Arts Desk

A Modest Proposal for the Corcoran: Go Northeast

If you tuned in yesterday to The  Kojo Nnamdi Show's segment on the Corcoran controversy, you didn't hear much new: mostly rehashed arguments that have been covered by this blog, the Washington Post, and e-mails from the Save the Corcoran campaign. On one side, the museum's director and board says the institution is too cash-strapped to undertake $130 million in renovations, which is why the Corcoran should look into selling its building and moving elsewhere. On the other side, Save the Corcoran argues that the Flagg building is the Corcoran's identity, and that poor leadership has not raised enough money or provided a clear vision.

I posted this idea to Kojo's site: The Corcoran should buy the Hecht Warehouse campus on New York Avenue NE from Douglas Development. Partner with the city to raze nearby abandoned buildings, and encourage the city to incentivize developers and business owners to move there. Encourage other area visual and performing arts nonprofits to move out there with you, and create an arts district. Kojo sold it as "Buy the Hecht Campus." Jayme McLellan of Save the Corcoran frustratedly responded, "Stay in your building."

My idea is cockamamie, partly because the Hecht Warehouse is not for sale (it is up for lease, though, probably because Douglas, like previous owners, can't make it work). And, as City Paper wrote in 2008, there is no there there. It is why partnership with the city is essential to erase the eyesores commuters and tourists see when entering the city from Route 50. Just imagine driving past the Arboretum, past a small development of restaurants and shops, before passing a giant museum, arts college, and art district.

But first, why should the Corcoran leave the Flagg building?

The HV/AC is not up to date. One hundred and fifteen years of hanging art have left walls pock-marked with anchors and patches. The elevators don't support heavy and large objects. Offices are crowded. Studios are crammed. Art facilities are sub-par. And for decades the institution has been unable to overcome these issues financially.

The arguments to stay in the Corcoran are problematic. It's been its home since 1897: irrelevant. The sight lines are perfect for viewing art: If the institution is shuttered, those site lines matter little. It's facade states it is a place for art: Functions change. It was founded to encourage the American genius: It can do that elsewhere. It is the biggest piece of the collection: No, it isn't. Technically the building was built after William Corcoran died. Yes, it is beautiful. But it also looks like most of the other bureaucratic buildings near it: vaguely Neo-Classical and mostly European. It needs a building that can reflect something more contemporary. Gehry would have achieved that had the donations not dried up, and the cost of the addition not ballooned. Perhaps a move to Hecht can achieve it.

Since Save the Corcoran complains, in an e-mail, that the Corcoran's director and board are "treating the institution like a dry business transaction," let's compare some numbers dryly.

Estimated Value: Corcoran: $116 Million | Hecht: $20 million

Square Footage: Corcoran: 135,000 | Hecht: 768,000

Style: Corcoran: Beaux Arts |Hecht: Art Deco

Parking: Corcoran: metered street parking | Hecht: ample spaces on Okie Street NE 16th Street NE, and New York and West Virginia Avenues

Renovations: Corcoran: $130 Million | Hecht: Unknown.

Clout: Both are on the National Register of Historic Places. Corcoran is a U.S. National Historic Landmark

Jamye McLellan stated on Kojo that the Corcoran needs to give the community a vision in order to be successful. It might actually be the other way around. The Corcoran has been nearsighted and myopic throughout the last few decades: It does not do vision. All one has to do is consider blunders before Mapplethorpe and Gehry.

For instance, in June of 1961, the Board of Trustees denied Alice Denney a requested space to exhibit contemporary art, stating the Corcoran's preference to neither collect nor exhibit contemporary work. That rejected contemporary gallery became the Washington Gallery of Modern Art (WGMA), which exhibited the first Kline retrospective, and the first major Pop Art exhibition (in a museum). By October 1, 1968, the Corcoran absorbed the faltering WGMA and sold the permanent collection to the Oklahoma Art Center a week later for $110,000. At least they kept Walter Hopps.

That's not to say the Corcoran has never been contemporary, or supportive of local artists. Recent initiatives have been decent efforts, and many of their recent rotating exhibitions have been blockbusters. But they need to go bigger. And the Hecht building is bigger, effectively quintupling the space of the current Corcoran. With additional space the Corcoran can exhibit more of its collection, feature more rotating exhibitions, sell spaces to other area arts organizations, and do something that is of rumored interest to the board: Double enrollment. Until that happens, they can rent studio spaces to area artists.

It's a crazy idea. But, isn't it time for us to have an arts district? The Corcoran could lead the way, saving itself and boosting D.C. arts.

