Is the Corcoran Getting Better at P.R.?
Ever since June, when we broke the news that the Corcoran Gallery of Art was considering leaving its Beaux-Arts home on 17th Street NW, the institution has taken a beating from activists and opinion writers. But last week, the museum finally seemed to be putting in an effort to stay ahead of the narrative, at least if an announcement regarding the Corcoran's highly preliminary conversations with the National Gallery and George Washington is any evidence.
More news this week suggests the Corcoran is still recovering from its P.R. fumbles. Leadership at the Corcoran Gallery of Art has now publicly acknowledged what it told the Corcoran's board before June: that in 2011, the museum specifically looked at the Alexandria waterfront—among other D.C. locations—as a potential new home.
Wednesday's Washington Post story by David Montgomery and Jonathan O'Connell cites emails by Alexandria officials that show the city courted the Corcoran in 2011. Corcoran board chair Harry F. Hopper III acknowledged to the Post that the meetings took place, but likened them to "homework." "There’s nothing that has been brought to our attention that would be the basis for engaging with Alexandria,” Hopper told the Post. “Yes, there were conversations with Alexandria, which, frankly, were driven more by them than by us.”
Back in June, the most the Post could get from the Corcoran's president and director, Fred Bollerer, on the topic of Alexandria was this:
No jurisdiction or neighborhood has an inside track on attracting the Corcoran, Bollerer said. A popular rumor in city art circles is that the Corcoran is headed to a waterfront location in Alexandria. That is unfounded, he said.
A week and a half later, at a community meeting, the Corcoran's leadership again addressed the alleged rumor: "The Corcoran is committed to staying in the greater Washington metropolitan area and will consider all options in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia," a PowerPoint slide read. "There is no basis in the rumor that we are moving to Alexandria."
And last week, an email regarding the National Gallery and George Washington talks signed by Corcoran Hopper asked faculty, students, and staff to refuse press requests. "Due to the noticeable increase in misinformation and unfair allegations and accusations that have hampered our ability to resolve the Corcoran’s future," it said, "we hope today’s update will clarify where we are in that process." The letter asks recipients to direct all press queries to Corcoran press director Mimi Carter, who told me last Friday that among those allegations was the rumor that the Corcoran was "definitely" moving to Alexandria.
Certainly, members of the larger Corcoran community have complained about a possible Alexandria relocation. Alexandria mayoral candidate Andrew MacDonald even penned a skeptical op-ed about the possibility of a Corcoran move to the waterfront.
But I haven't heard anyone—in the media, in conversations, at forums, on Twitter—state they believed the Corcoran is definitely moving anywhere—not Alexandria, not Fort Totten, not the Southwest Waterfront, nor any of the other options the museum has explored.
So why didn't the Corcoran say in June that it had met with Alexandria officials but not much had come of the talks, and put the supposed rumor to rest? Instead, it complained about a straw man, refusing to acknowledge the discussions with Alexandria until this week, when the Post got its hands on the emails that proved it.
In contrast, the talks with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University that the Corcoran disclosed on Friday aren't necessarily more substantive than the Alexandria ones. National Gallery of Art press chief Deborah Ziska explained in an email where those talks stand: "There are no negotiations. There was a meeting at which Hopper and Bollerer presented their thoughts and ideas, but currently there are no further meetings scheduled." She added that the National Gallery didn't work with the Corcoran on its late-breaking press release last Friday. (When I asked for comment from George Washington University's dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, Peg Barratt, who is leading discussions with the Corcoran, the university press office sent a release about its long history of collaboration with the Corcoran.)
Does the Corcoran's transparency about very tentative talks suggest that the institution has learned a lesson about crisis management? Maybe, but the perception within the community that the Corcoran has been opaque about its plans has taken a toll. Save the Corcoran has grown from a Facebook page to a full-fledged activist network, even issuing a legal challenge alleging corporate malfeasance and charter violations. That organization has complained vocally about a lack of communication from the Corcoran—a charge echoed by the Post's Philip Kennicott, who called the Corcoran board's silence "disturbing." The Corcoran may yet have more explaining to do.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons