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Corcoran: The Wait Goes On, And On, Interminably

The Washington Post, doing its duty, checked in on the mess at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Corcoran College of Art and Design again the other day, lest something nefarious happen there under everyone’s noses.

It didn’t come up with any news whatsoever. Nothing has happened since the Corcoran said it was discussing its future with the National Gallery and George Washington University. Nor did it come up with new analysis or quote any new recommendations. What it did do is recap the sad situation and put the blame squarely on the board: Corcoran’s Board Holds Key To Museum’s Fate, the headline read.

And in this article, the board looks even more inept than we thought. The trustees have managed to create a situation in which they have no vision for the future, they have no money for the future, they have no director for the museum, and — perhaps worst of all — the study they ordered up to assess the museum/school’s potential is seven months away from delivery.

Then, of course, there will be deliberation and fund-raising, because no one is going to give the Corcoran much money without knowing what it’s going to be in the future, “the vision.” Can this institution remain on life-support for so long? I shake my head in disbelief.

Here’s an interesting passage: Since October, 2o10:

[The board] spent $1.5 million on consultants, including a $683,000 contract with Lord Cultural Resources (not all paid yet), which produced six thick binders of research and interviews with staff and students as well as outside experts. The data examined the state of the art in museums and art colleges worldwide, and attempted to discern the direction in which the best galleries and colleges will evolve in the coming decades. …A year later, in the fall of 2011, Corcoran leaders were not yet ready to publicly propose a new vision, but the board was eager for fresh eyes on the problem. At least six trustees joined in two months….Yet even now, after 24 months, the new vision remains a work in progress.

One could be relieved by that, because any new director worth his or her salt would want a say in formulating the vision. To which the board chairman, Harry F. Hopper III, replied:

We were advised that we could not attract the caliber of leadership on the content side that we needed without having a well-thought-out framework, and that’s what we’re working on. We don’t claim to have a granular playbook on how a new leader is supposed to execute a vision. We have come up with a framework within which a visionary leader can allow the institution to flourish. Exactly what shape that takes is an organic process that will be led by the new leadership that we bring in.

Fair enough, I guess, except: if the board is months away from agreeing to a framework, and then it has to recruit a visionary director — a process that, in recent years, has been taking about a year from the time a director quits to the time another is hired, which is sometimes followed by more delay before he/she can take up the job — that life-support system at the Corcoran better be  pretty darn good. To me, it looks as if it will waste away.



  1. Chris Crosman says:

    As a former museum administrator who grew up in Northern Virginia, I have great affection and sympathy for the Corcoran. In my experience, boards–especially with no professional institutional leadership in place–tend to rely on over-priced consultants who are only expert at packaging common sense that the Board itself, by definition, is there to provide. And what nonsence from this consultant/board member; a visionary director will and should come up with her/his own framework or playbook for executing a vision, certainly looking to the board for counsel. I am not conversant with all the issues but it seems to me that a place to start might be to cut the school loose, at least physically from the Corcoran. It doesn’t much matter if it is located near the museum and might well prosper outside or in another part of the city where it can benefit from better accessibility for commuter students. The school will rise or fall with the strength, resiliance and creativity of its own faculty but i wouldn’t rule out merging with another, more stable entity like George Washington or the extensive network of existing institutions, including technical schools that are so abundant in the DC metro area. It may well be that free-standing, independent art schools are (sadly) unsustainable in today’s increasingly expensive higher education market place–with notable exceptions, like Cal Arts that have found symbiotic and synergistic relationships with other creative enternprises (i.e. animation studios).

    The Museum, however, should stay put and find a suitable niche. Partnering with other museums in DC and outside similar in scale and capable of raising eyebrows through contemporary art is something to consider, given the museum’s previously impressive and innovative forays into contemporary art (i.e. partnering with the Whitney, Albright-Knox, Walker, SF MoMA). Personally, I would have reconstituted the Mapplethorpe exhibition and timed it to coincide with the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibition. Another route would be to take a hard look at the phenomenally important permanent collection and find projects that showcase this in new, thought-provoking ways. Invite artists (from the severed school?), independent curators and the academic communities in DC and around the country to propose such projects. Since government funding is not really an issue these days, take chances and do things that no one else in the Washington museum community would dare or even think to present. And, the Washington Post headline is painfully accurate.

    PS don’t worry about capital expansion in the near term and, certainly don’t even think about ramming some post-modern architectural “statement” into the Corcoran’s stately backside, although I guess selling this property precludes that spectacularly bad idea from being resurrected. Consider the neighbors, including those in the nearby White House whose crowds the Corcoran needs to find a way to lure to their own front door.

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