In Wednesday’s press release announcing its new strategic plan to forge a close connection with the University of Maryland (UMD), the financially foundering Corcoran Gallery and College of Art + Design described their proposed relationship as a “partnership.” But reading between the lines of the institutions’ Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) strongly suggests that far from a collaboration of equals, this a takeover by the fiscally and administratively stronger institution. He who pays the piper calls the tune.
What’s more, it appears that the museum may be changing its mission from presenting and interpreting historic and contemporary American and European art to “focus[ing] on contemporary art, American [emphasis added] art and design,” in the words of the Strategic Plan released last week. The plan says nothing about the museum’s sizable European collection, much of which came from the 1926 bequest of more than 800 objects by Montana Senator William Clark.
Mimi Carter, the Corcoran’s vice president for marketing and communications, assured me today that “this is neither a merger nor an acquisition and the Corcoran remains an independent entity.”
Maybe so. But a close reading of this key paragraph in the MOU suggests otherwise:
From this, it appears that the university will have the power to nominate as many candidates to the Corcoran’s board as it wants (to be elected by the full board). The trustees’ chair will be proposed by UMD and then formally “nominated and elected” by the (rubber-stamp?) board. The total number of new board members and the person nominated for the board chairmanship “will be to the satisfaction of UMD.” From that it appears that UMD will be able to pack the board with its own people, thereby controlling a majority of the board and, by extension, calling the shots at the Corcoran.
While I don’t agree with the desire of Terrance Shanahan, a member of the Save the Corcoran coalition, to see outsider Wayne Reynolds installed as head of the Corcoran’s board, I do think that Shanahan was onto something when he said this recently to David Montgomery of the Washington Post:
I think 20 years from now [maybe much sooner?], the Corcoran is going to be the University of Maryland 17th St. campus.
Also worrisome is the long-range goal (set forth in the Strategic Plan) to “refocus the collection” on the aforementioned areas (which exclude European art), “through acquisition of new collections and the selective deaccessioning of others [emphasis added], to align the collection and programs with our strategic framework.”
Assuming I’m right in guessing that the European collection would be decimated, this wouldn’t be the first time that what I call “mission creep” was used to justify jettisoning broad categories of art that have been traditionally been valued parts of a museum’s collection (shades of the Albright-Knox Gallery’s deplorable antiquities selloff).
Here’s what Carter, the Corcoran’s vice president, has told me so far about the planned deaccessioning:
As the Corcoran pursues its resolution to purchase more modern and contemporary works for the collection, head curator Phillip Brookman will be developing a strategic and thoughtful plan to address appropriate areas for deaccessioning in the future.
She added that the Corcoran adheres to professional guidelines on deaccessioning, which “stipulate that proceeds from the sale of art be used solely for the acquisition of art.” Hopefully so. But whenever a financially desperate museum sells important art that it has long held in public trust, alarms go off. We never actually receive a full public accounting of where the money goes, or whether it is “temporarily” diverted to address other urgent needs.
The Corcoran College’s constituents may well be concerned by a provision in the MOU saying that the museum will “remain in the iconic Flagg Building,” while “the College will remain in Washington, DC” (but perhaps move to another facility?).
The crucial missing component in all this is the appointment of an experienced, well qualified director to eyeball the Corcoran’s problems and contribute to devising a solution. Instead we have Peggy Loar, a seasoned museum professional, in what’s only a temporary role—“consulting director.”
Carter told me that Loar will “manage the collaborative discussions with UMD” but that she does not intend to become the permanent director. “While we are still planning to hire a new director,” Carter said, “we have paused the search to deal with some immediate needs.” One of those “needs” is probably giving UMD time to identify and install its own candidate, once it has assumed control of the board.
I’m not saying that the University of Maryland won’t be an excellent steward for the New Corcoran (although many of the Corcoran College’s students are fierce proponents of independence). What I am saying is that in light of the UMD-friendly provisions in the MOU, any representations of this arrangement as a partnership, not than a takeover, seem to me euphemistic at best, misleading at worst.
The MOU and Strategic Plan merely provide a framework for the proposed new arrangement. The details are still to be worked out in discussions between the parties.
And what about that other “partnership”—the plan to show contemporary works on loan to the Corcoran from the National Gallery of Art, while the latter closes its contemporary galleries for renovations?
Those loans, to begin this fall, will include “some seldom seen works from NGA’s collection…presented alongside many favorites,” according to Carter. “The exhibition will focus on painting and sculpture, but may also include photography, works on paper, and printed archive materials, installed in the museum’s skylit temporary exhibition galleries on the second floor.”
Contemporary art at the Corcoran could get another boost from the Strategic Plan’s recommendation for the immediate revival of the Corcoran Biennial, “with a unique American perspective on both American and international artists.”