The Great Divide 22 questions the Corcoran should address before it splits itself up

The fate of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design appears to be a fait accompli. At least, that’s the way that leaders at the Corcoran have framed the decision that would hand over the art collection and some museum space to the National Gallery of Art and the college and building to George Washington University.

Yet the self-imposed April 7 deadline for the boards of all three institutions to vote on this scheme has come and gone, with no fait accomplished. For the worried supporters of the Corcoran—a group that includes students past and present, faculty, and staff, not to mention Washington museumgoers—this delay is as good news as any.

Yet a delay is not the news that Washington deserves. For staff, faculty, and students in particular, a deal penned behind closed doors that hollows the qualities that make the Corcoran special will be worse than a disservice—it may well be a tragedy. The board has deemed it necessary, even crucial, to pursue this course in absolute secrecy, as if it were beholden to shareholders, not alumni and art lovers. Although Washingtonians know almost nothing about the details of the agreement, the framework put forward so far is one that betrays the long legacy of the Corcoran, which can do better (and has survived worse).

Too many times in the past two years has the Corcoran announced a solution to its ongoing problems, only for leaders to retreat—before announcing they’ve found another way out. This is the second time that the Corcoran has offered that it was in talks with George Washington and the National Gallery, and also the second time that leadership went dark on the proceedings (after bragging about them). Between the first time the Corcoran announced these three-way talks, in October 2012, and the current negotiations, the institution has heard from two suitors who promised a way out for the Corcoran in exchange for input on its future—and then spurned both.

Under the current proposal, the Corcoran Gallery of Art would hand over its storied, quasi-encyclopedic art collection to the National Gallery of Art. The museum would absorb the best artworks and help divvy up the rest among other institutions in D.C. and beyond. Under the name “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art,” the National Gallery would show modern and contemporary works at the Corcoran—meaning, in all likelihood, much more conservative shows than what Corcoran viewers are used to. Meanwhile, George Washington University would entirely absorb the Corcoran College of Art + Design, giving the scrappy art college an institutional framework that it has never once indicated it needs.

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In exchange, the Corcoran will be merely and ultimately dissolved. Some semblance of the Corcoran may persist as a nonprofit, one whose role has been described in press materials as advisory. Needless to say, that’s an unsatisfying outcome for anyone who has cared at all for the Corcoran. Many Washingtonians love it—reason enough for the boards of all three institutions to pay better than lip service to the concerns of their constituencies.

Since the Corcoran announced the deal in February, I’ve had a lot of questions—for the Corcoran, for the National Gallery and George Washington, for my sources, for the city. In my reporting, I’ve come up with plenty of answers but hit just as many dead ends and smoke screens. The questions the Corcoran faces—from tuition stabilization to the physical condition of the Flagg Building to the fate of the art—should be answered, divulged, and discussed publicly before trustees from all three organizations vote on a framework for the takeover. Here are some of the questions (and answers) that these bodies need to address now, before it’s too late.

Why is this happening now?

There’s no single answer, but in short: The Corcoran’s leadership does not believe the museum has the means to right its finances and undertake a renovation.

Some critics point to the Corcoran’s failure to build a Frank Gehry-designed addition in the 2000s as the start of its current woes. That wing failed due to a combination of high costs and plain bad luck. Staging costs for construction downtown were a huge factor; the dot-com bubble crash shook the plan’s financial underpinnings. What followed at the Corcoran was a brain bleed that permanently damaged the institution, with many longtime curators and administrators cut under the tenure of director Paul Greenhalgh, who succeeded David Levy after the Gehry flub.

There’s also the Corcoran’s supposed lack of identity—a real problem, but one that is a symptom of larger financial setbacks that have hampered the Corcoran for at least a decade. The back-to-back Gehry crisis and the Great Recession hampered the museum’s ability to mount aspirational shows, which is how museums build “identity.” Corcoran brass also like to point to the lack of foot traffic relative to the museums on the National Mall.

The Corcoran, though, does have an identity—it’s a fashionable museum that is especially good on photography—even if it’s not so easily summed up as, say, the National Portrait Gallery’s. No, the Corcoran doesn’t get as much natural foot traffic as museums on the National Mall, but neither does the financially healthy Phillips Collection.

