you, so I couldn’t really say if you should be upset.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Rufus F. says:

        NotMe is trolling as he or she is wont to do from time to time.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Maybe so. I just want to be clear that this post was more of a “hey, here’s a story you might find interesting” post than a “here’s something we have to do something about!!” sort of post.Report

      • Avatar notme in reply to Rufus F. says:


        I grew up in DC and can safely say they don’t suffer from a scarcity of museums. Not to mention, that entities go out of business ever day without notice by anyone.


        So sorry that I’m not part of liberal group think around here. Would I be more popular if I did? Why does having a unpopular (not liberal) opinion make one a troll?Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        I have a morbid fascination when large institutions fail.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Rufus F. says:

        @newdealer FWIW, I took the question posed by @notme as being sincere (not trollish). And while I get that it isn’t where @rufus-f was going on this post, I think it’s an important question.

        Why should we care, really, if a museum that’s a local institution fails? Of a symphony, or a ballet or opera?

        I’m not saying they we shouldn’t care; I’m guessing I would care more that notme at least on principle. But why should I?

        Someone should do a post on that question.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        For the record, I didn’t take the comment as trolling either. My point is if a sports franchise goes belly up, I’ll find it an interesting story, although I personally might not care. So, I would understand that there are plenty of people who are not personally concerned if an art gallery goes belly. I still find the story interesting.

        I guess the question of whether it matters has more to do with whether or not there are problems or patterns of behavior to correct those problems at the Corcoran that are repeated elsewhere, which I suspect is the case, and whether we should then expect to see more galleries, museums, and cultural institutions failing in the foreseeable future. In that case, yes, I do think we need more able stewards of our society’s cultural patrimony. I would say that the importance of that patrimony and the failings of those stewards was a reasonable inference of the post, so clearly I do care. On the other hand, I am of the belief that these concerns are essentially conservative in nature: i.e. the notion that the strength of a nation’s cultural institutions is important for the health and identity of the nation and that the failings of those stewards are therefore of some importance. So, to be honest, I expected conservatives to be more concerned on principle than liberals.Report

  7. Avatar Pinky says:

    So what you’re saying, basically, is that the art community was so scandalized by the lack of gay sadomasochism that they ruined the museum in protest.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Pinky says:

      Haha! No, but I can imagine a good New Yorker cartoon along those lines.

      Honestly, I think the Corcoran would have done a lot better at fixing their situation if they just put on much better shows, instead of worrying about buying real estate or building additions that they couldn’t afford. It seems pretty basic that an organization needs to fix the areas where they have problems before saying, “Hey! Look over here!”Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Rufus F. says:

        The self-analysis to actually, you know, identify problems is difficult. It involves a whole lot of ‘what are we doing wrong, how can we do better,’ as an alternative to ‘how cool are we.’ Goes back to that thing that’s so essential, particular to the arts: constructive criticism.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

        You see it all the time with large institutions in crisis- hiring consultants to do image makeover, embarking on huge, semi-related side projects, and so forth, rather than figuring out why they’re failing at doing what it is they exist to do. Certainly you can see plenty of examples in the corporate or governmental sector.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Rufus F. says:

        @rufus-f so they need a turn-around-specialist, someone to prune, but they hired an image consultant, someone to help them bloom.

        If you want nice flowers, roots matter. We spend so much time focusing on green shoots, and we forget: nothing grows without good roots in appropriate soil and some water.

        (I’m watching Clair Underwood in action right now, waiting to see what she knows roots and soil and water.)Report

  8. Avatar NewDealer says:


    I will see what we can do. I don’t live in DC so I am not ultra-familiar with the Concoran. Last time I was in DC was in 2002.

    Notme’s comments about liberals calling for corruption and graft seem to be the height on being what is wrong with partianship because it seems to deny any validity to an opponent’s ideological background or opinions. If I am to assume good faith in the viewpoints of conservatives, shouldn’t they also do the same for liberals? Isn’t the height of democracy that reasonable people can disagree? His statements seem to imply that disagreement with his stance on the issue is unreasonable.

    We should care because there are ordinary people without great wealth who love art and try to support it as they can but they cannot be huge donors or often afford the ticket prices. Government subsidizing art is no more taking people’s money than it is when government uses tax payer funding for roads, schools/education, law enforcement, the courts, military, the National Institute of Health, etc.

