Though the board of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design voted in June to consider a plan to sell its Beaux-Arts building at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW, it soon emerged that leadership at the museum had been speaking privately with officials across the region about relocating for months. Predictably, all hell broke loose, with students, alumni, and instructors decrying the decision. But the Corcoran’s leadership—principally Fred Bollerer, president, and Harry F. Hopper III, chairman of the board—never expected all hell to get organized. A Facebook group for Corcoran preservationists quickly grew into a fully fledged advocacy campaign, Save the Corcoran, which would go on to submit a legal challenge to the proposed move based on language in the Corcoran’s charter. Then the D.C. Preservation League renominated the building to the National Register of Historic Places, a strategic move that could grant historic landmark status to the Corcoran’s interiors—a potential obstacle to prospective buyers. Ultimately, the status quo prevailed: Corcoran leaders announced in December that they wouldn’t be moving, after all. Not because they have a plan: How the institution will right the ship is still very much up in the air.
This seven-month span would easily count as the worst PR crisis in any other museum’s history, but it’s only maybe the third-worst disaster for the Corcoran. And the current disaster has nothing to do with the others. No, the problem didn’t start with the Corcoran’s censorship of a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in 1989. No, the problem didn’t start with the failure to build a planned Frank Gehry wing. And no, the problem is most certainly not the lack of foot traffic or museum identity or college space—perpetual complaints at the Corcoran, not one of which would be addressed by the sale of the building. The problem is the perpetual void of leadership since David Levy’s administration ended in 2005. There is hope: The Corcoran is conducting a search for a replacement for Bollerer. The next president will need to win back the trust of Save the Corcoran’s community of students, instructors, alumni, and supporters. And that leader will also need to come up with a plan to actually save the Corcoran.