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Rescue Miscue: Outlandish Proposal to Save the Corcoran by Dumping Its Art UPDATED

To be auctioned June 5 at Sotheby's: Clark "Sickle-Leaf" carpet, probably Kirman, South Persia, 17th century, approximately 8' 9" by 6' 5", Corcoran Gallery Presale estimate: $5-7 million     Est. $5/7 million

To be auctioned by the Corcoran Gallery on June 5 at Sotheby’s: The Clark “Sickle-Leaf” carpet, probably Kirman, South Persia, 17th century
Presale Estimate: $5-7 million

If this is saving the Corcoran, I wonder what wrecking it would look like.

The Save the Corcoran coalition has surprisingly thrown its support behind Wayne Reynolds‘ “vision for a future Corcoran.” What’s more, the group has urged his appointment as board chairman of the financially beleaguered Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran College of Art + Design. Reynolds is not currently a member of the board.

How Reynolds’ plan would further Save the Corcoran’s commitment to honor “the Corcoran’s legacy and history” is beyond me. As reported by the Washington Post‘s David Montgomery, the chairman emeritus of the Ford Theatre has proposed that the museum sell “hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art” to create “a huge endowment.”

That windfall would be used not for art acquisitions (as required by the professional guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors) but to further Reynolds’ scheme to create a Center for Creativity, which would have “a stronger focus on technology and new media, along with the traditional arts disciplines,” according to the Post. “He would de-emphasize the gallery [emphasis added], arguing that it can’t compete with the free, federally funded galleries in town.”

Privileging the financially stable school over the struggling museum was a notion that the art-centric Save the Corcoran group had previously argued against.

The current Corcoran brass reacted with predictable astonishment at Reynolds’ unsolicited offer to take control of the place. Montgomery reported this curt rebuff from Mimi Carter, the Corcoran’s vice president for marketing and communications:

The Corcoran finds it unfortunate that Mr. Reynolds is attempting to circumvent what we consider the normal governance process. He’s doing this by attempting to nominate himself to the board through this public lobbying effort, in a manner that no nonprofit anywhere is going to allow to happen.

As you may remember, Reynolds’ wife, Catherine, in 2002 was embroiled in a widely publicized contretemps regarding her desire to influence the contents of a proposed permanent Hall of Fame of American Achievers at the National Museum of American History, for which she had offered to donate $38 million.

Meanwhile, the Corcoran Gallery continues to use as a piggybank the decorative arts collection bequeathed to it in 1925 by one of its key historic benefactors, William Clark, a Montana Senator.

As reported by Montgomery last month, the Corcoran plans to auction some 25 of Clark’s fine rugs and carpets at Sotheby’s on June 5, including the highly important Persian masterpiece pictured above. [UPDATE: My follow-up report on the auction is here.]

In case you had any doubts that the “Sickle-Leaf” carpet belongs in a museum and should not be discarded from the public domain, below is its exhibition history, as provided to me by Carter of the Corcoran. It includes (see the righthand column, below) a stint on loan to the Metropolitan Museum and a year-long display (to January 2003) in the Corcoran’s own Mantle Room:


So what of the Corcoran’s attempts (reminiscent of LA MOCA’s attempts) to forge a partnership with the National Gallery of Art (also in talks with MOCA) and/or George Washington University, in order to secure its own future?

Here’s what Carter wrote me on Mar. 1, in response to my query:

The Trustees continue to confer weekly about potential partnerships that may ensure a sustainable future for the Corcoran. A number of productive conversations have been held. At this time, no decisions have been made.

The search for a new director also continues. Finding a proven, resourceful leader, with impressive art-related experience and a compelling vision for the future, needs to be the Corcoran’s most urgent priority. Given that institution’s erratic track record, this won’t be an easy hire.

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