But with a broken fundraising apparatus and a leadership that doesn’t believe the institution can be saved (with a little help), there’s no hope for fixing what’s broken at the Corcoran, even if every other factor is on the mend.

When will the new deal be announced?

It seemed hopelessly ambitious for the boards of the Corcoran, George Washington, and the National Gallery to come to an agreement by the self-imposed April 7 deadline, given that the talks were only announced in February. Twice before, the Corcoran has announced the start of discussions (with the University of Maryland and with the National Gallery and GW in 2012, before the current proposal), only for any deal to dissolve during the talks. At the moment, few know how they’re proceeding. Staff and faculty at the Corcoran got one clue last week, though. On Thursday, April 17, Interim Director Peggy Loar emailed staff with an update that described the agreement as being “on a path to completion this summer.”

What will happen to staff?

The same email from Loar laid out the near future for staffers: Ninety-day notices are coming. The three parties involved in the transaction are working to find positions for everyone at the National Gallery and GW (or elsewhere). Most Corcoran curators will all receive one-year contracts with the National Gallery. Many redundant positions could be eliminated. Some number of the roughly 600 full- and part-time employees of the Corcoran will receive severance packages.

What happens to exhibits at the Corcoran?

Even before the Corcoran announced plans to give over its museum to the National Gallery in 2012, the Corcoran had agreed to exhibit special National Gallery programming while the museum’s East Wing undergoes a three-year renovation. That’s the part of the museum dedicated to showing modern and contemporary art—which is what the National Gallery plans to show at the Corcoran on an ongoing basis after the deal goes through. One way or another, National Gallery shows on modern art were always heading to the Corc.

In her email, Loar said that the building could undergo an exterior restoration starting some time next year. As a result, the Corcoran isn’t planning any more special events for the rest of 2014 and all of 2015.

There are two exhibitions on the calendar that start in June and July and run into the fall. According to one Corcoran staffer, no one knows whether the museum will book any more Corcoran exhibits after that. The Corcoran did not respond to a question about its calendar.

What about my wedding??

Your wedding will go on as planned—if it’s on the books now. (Congratulations, I’m sure it will be lovely.) But according to the Corcoran, weddings indeed count as special events, and the Corcoran won’t be scheduling any more. The same goes for rentals of the Atrium, Salon Doré, and other Corcoran spaces. It’s possible that the Corcoran will never host another wedding again. By all indications, the building could be going dark in 2015.

Do Corcoran students get to show their work in the building next year?

Part of the draw for students at the Corcoran College of Art + Design is the opportunity to exhibit in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in shows such as “NEXT,” a thesis show for graduating students. (“NEXT 2014” is currently on view.) The Corcoran confirms that “NEXT” will return next year, but notes the location is TBD. Students at the Corcoran don’t sound too confident about the situation, though: Fine-art seniors organized an independent post-thesis show, “Here for Now,” at the Capitol Skyline Hotel, on view now through May 1. “Despite the weight of the unknown future of [the students’] soon to be alma mater, the graduating class of 2014 Fine Art seniors soldier on with new work,” reads the exhibit’s gloomy press release.

Will the college even be open next year?

Yes. Whether the school will be accredited, however, is a different question.

The Corcoran College of Art + Design was due for a standard evaluation of its accreditation status in November 2012, but the school asked for, and received, an extension. This is a request that Richard Pokrass, communications director for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education—the body that oversees accreditation for the Corcoran and more than 500 other colleges—describes as atypical.

“The Commission typically will not grant a postponement because of a change of presidents, because the institution claims to have ‘significant’ problems, or because the institution’s staff is simply not ready for the evaluation visit,” Pokrass writes in an email. “In general terms, a postponement would be granted if the Commission has some major concerns about an institution.”

The Commission’s records don’t contain notes on why the Corcoran asked for the extension or whether an imminent takeover registers as a major concern. There’s no way to know whether circumstances at the Corcoran in late 2012—months after the institution announced tentative plans to sell and vacate its longtime home in the Flagg Building—might have undermined the institution’s accreditation status.

