Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The Corcoran: A failure of leadership

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Yesterday evening the Corcoran trustees announced their plan to explore a process that could lead to the Corcoran selling their landmark Washington building. In a statement, the Corcoran’s board president and chairman also said that they are “committed to reconstituting the Corcoran — both the Gallery and the College — in a space that is more flexible and which will allow us to fulfill our mission.” [Image of the Corcoran via Flickr user SBC9.]

(The Corcoran made the announcement only after it had lost control of the story: The Washington CityPaper broke the news earlier in the day after a weekend during which the Washington art world had been abuzz with rumors.)

The Corcoran’s spin can’t mask the truth: For years the Corcoran’s leadership has failed to take bold steps and instead has been diminishing the institution by degrees. A partial recap: After a failed attempt to build a Frank Gehry-designed addition in the early 2000s — the design was eye-catching, the fundraising was not — then-director David Levy resigned. In 2006 the struggling Corcoran hired little-known Paul Greenhalgh, then the president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Greenhalgh, who fell seriously ill shortly after arriving in Washington, proved to be an ineffectual leader, the type of director who thought one big, expensive exhibition, a history of modernist design, could restore the museum to prominence and fiscal health. It did not. In May, 2010, Greenhalgh cited ongoing financial challenges that pre-dated his arrival and resigned. He gave the Corcoran just five days notice. According to the Washington Post, the Corcoran ran a $4 million deficit in his final year. The depth of the Corcoran’s predicament has been clear for a while.

Under Greenhalgh the Corcoran didn’t just hemorrhage cash, it diminished the quality of its staff. It laid off experienced senior faculty, curators and administrators. If it replaced them, it was typically with younger, less experienced and cheaper options.

No surprise then that in recent years the museum’s programming has been lackluster. The Corcoran has organized just one or two significant, scholarly exhibitions in the last half decade. In 2007, the Corcoran abandoned production of its signature biennial, a once-important survey of American painting that was first staged in 1907. Rock bottom came last year, when the museum announced it would present a vanity exhibition from the collection of Don and Mera Rubell, with whom it had just closed a $6.5 million real estate deal. The arrangement raised questions about the independence of the museum’s exhibition program.

Speaking of real estate deals, both during and after Greenhalgh’s tenure, the Corcoran’s trustees have dealt key property assets. First, in early 2010, the Corcoran sold off the Randall School, a property in Southwest Washington the Corcoran acquired just four years earlier and to which it had once planned to expand the Corcoran College of Art and Design, to a development group led by the Rubells. Later that same year, the Corcoran entered into an arrangement with Carr Properties for a 99-year lease on a plot of land behind the Corcoran’s 17th Street building, land that had once been earmarked for what the Corcoran hoped would be a Frank Gehry-designed expansion. [UPDATE, 6/8/12: MAN has new information on that lease.] That stunning deal turned a site that was to be a key part of the future of the Corcoran into a likely office building. In effect, the two deals made clear that the Corcoran trustees were unable — and perhaps unwilling — to fundraise to pay down the institution’s debt — or to plan strategically for the future. Taken together the 2010 real estate deals established what has turned out to be a pattern: Instead of making tough choices, the trustees chose to sell off available assets, to wait, to hope.

And so we come to yesterday’s news that the Corcoran trustees could sell off the landmark Ernest Flagg-designed building that the Corcoran has occupied since 1897. The museum is spinning the decision as a likely “relocation,” perhaps to Alexandria, a Beltway-lining suburb south of the city.

Really? Who leaves what could be the most impactful art museum site in America, a block from the White House, for suburbia? For the third time the Corcoran has taken a self-inflicted baby-step. Past results are a good indication of future performance: It’s hard to raise money for your institution — even in one of the nation’s healthiest, wealthiest metropolitan areas — at the same time you’re selling it off.

What big, bold steps have the Corcoran trustees failed to take? Maybe the Corcoran should shutter the museum and distribute the collection to the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Hirshhorn, the better to focus on the school. Maybe the Corcoran should explore merging the art school into a local college, such as nearby George Washington University, so as to give the museum a last, best chance for independent survival. Those would have been radical and courageous decisions. Instead, as Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger said on Twitter this morning, the Corcoran has “all but given up.”

So what’s next? It’s open season on the Corcoran — and not just on 500 17th Street NW. Expect Alice Walton, the founder of Arkansas’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and a long-time major Republican donor, to be interested in at least the building, if not in a purchase-cum-takeover of the whole place, museum and school, perhaps a “Crystal Bridges at the Corcoran.” (In 2007, while I was working on a story for Fortune magazine, Crystal Bridges officials told me that Walton hoped to have a bricks-and-mortar presence outside of Arkansas once the new building was finished and open. And now it is.)

Closer to home, the National Gallery of Art has long needed — and struggled to find — additional office and gallery space. They’ve looked across the street, at the Federal Trade Commission’s headquarters building, and they’ve explored the possibility of building an expansion under the National Mall. So far, nothing has worked out. Meanwhile, senior NGA staff have long had their eyes on the Corcoran’s physical plant.

And maybe neither of them will be able to compete with a well-heeled developer or with a political actor motivated by the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire a landmark building located near the geographic heart of American power.

