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“A Long Way to Go”: Washingtonian‘s Investigation of the Corcoran Gallery’s Woes

Crumbling infrastructure: A skylight in poor condition at the Corcoran Gallery last September
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

If you care at all about the precarious condition and uncertain fate of the venerable Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC, drop everything and read Luke Mullins in-depth Crisis at the Corcoran in the December issue of Washingtonian magazine.

It will leave you more dismayed than ever.

Mullins’ report on the Corcoran’s hanging-by-a-thread status and the long, sad saga of how it got there is informed by interviews with “more than 75 people, including current employees, ex-trustees, and former executives. In many of those interviews, dissatisfaction with the institution’s current leadership was a recurring theme.”

(David Montgomery‘s Nov. 1 Washington Post piece on the Corcoran board’s actions (or lack thereof) covered some of the same story of events and missteps leading up to the current crisis.)

Some excerpts to mull from Mullins:

—The Corcoran posted a $7.1-million shortfall on a budget of $27 million in 2011—meaning that about a quarter of its budget was deficit spending. It expects to post another deficit of at least $7 million for 2012.

—For the first time, the museum is being led by three people–the board chair, the director, and the chief operating officer–who have no professional
background in the arts or museums.

—The [capital] campaign [to fund a planned but never realized new wing, designed by Frank Gehry] had raised $28 million in hard cash and paid Gehry $17 million for his designs. Not a single stone was ever moved….Following the Gehry campaign’s implosion [in 2005], the Corcoran again found itself in turmoil. Some donors were offended that they hadn’t been contacted personally when the campaign folded. Others fumed upon learning that some contributions had been spent and wouldn’t be refunded. “The goodwill of donors was completely decimated,” says a former employee…. “After my experience with the Corcoran, please never contact me again,” the fundraising staff was told again and again.

—Museum attendance plummeted to 69,000 visitors in 2012 from 324,000
a decade earlier, according to tax records.

—After examining the Corcoran’s 17th Street building, real-estate consultant Jeffrey Zell [asked by the president of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership to assess the viability of a Corcoran move to Alexandria, VA] concluded that because it needs such extensive repairs and has historic zoning—most likely limiting the pool of buyers to other museums and nonprofits—the Corcoran won’t clear enough from its [current building’s] sale to build the type of structure it wants someplace else. Says Zell: “We’ve declared this a chasing-your-own-tail concept.”

If the Corcoran has made significant progress in crafting a solution, Mullins’ extensive investigation hasn’t uncovered it. We can only hope that more is percolating behind the scenes than we and Luke yet know of. The hiring of a seasoned professional art museum director with a strong turnaround vision, and the forging of alliances with other established art institutions in the area (the National Gallery and George Washington University have been discussed) would be steps in the right direction.

The last official word from the Corcoran administration on the status of its deliberations on the institution’s fate came in a Nov. 1 statement published on its website:

The Trustees will make a decision on how the institution should proceed once
the current fact‐finding and assessment phase is completed. All options
currently remain under consideration, and are filtered through the lens of
three objectives:

—Preserving the Corcoran legacy

—Staying in the building on 17th Street

—Creating a sustainable future for the Gallery and the College

No decisions have been made, and no decisions are expected before the end of this year.

Dec. 31 is fast approaching. Perhaps the Washingtonian article will impel the Corcoran’s administation to give us an update.

What Mullins calls the “most attractive” solution may also be the least likely—“a white-knight donor–or group of donors–[to] swoop in and save the Corcoran.” Any takers? The time to step up is now.

But it’s unlikely that an Eli Broad of DC will emerge unless a viable vision for a sustainable future is in place or, at least, in prospect.

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