I’d like to be a Gallery: The Corcoran Falls Apart
An old saying holds that everyone knows how to save the ship after it sinks. Unfortunately, some ships sink very slowly and the only people who don’t seem to know how to save them are the ones in charge of doing so.
The Washington Post recently reported about the demise of the Corcoran Gallery of Art as we know it. At this point, it looks like the Corcoran will essentially be dismembered and its various organs kept alive by GWU and the National Gallery of Art: probably the best outcome under the circumstances. But, to be clear, this looks to be the end of the Corcoran as Washington’s oldest privately owned art museum, seemingly to the surprise of no one.
Museums have a cultural role not unlike that of universities and some of the same tensions around how private or public their funding should and can be. The museum, as a collection of significant artifacts for viewing, began before the common era with private collections for the wealthy and powerful to share amongst themselves. The museum open for public viewing began with the Renaissance and developed in force with the eighteenth century Enlightenment. The idea that the museum should serve the edification of the public was very much of the time. Diderot, for example, outlines a detailed plan for a national museum of France in his 1765 Encyclopédie. The big shift towards public access parallels what happens with lending libraries in the era. So, while fine art museums are sometimes considered “elitist” by their opponents, the impulse behind them is deeply egalitarian.
Of course, the question is who pays for these things? Generally, the money comes from three sources: the public, through tickets, food, and merch; private philanthropy; and government funding. The Corcoran certainly did get special funds from the NEA. However most of its money comes from donors, ticket buyers (placing them at something of a disadvantage compared to those public museums in D.C. that are free) and student tuition. The Corcoran is fairly unique in being both the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran College of Art and Design.
Philanthropy has been central to the Corcoran’s mission since it was founded, in 1869, by a wealthy Washington businessman, William Wilson Corcoran, drawing from his own private collection. Over the years, it was enlarged greatly by contributions and bequests from wealthy individuals and donations have kept the museum alive since the beginning. There is little debate that the museum has faltered because donor families have been gradually abandoning what many have seen as a rudderless ship. Most museums walk a fine line to encourage wealthy donors to contribute great sums of money for work that will generally project their tastes without letting those donors determine what the museum does. A low point for the Corcoran, for instance, was the 2011 announcement of a vanity show curated by a couple with whom the museum had recently completed a $.6.5 million real estate deal. For some time, though, the Corcoran fought to stop a mutiny of donors who simply felt the top management didn’t know what they were doing.
Some date the beginning of the Corcoran’s internal troubles to the 1989 cancellation of a planned retrospective of the great photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; the forthcoming show had received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, already under fire from Congressional Savonarolas for funding art that scared them, and Mapplethorpe’s photography was noted for its homoerotic and S&M themes. The Museum hoped to avoid controversy, but the move instead angered and alienated several members of the board of trustees as the decision, made from the top, seemed “preemptory, dictatorial, and disenfranchising.” The pop artist Lowell Blair Nesbitt revealed he had a $1.5 million 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. The Washington Project for the Arts hosted the Mappelthorpe show instead to large crowds. Looking to avoid political pressure, the Corcoran had instead bowed to political pressure and lost cultural capital with the people who actually paid their bills. Longtime donors, the so-called “Corcoran families” began turning away and the Museum seemed to lose focus, with successful shows offset increasingly by clumsy, even bad ones.
Instead of doing adequate fundraising, the Corcoran seemed to think more about real estate deals and planning expansions. Hoping to be seen as innovative, they announced in 1999 an expansion to the building designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. The problem was they were not as innovative in raising the $200 million estimated for the expansion and had to cancel the plan in 2005, essentially leasing off the plot for office space in 2010. At the time, they claimed to be focusing efforts on developing, “a new, more strategic approach to the Corcoran’s future.” They also forced the resignation of President and Director David Levy.
The school went through directors as easily as plots of land. An art historian and jazz musician, Levy took the wheel after the Mapplethorpe scandal and was forced to resign as President/Director after a 14 year tenure following the Gehry scandal. But Levy did increase museum attendance, enrollment, and the number of significant shows, along with an exhibition of Jackie O’s clothes. Nevertheless, it must be noted that the Museum’s deficit in 2005, largely affected by the cost of writing off the expansion, was signifcant.
Commenting on the Museum’s mistakes, while taking no real responsibility for them, Levy writes:
The subsequent attempt by the Corcoran’s current leadership to run it “like a business” resulted in escalating annual deficits to upward of $7.5 million, which, at almost 25 percent of its annual budget, led to the panicked selloff of important assets. This reduced the prospect of the Corcoran’s long-term survival to an unattainable dream.
Levy blames the demise on a pattern at the Corcoran of trustees resting on their social cache without taking part in collecting or planning, actively resisting attempts to expand the fairly small collection, to which one can only add “Yes. But…”
In 2006, Paul Greenhalgh was brought in as a replacement. An art scholar, Greenhalgh had served as Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and most recently at that point Director of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, but was largely unknown. Stepping into a financial mire to do battle, he was soon fighting cancer as well and, while the museum mounted a large exhibit on Modernism as well as somewhat successful Ansel Adams and Annie Leibowitz shows, the money continued dribbling away.
Under his tenure, the Corcoran also tried to cut costs by, as Tyler Cooke (whose journalism has been invaluable here) puts it, laying off a number of “experienced senior faculty, curators and administrators. If it replaced them, it was typically with younger, less experienced and cheaper options.” They also sold off the Randall School, purchased from the District in 2006 as a proposed expansion to the College, and rented out the adjacent plot of land where the Gehry expansion would have stood.
In 2010, Greenhalgh stepped down from the position, citing the museum’s ongoing financial woes, claiming improvements, and saying he was, “determined to change the emphasis in my life and work.” He gave the museum five days notice. The museum had, at this point, a $4.4 million deficit. The month prior, it had closed the exhibit “Turner to Cezanne” due to problems with the climate control system. The building needed serious repairs.
Greenhalgh was replaced by Fred Bollerer, a “venture capitalist with no prior experience in museum administration.” Coming from the banking industry, Bollerer did have experience in helping non-profits raise money. That year, the Museum opened NOW, a contemporary art space, sold off some key properties, and hired Lord Cultural Resources, a “cultural strategy firm” to develop a plan for the future. One was needed. In 2011, the museum deficit was at $7.2 million, attendance had hit a seven year low, and the board estimated the cost to repair and renovate the building at a staggering $130 million. In 2012, they announced the possible sale of this fixer upper opportunity.
Cooke compares the failure of Corcoran leadership to trustees at MCI or Enron, noting that the boards bumbled more than did anything nefarious, but caused just as much damage. Personally, I am reminded more of the institutional failures of academia, where bad administrations will face challenges not by reinforcing the mission of the cultural institution, which they seem not to understand, but through large-scale costly expansion programs, parachuting in executives, talk of running the institution like a business, and calls for the panacea of “innovation” without end or specifics. Slot machines in churches are an innovation too, but not a good one. The Corcoran’s planned projects did not seem to grow organically from what the Museum was and had been since the beginning. The same feeling that one often gets in academia remains that the people in charge innovate because they have no clear idea just what it is that their institution serves to do.
What we desperately need more of at this historical moment are able and passionate cultural stewards to preserve and strengthen the artistic, intellectual, cultural, and, ultimately, spiritual resources of a society awash in fractured, shallow, ephemeral digital media. They will need to have a deep understanding of those cultural resources and the institutions that have traditionally held them and be innovative in how they explain and carry out their mission, to be sure. But, at their core, they are preservers, not innovators or shrewd businessmen. Preservers are less valued at the current moment, but in desperately short supply.