Friday, May 10, 2013

The Corcoran Conundrum - Woes of a Great Art Museum

The Corcoran in the title is the venerable Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Conundrum of course means a difficult problem, sometimes set in a riddle. I use it here because a) it's alliterative b) I love the word and c) it  describes precisely the situation the museum presently faces. It may also serve as an object lesson in crisis management by a board and what can happen when the skill of a professional executive is absent.

The Corcoran was founded in 1870 with the purpose of "encouraging American genius" and built on the collection of American art gathered by its namesake William W, Corcoran. In 1897 it moved into a new and beautiful Beaux Arts building near the White House, where it remains today. An addition in 1928 allowed it to display an extensive collection of European art donated by Senator William Clark of Montana (a famous scoundrel, but that's another story). Since 1890 the Corcoran program has included the Corcoran School of Art + Design, an accredited degree-granting college of art. The collections, school and the building are all highly regarded in the museum and cultural world.

The Corcoran is the largest privately supported cultural institution in D.C. That's good and bad news. The level of support is the good news; the bad new is that the Gallery is in competition with the Federally supported, free admission National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian museums.That, plus the economic downturn, an aging facility crowding its site, and a non Mall location, has created fiscal challenges. The building is said to need $130 million in renovations and the annual operating budget, approximately $20 million, has been running $7 million deficits the past few years.

The Gallery has a history of controversies. In 1989, in the face of Congressional uproar over its content, the Corcoran cancelled a long planned exhibit, partially funded by the NEA, of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, some of which were homoerotic in nature. There was a public outcry against the Gallery for caving in to censorship. The show was taken up by the much smaller Washington Project for the Arts, where it drew large crowds and, parenthetically, elicited one of my favorite public reviews of a controversial art exhibit. When asked by a reporter from The Washington Post what she thought of the exhibit, a well-dressed elderly woman replied: " It gets more disgusting every time I see it."

A number of directors came and went. One of the longer serving, David Levy,  hired in 1991, had grand plans for the Gallery. In 1999 the Corcoran retained the renowned Frank Gehry, fresh off the triumph of his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to design an addition. The budget was $60 million. Amid much excitement a capital campaign was launched,  gathered steam but sputtered out and died in 2005 after raising what would otherwise be considered an impressive $28 million in cash. Of that, according to Washingtonian Magazine, $17 million went to the Gehry firm and others involved in the planning. As the magazine put it: " not a single stone was ever moved."  Although a recession could be partly blamed, the museum suffered a black eye and donors were very unhappy. David Levy resigned.

Fast forward to the present day. After another director came and went, leaving in 2010 because of illness, the current leadership emerged. The board chairman is a successful venture capitalist/art collector, the director a retired bank president who first served as a consultant (one of many over the years) to the museum and the chief operating officer is a former board member from the economic development field. It has been pointed out that none have professional museum management backgrounds. But they have plenty of business experience.

Perhaps that background led to the astonishing announcement in June 2012 that the board, to cope with the financial crisis,  was "exploring" selling its present building, its iconic Beaux Arts home for over 105 years, and relocating the collections and school.  To where was unstated, although later it was revealed there had been discussions with officials in neighboring Alexandria, Virginia. Was this a form of business divestment? For sure, it was a public relations misstep, Predictably a public uproar ensued, a "Save the Corcoran" organization formed, letters and petitions circulated.

Furthermore, in the midst of what The Washington Post termed the Corcoran's "methodical - critics say plodding- process to re imagine its identity" (for which $1.5 million was reportedly spent on consultants) steps Wayne Reynolds, a prominent Washington philanthropist, who announces in March 2013 he has a plan to save the Gallery. By that time the idea of selling the museum building had been shelved by the board. Few would have paid attention to Reynolds' announcement, including the media, if he had not just finished leading a capital campaign that raised $54 million in support of historic Ford's Theatre.

Reynolds' plan included selling "hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art" not normally seen in public. That move, plus other radical ideas, would require his becoming board chairman. His scheme generated much publicity, a cool response from the Corcoran leadership and a lot of clucking in the art world about such a public spat.

Finally (perhaps not in this saga) in April the Corcoran announced the results of its lengthy deliberations. First is that it is entering into two partnerships, one with the University of Maryland directed at sharing higher education resources, the other with the National Gallery of Art, whose East Building is closing for renovation in 2014, to exhibit works displaced by the project. Lastly, and importantly, Peggy Loar, a respected and experienced museum director has been retained to oversee these significant initiatives as "consulting director."

Will it be enough? One could say such a plan would be plenty ambitious even for an institution in a stable financial situation which, with its deficits and infrastructure needs, the Corcoran is not. Somewhere along the line the leaks in this ship have to be fixed. With a professional at the helm, the previously mentioned new strategic partnerships and a rally of public support, let's hope that will happen.

The most successful museums, and this goes for nonprofits in general, are guided by responsible boards and professional executives knowledgeable in their fields. The lack of the latter at the Corcoran these past number of years may be one reason why this ship lost its bearings. Admittedly it is tough to bail and steer at the same time. But it is helpful to have a professional pilot.