The commission conducted its rescheduled evaluation visit earlier this month, and findings may be available as soon as June. By then, though, the Corcoran might be in GW’s hands, and sharing its accreditation.

Will 2014 be the darkest year in Corcoran history?

Hardly. That distinction is reserved for 1989, when the Corcoran canceled “The Perfect Moment: Robert Mapplethorpe Photographs” over perceived pressure from Congress. In what has become museum lore, the episode pitted defenders of the First Amendment against a cowed Corcoran and the grandstanding North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. Another hard year came in 2001 (a hard year for everyone), when the Sept. 11 attacks virtually eliminated foot traffic between the White House and the Corcoran and bottomed out an AOL stock gift that was the foundation for the doomed wing expansion designed by Frank Gehry. In 2003, the Corcoran mounted an exhibit by J. Seward Johnson, Jr., that involved life-size sculptural recreations of famous Impressionist paintings—a stinker that the Washington Post’s Blake Gopnik rather famously described as like riding a roller coaster backward after downing “rotten-egg-and-sardine milkshakes.”

Some people trace the Corcoran’s tribulations all the way back to 1968, when the museum failed to acquire the collection of the collapsing Washington Gallery of Modern Art, an institution that (among other things) established the Washington Color School as a mode of modernism. (The Oklahoma City Museum of Art bought the 153 works of the collection for what amounts to about $750,000 in today’s dollars.) In 1972, a photo appeared in the New York Times that captured a bloody Gene Baro, then the Corcoran’s director, just after he had been struck by Vincent Melzac, then the CEO, during a black-tie opening.

Then again, perhaps this year really is darker than all of those. Instead of censorship or fisticuffs, a steady decline in giving led a leadership with little background in museums or higher education to turn out the Corcoran. When people turned up to save it, their offers were turned down. At least, in 1989, the stakes were plain.

What was the Corcoran’s brightest year?

It may have been 1967, when the Corcoran made the Oct. 13 cover of Time magazine. The cover depicted Tony Smith’s plywood sculpture, “Smoke,” as it loomed over the Corcoran’s atrium. Angelenos and tourists snap Instagrams every day with the aluminum version of the sculpture that is now installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Will the Corcoran make George Washington University cooler?

For sure. A savvy opinion piece by Jonah Lewis in the Feb. 26 edition of the GW Hatchet compares the GW student body to “the unassuming white couples in Lands’ End catalogs.” The solution is clear, he says, and on this he is correct: Absorbing the Corcoran will make GW cooler.

In the short term, anyway. Corcoran undergraduates pay slightly less than $31,000 for tuition, while George Washington students pay more than $47,000. While GW says it won’t hike tuition rates for current Corcoran students, all bets are off on future classes. Raising tuition at the Corcoran to the levels of one of the most expensive undergraduate institutions in the nation would certainly make for a more privileged caste of enrollees at the Corc. If tuition goes up, it’s much more likely that GW will contribute to the J.Crew-ification of the Corcoran than the other way around.

In a fit of coolness, Corcoran students and faculty (and many others from the Washington community) mounted a project in March called the McGyver School of Art + Design. In the back of a moving truck parked at 9th and U streets NW, McSAD faculty interviewed prospective members of the class of 2018 on what an art school should be. “[M]yself, our board, our faculty, and our community believe that McSAD is uniquely positioned to become the preeminent institution of arts education in our nation’s capital,” read a statement by McSAD “provost” Mia Feuer, whose winter solo show at the Corcoran may go down as one of its last, and finest.

What does George Washington get out of the deal, if not cool factor?

Property, for starters: two facilities with classrooms and studio space, both located reasonably close to campus, one of them in a Beaux-Arts building a stone’s throw from the White House.

Two buildings? What’s the deal with the second building?

Yes, two. In addition to its historic Flagg Building, the Corcoran maintains a site in Georgetown near 35th and S Streets NW. The Georgetown campus was launched in the 1990s; the great photographer William Wegman taught the first course there. But the Georgetown campus may be more than the university bargained for. According to two GW sources, the Corcoran’s Georgetown building is already mortgaged, providing for an additional and unexpected cost in the transition. This is one of the reasons for the delay.