Who knows. The Corcoran hasn’t sold its building yet. It still has time to find other solutions. But does it want to?

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  1. pensum says:

    wow! wow! wow! i never imagined that i would see the complete demise of the Corcoran in my lifetime, but it appears this venerable institution is on its last legs.

  2. This is a fantastic article. Thank you for writing it, Tyler. The DC community is very unnerved by this closed door decision that did not involve faculty, staff, donors, students, or even the Provost. Solutions do exist and the community that supports this institution should be tapped to find them. For example, the revenue from a real restaurant could help the institution a great deal. But then again, we are talking about a Board who put a venture capitalist in charge of fundraising. Funds come from the community – large and small gifts as well as earned income (restaurant, sales, etc.).

    This is a real estate deal cooked up by those not qualified to run a museum or a school.

  3. Chris Rusak says:

    Where’s the Broad/Deitch superduo to come save this one, too?

  4. d-art49 says:

    Maybe the Corcoran needs to broker a major bailout deal like so many of our ‘poor’ banks did in recent years. Maybe someoneone frm BofA could help them. Gee they are right there in DC and could surely whisper in the right ears to make that happen…? A more palatable solution would be to put a hold on everything and throw this board of trustees out and recruit a new board comprised of people who don’t want to give up this great building, outstanding location and years of (mostly) reat reputation!

  5. chuck says:

    Great article. It is a shame but clearly all the recent boards have not been able to connect with the deep pocket money in DC (I guess there is some). Also there does not seem to be a well articulated why for the Corcoran other than they are old and they are not federal. That has not been a winning argument I guess.

    Rather than see it move, I would rather Ms. Walton take it over. If they can only show 3% of their collection sharing the other 97% with Arkansas is maybe not a bad thing. A few years ago some critic suggested they should sell their collection and use the proceeds to turn themselves into a National Museum of Photography and get Smithsonian status- not a bad thing if the paintings go to public collections.

    I can’t see the National Gallery doing much. It seems since Mellon died and Powell took over it has been dithering with no clear path. It does not seem to have a good acquisition program and seems to lose out on garnering new major collections. But to be fair, they are in a place where it is difficult to expand– why not take the office/library wing of the east building and make it gallery space — whats there now could be well located elsewhere

    Maybe part of the problem is that the DC area is not home of the super rich – there are a few but not like NYC or LA or Chicago.

  6. Corc fan says:

    It seems like there’s a pretty simple solution in the brand new office building that’s currently being *attached* to the Corcoran’s historic building. Rent back and retrofit some space in the new building to create modern facilities for the College. Move the 75+ employees of the Corcoran’s administrative offices over to the new building and free up the *entire main level* for use as Gallery space (for which it was originally designed). And find a director with a clear vision and experience, who is more interested in creating a world-class arts education institution than in making a quick buck.

  7. […] addthis_share = [];} The post of the day belongs to Tyler Green who assiduously digs through the longstanding institutional malaise that is the Corcoran. It’s obvious from reading the piece how the lack of decisive long range planning has […]

  8. Jeffrey says:

    This is what happens when you pick people who A. Can’t handle the job. And B. Can’t come up with interesting exhibitions. I’d bet there is someone working for them in a low level job right now that could bring that museum back into the black, but they won’t give them the opportunity because of some stupid bull.

  9. […] Tyler Green: "The depth of the Corcoran’s predicament has been clear for a while." [Artinfo] […]

  10. Peteykins says:

    “Meanwhile, senior NGA staff have long had their eyes on the Corcoran’s physical plant.”

    I’ve never, ever, EVER heard anything resembling that expressed.

  11. […] Tyler Green: "The depth of the Corcoran’s predicament has been clear for a while." [Artinfo] […]

  12. […] }()); 0 Comments One of the points I tried to make in yesterday’s analysis of the Corcoran situation is that there’s no single factor that has created the situation the […]

  13. charles mcneel says:

    why don’t they generate their own money by selling off some of their art, like in any other business? what goes around , comes around.(posted by a starving artist left with bitter taste in mouth due to the museum/gallery practice of exclusion)

  14. Tyler Green says:

    They’re not a business, they’re a non-profit. And the art museum community has strict rules against such, rules that have been overwhelmingly accepted, followed within the sector for decades.

  15. susan k. rehr says:

    This is an iconic institution and must be saved. My mother was a student there in the 1940s.

  16. […] of the attorney general’s office adds a new twist to the Corcoran’s troubles. The institution has been plagued by substantial operating deficits and debt, problems it has recently tried to address by selling property, by entering into a long-term land […]

  17. […] Corcoran’s future has been cloudy for years as it has piled up deficit after deficit. Only a flurry of real estate deals have kept the place afloat. Earlier this summer, the Corcoran initiated a process that could result […]

  18. […] monetization of a long-term lease raises more questions. The Corcoran by the numbers. A long-term failure of leadership. « Wednesday links Blog Home Analysis Pin It Tweet window.fbAsyncInit = […]

  19. […] of this is a surprise. The inevitability of the Corcoran’s demise was clear in 2008. It was even clearer in 2012 when the Corcoran’s latest round of financial woes became public. Instead of planning for a […]

  20. […] 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 […]

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