    I am a firm proponent of the Oliver Wendell Holmes idea that taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized and well-functioning society and if someone sees all taxes as a form of theft, I am not sure how to answer them. It seems odd to me that the United States seems to be the only developed nation where there is a large chunk of the population is absolutely resistant to the idea of public-arts funding. At the same time PBS and NPR are two of the most popular government programs ever created. So are libraries despite the claims of many conservatives. Japan acknowledges some artists as living national treasures. The Australian government basically created the Australian film industry. There have been protests in England when their theatres have put on controversial plays see the Royal Court’s production of Blasted by Sarah Kane in 1994 but as far as I can tell no one has called on the Royal Court to receive reduced funding and no one finds it controversial that the museums in London are free and this includes the greatest museums known in human history like the National Gallery and the Tate Modern.

    I consider it a form of patriotism to support art and culture and make it affordable and accessible to the public. The NY Opera was fondly called The People’s Opera by Mayor La Gaurdia. Subsidized art can make museums, opera, ballet, modern dance, and theatre more affordable for the populace and I would say a much better investment than more development into new and deadlier weapons or the massive data trolling done by National Security or maximum incarceration.

    “The American population is largely a self-selected band of misfits and fortune seekers who have incubated a culture of selfishness and cruelty. There is a minority faction that favors unpopular notions like human dignity, a living wage, and the public good. These people are vilified by the greedy strivers – not because they are a real political threat, but because they implicitly reject the values of the majority.”-Morris Berman, Why America Failed.

    I generally try not to believe in cynical quotes like this and think it is not proveable in a nation of 300 million plus people. However, all my interactions with notme and a few other (but certainly far from all) libertarians and conservatives on this site seem to fit the pattern of the quote quite well.

    It takes a lot of education to turn someone into a good artist. There is some innate talent but it needs to be developed and practiced like any other skill and craft. People seem to think that arts programs are filled with people who will never do anything for the masses but many if not most actors, writers, designers, directors etc for TV, film, videogames, etc were education along side the so-called high artists of theatre and the avant-garde. Many theatre directing MFAs end up as TV directors if they are lucky.Report

  9. Avatar zic says:


    I’m inviting you down here, and the topic is earmarks and public investment in art; partly because earmarks often do go to cultural institutions like the Corcoran.

    First of all, in my lifetime, earmarks have been a fact of life; and I freely admit, a growing problem of public corruption. If you had some magical way of searching my internet commenting, you’d find a sizable number of comments (all made under the name zic, too) arguing they should be eliminated. And then they were. And I changed my position. I still totally agree we had gone to far, and earmarks were corruptly used. Now, I think that some use of them isn’t so bad; that they, within reason, serve an important function; we’ve gone too far in the other direction.

    My evidence for this is that we’re now in an environment of obstructionist government; the battles of lifting the deficit ceiling in particular. But also health care, immigration reform, tax reform, the farm bill. Earmarks, when properly used, are like changing the oil in your car; they help keep things running. They provide cover for a politician to compromise in a bipartisan way by bringing in a small amount of money to their local district even as they vote on a bill that’s unpopular locally. It’s political grease.

    The S&P estimated the cost of the government shutdown at $24B. I think you’re probably well aware of its cost to the GOP in political good will. Is it possible that a few million in earmarks might have proven to be a good investment? And is it possible that some of that money might have found it’s way to art institutions and infrastructure programs that would have created jobs and helped revitalize failing communities? I think so. Would there there been some silly spending there? Probably. But the small amount of money spent on earmarks, think of it as an oil change to grease the wheels of politics, might have been a whole lot better then the seized up engine that resulted in the government shutdown.Report

  10. Avatar NewDealer says:


    I would also say we should care when institutions fail because it is kind and compassionate to do so.

    I will work this into my essay but I am not a caveat emptor kind of guy and when I think of institutions failing, I think of all the blameless actors who will be hurt by the failure. Not the people at top but the students at the institution that just lots accredition (see CCSF potentially), the admin assistants and other day to day workers who are know out of a job and have bills to pay and families to support, the people with loans and deposits at the bank that failed, etc. The people who loved attending NY Opera, etc.

    There are always going to be institutions that fail. Nothing can be done about this. However, there is a lot of collateral damage done to many that needs to be softened.Report