How bad are the Corcoran’s financial problems?

They’re bad, and one of the main features in both the previous offers for a bailout—from the philanthropist Wayne Reynolds and from the University of Maryland—was immediate financial assistance to stop the bleeding. Reynolds offered it on the condition that he would have a prominent say in the Corcoran’s future, and he pledged, troublingly, to sell off art to raise an endowment. Maryland promised funds, largely in terms of loans that would be paid back after the state-backed institution helped stabilize the Corcoran’s fundraising apparatus. (Which is in shambles: The Phillips Collection raised $23 million in large “excess” contributions between FY2008 and FY2012, while the Corcoran drew just $804,459.)

Then again, the Corcoran has engaged in a series of asset sales over the last few years that would seem to have given the organization the buffer it needed to sort out its long-term plans. The Corcoran sold its Randall School property in Southwest, acquired from the city in 2006, to the Miami art and real-estate mavens Don and Mera Rubell for $6.5 million in 2010—although that deal hasn’t yet closed. The Corc’s name is still on the paperwork for a petition to the Mayor’s Agent, which is required for any alterations to an historic property that requires demolition (such as the hotel and art gallery that the new owners have planned for the Randall School). “The Corcoran remains listed as ‘applicant’ because the final closing on the transaction is scheduled for later this year and until then, remains the owner of record,” says Mimi Carter, director of communications at the Corcoran, by email.

There are other purses here and there. Last year, the Corcoran won $10 million in a settlement with the estate of heiress Huguette Clark, plus half the proceeds of anything over $25 million in the eventual sale of Monet’s “Water Lilies” (part of that estate). The Corcoran got another $5 million from an unexpected will. But when the Corcoran monetized a 99-year lease with Carr Properties for its 16,000-square-foot parking lot, earning the school $20.5 million, it essentially sold off its nest egg.

What about the sale of the Sickle rug?

Last June, the Corcoran auctioned a famous 17th-century rug and exceeded all possible expectations, selling it for $33.8 million—the major part of a lot sale that netted the Corcoran $38.4 million. But instead of solving the Corcoran’s problems, the sale introduced a paradox.

According to standard operating practices, museums may only deaccession (sell artworks) when doing so will help to hone the collection. That means that when a museum makes $40 million in an art sale, it may only use the profits for further art purchases. To do otherwise would violate one of the prime directives in museum management.

But what happens when $40 million is the difference between the life and death of an institution? No one believes that the rug, despite its historic significance, is a piece that makes the Corcoran what it is today (although things may have looked different back when William A. Clark gave the artifact to the Corcoran). Still—if the Corcoran does not use the proceeds from this sale to bolster its finances, forcing it to accept a deal that essentially dissolves the Corcoran, isn’t that a worse violation of museum ethics than the shady practice of selling artworks to pay the bills? One might argue that the Corcoran has no other choice, ethically.

Ethics aside, there is a $40 million purse dedicated to the acquisition of new artworks for the Corcoran Gallery of Art somewhere in this trade, and none of the parties involved can say where it’s going.

Was there any other way to save the Corcoran?

Yes. There were at least two options—three if you count the Sickle rugs as a short-term fix. The Corcoran needs money, and people lined up to give the Corcoran money. Leadership at the Corcoran might have taken the deal with Reynolds, or it might have taken the deal with the University of Maryland.

Why didn’t the deal with Wayne Reynolds go through?

The Corcoran rejected Reynolds—the arts philanthropist and former Ford’s Theatre chairman who turned that institution’s finances around—once it became clear that he intended to reshape the institution as its board chair. While Reynolds says he was initially greeted warmly by then-director Fred Bollerer and Corcoran board chair Harry F. Hopper III, Reynolds eventually went guerrilla, hosting a lavish party on the top floor of the Hay-Adams to generate grassroots support for his takeover. Plenty of his designs for what he planned to call the Corcoran Center for Creativity were troubling to museum supporters, especially a scheme to sell off some works in the collection to build an endowment.

What happened with the deal with the University of Maryland?

