For over a month now, the future of “the Corcoran,” a single entity defined by the institution’s bylaws as being “composed of the Corcoran Museum of Art and the Corcoran College of Art,” has been cloudy. Actually, the 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 in the sale of its iconic Ernest Flagg-designed building more or less across 17th Street NW from the White House. If the building is sold, the Corcoran leadership has indicated that the Corcoran may pursue a move to Maryland or Virginia. (As MAN reported yesterday, the District of Columbia attorney general may have something to say about that.) [Image via Flickr user dcjasmine.]
OK, but more specifically, what’s the future of the gallery? In a June interview with the Washington Post, Corcoran board chair Harry Hopper III made it sound like little more than an afterthought: “One of the clear options for us to consider is relocating to a purpose-built, technologically advanced, flexible, multipurpose facility that could house an integrated educational operation, with the college at the core, coupled with the [museum] collection.”
Notice that the broader functions of the museum, such as exhibitions, scholarship, public programming and community engagement, are absent from that formulation. For weeks I’ve been wondering if Hopper’s locution was meaningful or not. Nothing I’ve heard in conversations with Corcoran stakeholders over the last two months — or haven’t heard, as the case may be — has indicated that the Corcoran leadership is giving much thought to the gallery. [Image of the Corcoran's galleries via Flickr user Laura Padgett.]
There may be a reason for that: For years the school has been growing while the gallery has been shrinking. Nine years ago, in FY 2002, gallery expenditures were $8.4 million. In the years since then, the Corcoran has suspended its famed biennial, cut back the ambition of its exhibition and acquisitions programs and has reduced staff levels. In the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2011 (the most recent year for which the Corcoran’s financials are available), the gallery spent $3.8 million, 55 percent less than it did in 2002.
Meanwhile, the school’s expenditures have grown by 63 percent over the same term, to almost $20 million. (In addition, thanks substantially to generous federal loan programs that have been a boon for non-profit and for-profit colleges alike, the school attracted about $19 million in tuition and related fees in FY 2010.) It would seem that to the current leadership, the school wags the Cassatt.
The Corcoran’s long-term de-emphasis of the gallery is one of many strategic errors that different Corcoran leaders have made in recent years. The school’s affiliation with a good museum should be important to its educational program and a key selling point — just ask students at and alumni from the Art Institute of Chicago, where the integration of the school and the museum is the major draw, how important that relationship is. But perhaps because the Corcoran’s leaders are businessmen and not arts administrators — president and director Fred Bollerer, 70, was a long-time bank executive — and they’re following the money. There’s little evidence that they’ve given much thought to the future of the gallery, or to how the Corcoran’s museum-plus-school peers consider a museum and a school as a richly complementary, integrated unit. [Image: Jennifer Steinkamp, Loop, 2000. Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington. Image via Flickr user M J M.]
In fact, I’ve been pursuing evidence of such for some time. In late June, the Corcoran’s new press officer agreed to arrange a conversation between Bollerer and/or Hopper and me about the future of the Corcoran. The institution’s press office set about finding a date and time. In follow-up emails I indicated that I was particularly interested in hearing about the leadership’s plans for the future of the gallery. Days passed, then weeks. About 10 days ago the Corcoran finally told me that neither Bollerer nor Hopper would be available after all. In two decades as a journalist, I can’t recall an institution promising to arrange an interview with a top executive… only to later say, ‘Nevermind.’
Instead, the Corcoran told me that it was planning two community events in August during which a panel made up of non-executive Corcoran staff and concerned Corcoran-lovers would discuss their hopes for the gallery. The first of these events takes place tomorrow night. Neither Bollerer nor Hopper is scheduled to participate. The program includes zero presentation of the leadership’s vision for the museum and instead seems to offer a college-dorm-style bull session. Nearly two months after floating the ’sell the building’ idea, could it be that the Corcoran’s leaders are not prepared to talk about the future of the gallery?
Into this void created by the Corcoran’s leadership, unaddressed questions about the future of the gallery abound: Is the Corcoran committed to exhibiting its collection to the public, or only to making it available to the student population (or neither)? Might the collection be placed in storage for years, until new leadership re-earns the confidence of the Washington donor community? Is the Corcoran committed to scholarship and to an exhibition program, or does the leadership consider those to be impossibilities given its inability to attract donors? Does the Corcoran leadership, inexperienced in non-profit arts administration, understand how museums around the country operate, that they’re charities reliant upon donors, or do they see a lack of gallery-driven revenue stream and simply shrug? [Image: A Corcoran gallery via Flickr user Kevin Harber.]
As a result of the silence of the Corcoran’s leaders, drastic options seem like possibilities: Could the Corcoran attempt a legal separation of the gallery from the school? The Corcoran bylaws include a provision that govern the potential dissolution of the institution:
“Upon the liquidation or dissolution of the Corcoran other than as provided in paragraph seventh of the Deed, and after payment of, or making due provision for, all outstanding liabilities of the Corcoran, all the assets of the Corcoran shall be disposed of to one or more organizations exempt from federal income tax under Section 501(c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code or similar provision of any subsequent tax law.”
That would seem to indicate that if the Corcoran ceases to exist in its current form that the collection must be dispersed to one or more art museums in Washington (or, perhaps, beyond). Is that something that the Corcoran’s leadership is considering? We don’t know.
All of this is inexplicable, even bizarre. Ideally, the gallery’s quality and its 140-year history should motivate donors and foundations to want to be part of the broader institution’s success. Instead, for numerous reasons, many of which were outlined in this devastating Washington Post story, it has not worked out that way. [Image: Antonio Canova, Venus, 1823. Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington. Image via Flickr user NCinDC.]
As this data also suggests, Washington foundations and donors have little confidence in the Corcoran’s leadership. Those problems may trickle down: Come this fall, we’ll see how many of the students the Corcoran is expecting to enroll and become part of the class of 2016 show up, and how many current students return and how many transfer or otherwise leave. It’s possible that in the coming months the Corcoran’s problems become larger rather than smaller.
That’s all the more reason for the Corcoran’s leadership to commit itself to detailing the future of the museum. In the long-term, the gallery may be more important to any future the Corcoran has than are its current leaders.