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Corcoran Uproar: Desperate Gambit to Rescue a Foundering D.C. Museum UPDATED

Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art and Design

[More on this here.]

The Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design‘s newly announced “plans to ensure its long-term stability and attain a new level of vitality and excellence” seem anything but. Indeed, given the desperation and illogic of its announced ideas for addressing its capital and fiscal shortcomings, the survival of this institution seems more precarious than ever. Overshadowed in Washington by the Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran Gallery has long struggled for audience, funding, a sense of purpose, and effective, consistent leadership.

In the formal statement that hit my inbox just after 6 p.m. on Monday (full text here), the Corcoran is apparently rebranding itself as an “educational organization with an outstanding collection.” The museum came first, opening in 1874; the college was founded in 1890. But unlike the museum, the college is “thriving,” according to the statement. It fills a gap as D.C.’s only college of art and design. according to its self-description. The museum, by contrast, is described in Monday’s statement as “having to struggle with the effects of a difficult economy.”

The Corcoran has said that its operating deficit for the fiscal year ending this June 30 is
$7.2 million. My query as to the size of the operating budget has not yet been answered. [I’ll update here, if and when I get it.]

[UPDATE: According to a graphic published online late last night by the Washington Post, the Corcoran’s operating deficit in fiscal 2011 was $7.2 millon (the same as projected for this fiscal year), on a budget of $31 million. Some $2.9 million of the overall deficit was attributable to the museum’s $3.8 million budget (a huge ratio of deficit-to-operating budget). But even the “thriving” college ran a deficit—$1.7 million on a budget of $19.8 million.]

In what sounds more like a last-gasp gambit than a sound strategy, the Corcoran plans to “consider relocating to a purpose-built, technologically advanced facility that is cost-effective to maintain. In order for the Trustees to decide whether relocation is a viable option, the Corcoran will need to determine the market value of the building. If ultimately a decision is made to relocate, we are committed to reconstituting the Corcoran—both the Gallery and College—in a space that is more flexible and that will allow us to fulfill our mission.” That space could be in D.C., Maryland or Virginia, the announcement says.

The statement is signed by Corcoran’s director and president Fred Bollerer, and its board chairman, Harry Hopper, who have invited the public to comment at

Fred Bollerer, the Corcoran’s director and president

Urgent save-the-Corcoran e-mails are circulating among supporters of the endangered institution. Two former staffers have given me permission to excerpt their analyses and recommendations.

Linda Simmons, curator emerita of the Corcoran, writes:

What I see proposed is a tragedy. Any real commitment to institutional
history, a sense of place and relationship of the institution and collection
to that wonderful marvelous building and amazing location seem ready to be
dismissed as irrelevant in the 21st century museum world.

Tonight will not include sweet dreams for me or anyone who respects and loves the Corcoran. Instead tomorrow is likely to be filled with sadness and deep sorrow for what I fear is the end of the trail for a much loved national

Roberta Faul-Zeitler, former Corcoran head of public relations and marketing, writes that “there are some logical alternatives/options to selling the Corcoran, and moving the museum and school to the burbs.”

Among her recommendations:

—Move the school out of the Corcoran Beaux-Arts building to stand alone or join with an accredited university in the space it needs to thrive, preferably in D.C. [It is] cheaper to build/buy/restore a school facility than a museum.

—Make the Corcoran museum the premier American art collecting and exhibiting institution it deserves to be. Possible scenarios: affiliate with American University, or with the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery; a stand-alone that is in partnership with National Gallery of Art/National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian American Art Museum/Hirshhorn Museum, through collections sharing/exhibiting, guest curators, guest exhibit organizers, rotating curatorships.

In desperate circumstances such as the Corcoran’s, one always has to worry about the fate of the collection. And the Corcoran’s history of disposals (self-described as “refining and strengthening” the collection) exacerbates those concerns. The recent deaccessions includes 10 American paintings offered at Christie’s in December 2008 (described in this post) and Benjamin West‘s “Cupid and Psyche,” 1808, sold by the Corcoran on Jan. 28, 2009 for for $458,500.

In the latter instance, “refining” the Corcoran’s collection meant strengthening the holdings of another museum. The West was purchased by Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (as described at the end of this post):

Benjamin West, “Cupid and Psyche,” 1808, Crystal Bridges Museum

Last year, concerned readers brought to my attention the Corcoran’s Nov. 22 disposal at Christie’s of majolica from the Corcoran’s William Andrews Clark Collection, a mainstay of its European holdings, bequeathed to it by the Montana Senator in 1925. My tipsters believed that Clark had placed a no-sale restriction on his benefactions.

The Clark majolica had been the subject of a catalogue and traveling exhibition organized by the Corcoran and Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in 1986-89. Some 14 Clark pieces (lots 55-57, 59, 60-62, 64-66, 68-71) found buyers at last fall’s sale. As it happens, two more are being sold tomorrow at Christie’s European decorative arts sale (lots 212, 213).

Last Dec. 15, I sent the Corcoran a series of questions regarding the Clark majolica. I never got any answers, despite three follow-up requests and a written reply by the museum’s press spokesperson, stating that she would get back to me with responses. (I have followed up again today.)

Here’s what I asked:

—I believe that Clark may have stipulated that his donated works were not to be sold. Is that accurate?

—If there were restrictions, how do you justify the sales?

—Did you seek court permission to deviate from the terms of the gift (if you did, in fact, “deviate”)?

—How many Corcoran majolica pieces were sold (all from Clark?), what were the proceeds, and how will the proceeds be used ? [The Christie’s lot descriptions say they were being sold “to benefit the acquisition fund.”]

—Are any future Corcoran disposals planned? If so, please tell me what and when.

[UPDATE: I was later told that there was no restrictions against sales from the Clark collection.]
To me, the preservation of the collection, going forward, is a greater imperative than the Corcoran Gallery’s continuance in its present buildng or (more controversially) even its continuance at all. The saddest but perhaps most art-saving move for this chronically debilitated institution might be for it to dissolve the museum find new institutional homes for its distinguished collection—perhaps the Smithsonian American Art Museum for American works and the National Gallery for European works.But before resorting to such a last-ditch operation, the Corcoran should seek wise counsel and professional assistance from D.C. museum professionals and (if possible) from the Association of Art Museum Directors, for help in navigating through this crisis. (The Corcoran has not been a member of AAMD since David Levy left its directorship in 2005, after his plan to build a Gehry-designed expansion faltered.)

It seems to me that the last thing that a fiscally foundering art institution should do is devote extensive efforts and financial resources to a big capital project, at a time when its past actions are unlikely to inspire donor confidence. The Corcoran needs to rebuild before it can build.

For more background on the Corcoran’s predicament, see this piece by David Montgomery and Jacqueline Trescott in the Washington Post; a WaPo follow-up today by Montgomery and Lonnae O’Neal Parker; and two articles by Kriston Capps in the Washington City Paper, which broke the Corcoran story before the official announcement, and then followed up.

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