After tentative talks with a number of colleges from around the country, from the University of Texas to Yale University, the Corcoran settled on a deal with Maryland in April 2013. For the rest of that year, the Corc and the Terps discussed a deal that would save the museum, stop the financial bleeding, and see the schools enter into some kind of partnership.

According to an official at Maryland, the Corcoran pulled out without telling its College Park counterparts. In February of this year, just two weeks after representatives from both parties met to hammer out final details, the Corcoran announced the new deal—the three-way marriage with the National Gallery and George Washington, the details of which are still being worked out. While the Corcoran maintains that Maryland missed a deadline leading up to the February about-face, Maryland president Wallace Loh has suggested otherwise. “We were awaiting Corcoran’s written response when they called us yesterday, shortly before their announcement that the Gallery and the College would be taken over separately,” Loh said in a Feb. 20 statement.

One thing is for certain: Maryland planned to stabilize the Corcoran’s finances largely through long-term loans that would be repaid after the institution found stronger footing. This plan would bind the success of the Maryland program at the Corcoran (whatever shape that might have taken) to the success of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The current plan will see George Washington simply taking over the administration of the Corcoran, minus the art. A better bargain for Corcoran trustees, maybe, if the existence of the Corcoran is a bartering chip.

Does the District have any say in what happens next?

Yes. The Corcoran is currently pursuing a cy-près amendment to its charter in D.C. Superior Court. For reasons that the Corcoran won’t elaborate, the current charter does not support the takeover by the National Gallery and GW. D.C.’s Attorney General looked into the Corcoran’s decision back in 2012, when the institution was looking to moves that could take it out of the District, but since the Corcoran has relented on that front, the AG’s office hasn’t had any public say about it (and declined to comment for this story).

Where is the art going?

Some goes into the collection of the National Gallery, the big winner in this deal. Some will wind up in the so-called Corcoran Legacy gallery in the Corcoran building, the shape of which hasn’t been fully outlined.

Washington museums ought to be lining up for works in the collection that they hope the National Gallery passes over. The National Museum of Health and Medicine, for example, would be eager to acquire John Singer Sargent’s charcoal sketches for “Gassed,” a 1919 painting of wounded soldiers lining up at a dressing station after a mustard gas attack during World War I, according to museum archivist Eric Boyle. The sketches are among the 17,000 works of art in the Corcoran collection. Disseminating the collection is a process that could take years.

Whose input should trustees solicit?

Steve Brown, the longtime facilities director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, should be in the room for any talks. He was a 29-year Corcoran veteran when he left in 2011. (He is now working with the National Gallery of Art.) Corcoran photography chair Muriel Hasbun, George Washington fine arts chair Dean Kessman, and James Huckenpahler—an adjunct instructor who has taught at both institutions—could speak for faculty. So could Roy Slade, a former Corcoran director who has written about his experience there in the 1970s. (“I could not believe the poverty of the place and the abysmal teaching,” he writes, regarding his arrival as dean in 1970.)

But all three parties need to see beyond their narrow purviews. Perhaps Phillips Collection Director Dorothy Kosinski could help the Corcoran see where its fundraising apparatus failed, if she were willing to divulge state secrets. Former D.C. Public Library chief Ginnie Cooper turned a struggling institution into an expanding and increasingly beloved one. Collector and businessman Dani Levinas seems to believe that a contemporary-art institution can thrive in D.C.: He’s trying to launch the Institute for Contemporary Expression in the old Franklin School property downtown.

Is there any precedent for the Corcoran’s decision?

Yes—only one, so far as I can tell. Credit for the observation goes to art critic Philip Kennicott, who hosted a panel discussion at the Washington Post in which he, Modern Art Notes blogger Tyler Green, and I took part. Kennicott opened the proceedings by acknowledging a crisis facing the San Diego Opera, namely its board. That body determined this March that ticket sales and public support for the opera weren’t strong enough to sustain it for the future. The decision was met with outrage: While the board voted 33 to 1 to close the opera, the option of closing the institution altogether was never discussed as a potential agenda item. Almost half the board’s members weren’t even present for the vote. The board’s president resigned last week by walking out of a meeting.