Photo via Flickr user NCinDC, Creative Commons License

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  • IMGoph

    please, we don't need to raze buildings around the old warehouse - we need to utilize them, like the distillery that's about to open in one of them.

    and it's OK to call the area by it's name. it's Ivy City, a neighborhood with history, a civic association, people actively trying to make it a better place, etc. "northeast" is a little vague, don't you think?

  • John Anderson

    Apologies for dropping Ivy City in the editing process, IMGoph.

    Also for failing to clarify that the 1900 block of NY Ave, NE, should be razed. There are over a dozen abandoned and dilapidated buildings in that triangle.

  • Ron

    The Hecht Company warehouse looks like it needs a ton of work before it could be occupied by anybody. It wasn't even that long ago that its facade was restored, yet it clearly has not held up well. I can imagine that the inside is probably wrecked, as well.

  • DrewCourt

    I love this plan except for the fact that it will be a huge pain to get to. If there were a nearby metro stop, that would be a different story.

  • eli

    I love this idea. How do we get the city council and Corcoran board to READ this?

  • race is fun for the whole family


    Not having a Metro stop hasn't stopped Georgetown from thriving. Get on the bus for a change, no one will bite you.

  • John Anderson

    Ron: You are likely correct about the necessary work to the interior. Considering he scale, it would not all have to be completed at once.

    re Metro: New York Avenue Metro is about one mile from the Hecht Warehouse. Nearby metros to the Flagg building are also about one mile.

  • deedle

    Way to reference a news article from 4 years ago. If you'd read Lydia's blog, she's noted the turnaround of Ivy City.

    There is a there now, whatever that means.

  • David

    Mr. Anderson: I think you may be on to something. City dwellers of Washington may want to embrace the concept of paradigm-shifting. The fact is: DC is evolving. Why not fight for one's place in the evolution of a great City. One way, is to get in while the "getting is good." Yes, as some posts note, there are transportation challenges. However, this can be addressed. If we look back ten years ago, who would believe the commerce that is taking place at Logan Circle and surrounding areas. Or, how about Verizon Center or the Nationals Stadium. Remember the opposition? Hard to right? By the way, New york Avenue is already showing signs of a rebirth. I really like your reference to the word "vision." Leaders "envision" change, even dream it. Corcoran Leadership: I urge you to fight for a new and "exciting" vision. Give your new vision and help lead Change. Solicit private and government (Feds and DC)resources to help bring a "state of the art" multi-faceted "Arts District" with a dedicated transportation plan. Your patrons will love you for it.

  • DrewCourt

    @ #6 I do ride the bus, thanks, but there's no question that many more people would visit the museum if it were right on the metro. Asking tourists (or locals) to transfer from Metro to bus is going to cut deeply into the number of people who go.

    As for the walk, the distance may be the same in either case, but nothing else about the walk is. Pedestrians would have to cross the NY Ave overpass, then walk down a busy street with narrow sidewalks, speeding cars and no storefronts. That's simply not the case at the Flagg Building.

    Again, I'd love for it to work, but dismissing the transit concerns is silly.

  • Emy

    The area is treated like a dumping ground (i.e., the new proposal to re-locate 65+ intercity buses in a residential section of Ivy City) without any regard to the well being of residents. As a new resident of Ivy City, I love the idea of having the Corcoran in our area.

  • TJ

    You sound like Fred Bollerer when you exaggerate how far the Corcoran is from the Metro. It's not a mile. Google the corner of CT Ave and K (Farragut North exit) to the Corcoran. Half a mile. About six blocks. Farragut West is an even shorter distance. IOW about the distance of your car to the mall entrance during the holidays.

    I think the Hecht Co warehouse could-could become the Corcoran version of the Cloisters (MMA) and the home to the College, but the flagship museum should stay on 17th Street.

  • John Anderson

    TJ: Oy! I did a quick measure from Foggy Bottom and from Fed. Triangle. one was .8 (close enough to a mile). Completely overlooked F-gut West. Thanks for the correction.

    Deedle: There is no there on NY Ave (though Joe's Noodle House has an okay Phó). There my be a there beyond NY Ave, as LdP pointed out.

  • IMGoph

    John: Thanks for acknowledging little old Ivy City. I live in Trinidad, and it's kind of our "sister" neighborhood, and I'll do what I can to go to bat for it when I can.

    The stuff on the 1900 block of New York Avenue is outside of Ivy City, and is part of the Walmart development that's supposed to break ground any day now (unfortunately, if you ask me, but I digress). Those buildings will certainly be gone soon enough.

  • KT

    I've had my eyes on this building for quite some time and think it would be an incredible space both the college and museum. It's refreshing to hear someone else with similar point of view; we are struggling in our building.

    As an alumni and current employee of The Corcoran I am in favor of a move hoping a change can bring about some good.