an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Corcoran Catch-Up: Lesser Of Two Evils Or A Third Choice?

Last week, the group called Save the Corcoran (a museum which as you’ll all remember is suffering from poor leadership, lack of ideas and perhaps lack of convictions) emailed me their endorsement of a man named Wayne Reynolds to become the Corcoran’s new board chair. Now that I’ve had time to see what this would mean, I wonder if they have read the fine print.

The ReynoldsReynolds, the husband of Catherine Reynolds (both are shown at right), who some years back got rich on student lending and attempted to give millions of dollars to the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. There was a kerfuffle about her wanting to influence the content of the Hall of Famous Americans and whether it could be named, etc. and I think the donation was retracted. That may be immaterial, but it might say something about the Reynolds brand of philanthropy.

Her husband recently stepped down as chair of Ford’s Theater, where he helped raise $54 million in a capital campaign and became a local hero. Now he is making an activist bid to chair the Corcoran board. As Save the Corcoran’s release said:

Wayne Reynolds has a vision for a future Corcoran. His track record at Ford’s Theatre and other endeavors indicates that he can take on a struggling institution and create something thriving,” said Jayme McLellan, former adjunct faculty at theCorcoran and a founding member of Save the Corcoran. “He believes in theCorcoran and has a desperately-needed vision to transform it into an innovative creative center dedicated to art and arts education.”

Yes, but what is the vision?

According to a March 5 article in the Washington Post, Reynolds

proposes what he calls the Corcoran Center for Creativity. He would expand the Corcoran College of Art and Design, adding a stronger focus on technology and new media, along with the traditional arts disciplines. He would de-emphasize the gallery, arguing that it can’t compete with the free, federally funded galleries in town.

Most controversially, he proposes selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art that rarely, if ever, gets displayed and is not central to founder William Corcoran’s original charge in 1869 for the institution to encourage “American genius.” The money would establish a huge endowment for the first time in the Corcoran’s history.

What? Save the Corcoran opposed the current regime for trying to sell the building, but endorses a new guy who wants to sell the collection? That makes no sense to me whatsoever.

Reynolds has financial clout, and other people are backing him. The Post even endorsed him in an editorial. It began:

THOUGH UNORTHODOX, the unabashedly public bid by Wayne Reynolds to take over leadership of the troubled Corcoran Gallery of Art cannot and should not be dismissed. The philanthropist has credentials and resources in getting struggling institutions to thrive — as evidenced by his work in turning around Ford’s Theatre. More importantly, he has articulated a much-needed vision for the Corcoran that would bring it into the 21st century while still staying true to the 19th-century charge of its founder.

But the Corcoran’s current board is balking, no doubt put off by his charges that “It’s shameful what’s happened there.” Trustees are on their own track and don’t want interference — or some newcomer coming in with a broom to sweep clean.

Maybe if they would hurry up and decide what they’re going to do, and start raising some money, they can prevent Reynolds from taking over. If not, not.

I’m not sure which is the lesser of two evils. I’d like a third choice.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Washington Post


  1. Matthewe Newman, MD says:

    If he wants to sell art that is hardly ever displayed that is not such a bad approach. Museum storerooms around the country are filled with such material that other museums would love to display. I would agree provided American museums have first refusal on these objects before a public sale..perhaps at a fair discount.

    • Thanks for your comment. Under museum ethics rules, the problem is not selling art; the problem is using the proceeds to cover operational expenses. Rules dictate that money from art sales may only be used to purchase more art.

    • Chris Crosman says:

      The problem is, most deaccessions by museums do not end up in the collections of other museums. Selling art, like anything else, is driven by the market and right now, very few museums can afford to compete with private individuals for top quality material. The other, fundamental issue is the longstanding practice of requiring that funds obtained from deaccessions be used to purchase other and hopefully more relevant works for the permanent collection.

      Collection sharing with other museums, on the other hand, is a model that could mutually benefit both institutions. A case in point is the Fisk University/Crystal Bridges arrangement that brings an important part ot the Fisk Collection (centered on works collected by Alfred Stieglitz and given by Georgia O’Keeffe to the college). In essence, the college received $30 million (plus additional financial incentives for caring for the collection) in exchange for letting these works of art be displayed at Crystal Bridges for two out of a four year cycle–the other two years the works are at Fisk and available to their students and visitors. In this case the funds that Fisk receives will be used for general purposes including shoring up their woefully inadequate endowment. Purists would argue this does not follow the above-mentioned guidelines restricting these funds for acquisitions. However, I would argue that for a small, underfunded liberal arts educational institution, the need is to look for highest best use of resources and ensuring that the arts remain fundamental to the curriculum, including its internationally renowned Jubilee Singers. In this instance, the collection remains intact–as opposed to scattered into many public and private collections through auctions or private sales–and public access has been exponentially increased (Crystal Bridges annual attendance was 650,000 last year). While this may not be a model for the Corcoran, it might be something to consider as an alternative to selling its very reason for being (unlike Fisk), especially if it has major works of art in storage that would be attractive to museums in other parts of the country. Call it an “exhibition fee” for access to the collection, with variable fees depending on short or long term loans. Several other museums around the country have used this model including the Guggenheim, Boston Museum of Fine Arts and even the Norman Rockwell Museum. Moreover, the Corcoran’s estimable new catalogue of its collection could generate additional income if used as an exhibition catalogue. Of course, if key works in the collection are sold, this publication, the product of years of work by numerous staff members and outside scholars, goes, like the collection itself, to the remaindered shelves of art history.

an ArtsJournal blog