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?