The crisis facing the San Diego Opera—weak ticket sales, poor donations—was far from a death sentence. Neither is the situation at the Corcoran. The museum acquired nearly 100 new artworks in 2013 (most of them gifts from Bud and Fran Moreland Johns and from Heather and Tony Podesta). While selling assets isn’t a sustainable strategy, neither is dissolving. And when the Corcoran’s plight became public, two benefactors emerged immediately with financial assistance to restore the Corcoran to solvency. While a kind of zombie board will remain at the Corcoran, it’s unclear what responsibilities it will have once the artwork belongs to the National Gallery and the college goes to GW. To put it plainly: The Corcoran leadership has decided in favor of giving up.

Is this the end for the Corcoran?

If the deal goes through? If the National Gallery absorbs the museum, transforming it into the “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art”? If GW takes over the Corcoran College of Art + Design, retaining whatever measure of the school’s faculty and funk it can? The Corcoran survived a leadership brawl, a disastrous expansion plan, harrowing staff purges, and the wrath of Jesse Helms. But by design, it will not survive this transition. Arguably, the Corcoran failed on June 6, 2012, the day the public found out that the board was looking to sell its building and move somewhere else, possibly to Alexandria. Little did they know then that the Corcoran would instead be moving on. Little did we know then that the vote they took that day was a vote of no confidence.

Our Readers Say

This was a great article!
GW, The Corcoran and National Gallery of Art have been working on complex agreements under a short time line and continue to do so. All parties remain committed to completing this process and as previously stated, will provide more information once that process is complete.
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This is, for the most part, a well researched and well written report. It is rather disconcerting, however to read the museum being referred to as "the Flagg building" without first explaining that Ernest Flagg was an accomplished American architect of the early half of the 20th century. Few people have any idea who Flagg was. In an era of "naming," Flagg could be a guy who made a lot of dot.com money and decided to throw some of it at the Corcoran in order to have an exceptionally beautiful building named for him.
Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it. Look advanced to far added agreeable from you! By the way, how can we communicate? bdeebbbcdkab
It's nice to read a clear-headed article without Tyler Green's endless sniping at the NGA.
I must disagree with at least one point... This is indeed the darkest day of the Corcoran's history, as the Corcoran as we know it will no longer exist under this arrangement. To allow an independent institution with such invaluable resources and significant history to be divied up in this way is mindless and tragic. The National Gallery is, in the eyes of the modern and contemporary museum world, a classic parody of corporate America--can you name a truly groundbreaking contemporary exhibition that it has produced in the past ten years? Twenty? For example, while I did not have the chance to see the Kerry James Marshall show last year, I can't help but point out that it came twenty years AFTER his work was included in the critically acclaimed Corcoran Biennial of 1993. This is just one example, and there are many more. As a past staff member of the Corcoran, I am deeply concerned and disheartened.
You ask the right questions but answers, when they can be stated with any degree of precision, are very troubling. Looking back, the Corcoran's glory days were, in fact, when people got into fist fights. Despite its venerable façade, it was always Washington's feistiest, most unruly and most interesting museum. Regrettably the Mapplethorpe debacle ended the museum's deserved reputation for risk-taking and presenting the kind of exhibitions no other museum in Washington would dare to even think about. It's ironic that a few years ago the staid (at least in most folks' perception) National Portrait Gallery would mount "Hide/Seek," a relatively conservative survey of gay themed art works over the past century or so. Indeed, if the Corcoran had been on its toes, it might have reprised the Mapplethorpe exhibition to complement the show at NPG. Theirs is a story of missed opportunities and I completely agree that there are multiple ways the museum could have opted to survive and eventually proper in a town that desperately needs alternatives to the status quo. Imagination is not something we associate with Washington and therein lies the greatest need for the Corcoran.
Bravo. The best article on the Corcoran debacle yet as it also provided a historical perspective. I would like to see an expanded section on how the Corcoran board can do an end run around its charter - who are the lawyers behind this for example? And how can they proceed without a definitive legal ruling? One answer of course is that the board in league with the AG regards the amendment as a trifling formality.

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